The UK approach to the border might be called a farce, but farce is supposed to be funnyby / December 1, 2017 / Leave a comment
“It is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to ensure that its approach to the challenges of the Irish border in the context of its withdrawal from the European Union takes into account and protects the very specific and interwoven political, economic, security, societal and agricultural context and frameworks on the island of Ireland.” (European Commission 21/09/17)
“The UK must… guarantee… that it would protect the operation of the Good Friday agreement in all its parts, [and] ensure, by means of continued regulatory alignment between the north and the south, there is no hardening of the border on the island of Ireland.” (European Parliament 29/11/17)
Ireland is the deal-breaker. People who understand the issues have been warning the UK of this for over a year. The Commission’s position is starkly: You broke it. You fix it. The Parliament, rightly, says that the only way to fix it is for the UK to agree “continued regulatory alignment.” That means that either Northern Ireland stays in the EU Customs Union (and if that entails customs inspections on the Larne ferry, so be it; that is not the EU’s problem); or the UK mimics the rules of the customs union to every last jot and tittle.
The specifics of the border pose near-intractable problems. The Irish border is 500 km long, where Ireland is only 150 km wide; there are roads that cross it four times in 10 km. Why? Because of earlier brinkmanship, compounded by bad faith in Westminster and Ulster.
In autumn 1921, negotiations to bring peace to Ireland and independence to what became the Free State (now the Irish Republic) were deadlocked until David Lloyd George had a brainwave. He would offer a Boundary Commission to settle the border impartially. He gave the Ulster Protestants the impression that this would preserve Northern Ireland intact; he let Michael Collins understand (but without telling any direct lies) that it would so squeeze Protestant Ulster that it “would be forced economically to come in,” in Collins’s words.
The proposal for a Boundary Commission made the Treaty recognising the Free State possible. It was due to report in 1925. It would have transferred South Armagh to the Free State and the parts of Co. Donegal nearest Derry to Northern Ireland. Its contents were leaked by an Ulster “No Surrender” merchant to the Morning Post, which killed it.
So the boundary stayed where it was, based on arbitrary county boundaries drawn for no particular purpose. It leaves Co. Donegal (population 160,000) almost entirely cut off from the rest of the Irish Republic. A post-Brexit day trip to Dublin will likely involve either four border crossings or a fifty-mile detour through a single set of lights in the middle of Sligo city. I suppose they may have to change the phasing of the lights.
What form will that border take? Fast forward a century from Lloyd George and Collins, and the UK government, and others, have indulged in fantasies about a “smart border” involving trusted traders, number-plate recognition, and off-border customs inspection. Here are three reasons (there are more) why this is fantasy:
1. Where is the technology, and what arrangements—which have to be mutually agreed—will the UK and EU Customs authorities make to have it up and running in March 2019? This is far from clear
2. Assuming that a solution is found to (1), that only deals with wholesale trade—just like any other hi-tech government IT programme. You still have to stop every car to see if it contains a chlorinated chicken…
3. or, if not, both UK and EU must turn a blind eye each to widespread smuggling and violation of animal and plant security rules. This week’s report from the Commons Select Committee on Brexit makes the same point, as does the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney.
If you think of smugglers as benign figures from the past (“Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. / Watch the wall my darling when the Gentlemen go by”), then think again. This is a border that hundreds of people living near it see as illegitimate. Some of them combine ideology with self-interest. It is widely believed that smuggling profits have been the lifeblood of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland before and since the Good Friday Agreement.
Oh, and while we’re at it, we should ask—as Hugh Orde, former chief constable of Northern Ireland, did in this week’s Times: what will happen to the European Arrest Warrant, on which PSNI/An Garda Síochána cooperation depends?
So, again, the UK has very limited options. One is to allow the customs union to continue in Ireland, and introduce those controls on the ferry and at Fishguard, Cairnryan and Holyhead. Holyhead, by the way, is on a rock about the same size as Gibraltar: you will have to commandeer a few square km of Anglesey to supplement it.
The second is either to accept, or exactly to mimic, the customs union in the whole UK. The UK will have, under this option, to accept EU product regulation in every last detail.
The third option is no deal. Since Protestants will suffer as much from that as Catholics, one wonders if Ulster politicians are yet close to seeing reality. They have not yet managed to take off their sectarian (Orange and Green) glasses to focus on the real problem, in spite of the evidence in front of them.
We all know how Karl Marx says that history repeats itself. The negotiations of 1921-2 had many elements of tragedy. But Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead, Winston Churchill, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were all very considerable figures. They understood what they were dealing with.
Now, the UK approach to the Irish border might be called a farce: but farce is supposed to be funny.
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