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EU presses Ireland for no-deal Brexit border plan: source

[LONDON] The European Commission is pushing the Irish government to lay out its plans for the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a person familiar with the matter said.

Ireland has proved elusive when the Commission has attempted to pin down the government on its plan, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. A Commission spokesman told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday that a no-deal exit would mean a return of a hard border.

If the UK tumbles out of the bloc in March without a deal, then the question that has dogged Brexit talks - how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland - becomes an acute crisis. The Commission intervention could focus minds in Dublin on the potential consequences of sticking by the backstop, a policy which could catapult the UK out of the bloc without a deal.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said last year his government would "never" build a border, though appears to have stepped back from that stance after it became clear that could mean a de facto frontier emerged between Ireland and the rest of the bloc. This possibility was raised in a government briefing with opposition leaders on Tuesday, broadcaster RTE said.

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The EU has made clear that Ireland would be expected to police the border with the UK as it would become the bloc's external frontier.

Mr Varadkar - who has staked his political career on getting Brexit right - said on Tuesday that no-deal would present a "real dilemma".

Mr Varadkar already faces another dilemma: Back down on Ireland's demands to make sure the Brexit deal gets approved by the UK Parliament, or risk the possibility of a no-deal scenario that would be almost as damaging to Ireland as it would be to the UK.

Insiders say that at one point, Mr Varadkar had simply considered the option of refusing to police the border. That's now been dropped. Last week, Coveney offered a clue to a potential strategy.

The government would have "difficult talks" with the EU and UK about the border and the single market in a no-deal scenario, he said. That may involve Ireland arguing that the EU has clearly recognised in the Brexit process the importance of avoiding a return of a hard border, and using that as a guiding principle.

Coveney said on Tuesday it would be difficult to avoid a return of infrastructure in a no-deal, but that would remain the government's focus.

That mightn't amount to an old-style frontier, with long lines and delays. Instead, it could involve a light-touch system of checking goods, while maintaining a common travel area with the UK would mean people can continue to move freely across the border.

In response to questions, a Commission spokesman said "as with all member states, especially after the vote last Tuesday, we are intensifying our no deal preparedness work".