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The UK government’s vagueness on Northern Ireland is finally catching up with them

May's government can't have it both ways forever—and this week’s announcement on the Customs Union appears to be a clear contradiction of its previous pledge about the Irish border

By Siobhán Fenton  

Anti-Brexit campaigners dressed as customs officers, protest outside Stormont in Belfast. Photo: PA

After months of offering little more than vague platitudes and contradictory statements about what the UK’s Brexit policy is, the British government has made an uncharacteristically clear decision about what it wants from EU withdrawal: the UK is leaving the customs union. In a statement, a Downing Street spokesperson has declared that this is now definite.

The statement represents a rare crumb of clarity in a negotiations process which has been marked by the UK government’s resistance to explaining what positions it holds on key Brexit issues.

However, the announcement will bring little relief for anyone with any grasp of the impact for the Northern Ireland border. Instead, it has exposed the contradictory stance the UK has long held on the border and which it appears unwilling or incapable of resolving.

Few in Northern Ireland want to see a return to the border checkpoints between the region and the Republic of Ireland, which were in place during the Troubles conflict but which have been dismantled as part of the hard-won peace process.

Beyond the logistical inconvenience of tail backs and delays necessitated by checkpoints, border infrastructure represents a physical manifestation of partition on the island and so is imbued with much wider political and psychological impact for those who live along it.

All sides of the Brexit negotiations appear to understand and accept this and have each declared their desire to see no hard border on the island of Ireland as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The UK has also publicly supported this position.

More deliberate vagueness

Many hard-line Brexiters support the UK leaving the Customs Union. However, none have been able to outline how this could be achieved without creating a border along Northern Ireland as it would necessitate checks for goods travelling across what would be the UK’s frontier to the EU.

In December, Brexit negotiations successfully passed Phase 1 after the UK appeared to accept this by committing to no border on the island of Ireland. However, the UK government was still unable to explain how this could be achieved along with leaving the customs union.

Instead, they appeared to try and buy more time by continuing to be deliberately vague about the process to placate both the Irish government and hard-line Brexiters at home.

This week’s announcement that the UK will definitely leave the customs union appears to renege on December’s pledge and once again raises the prospect of hard border in Ireland, with the UK government still incapable of explaining how a “soft” border would work in the event of leaving the customs union.

Time to commit to specifics

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this morning called on the UK to clarify its position, warning that he is “not entirely clear what exactly is being sought in terms of the UK’s relationship with the custom’s union and the UK’s relationship with the single market. What we have in the agreement made in December are some very specific commitments that we will avoid a hard border, any new barriers to trade and the movement of people between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland and we can avoid that in one of three ways.”

He added: “Either through the new relationship between the UK and the EU, through bespoke plans that the UK are mandated to come up with, or thirdly a unique arrangement with Northern Ireland in which there will be a full and ongoing regulatory alignment. We are keen to have that fleshed out now as part of the withdrawal agreement.”

When the UK and the EU agreed to progress from Phase 1 of talks in December, vagueness allowed all sides to read the situation to their own advantage.

However, this vagueness is now catching up on the UK government. As time runs on and we come nearer and nearer to the Brexit date of March 2019, the UK is being forced to end its evasion and commit to specifics.

This week’s announcement on the Customs Union appears to be a clear contradiction of its previous pledge about the Northern Ireland border.

It is unclear which of the two the government will ultimately decide to honour. However, with hard-line Brexiters constantly threatening to overthrow the weak Prime Minister, it is possible that their arguments on the Customs Union will win, causing the government to u-turn on their December pledge to the Irish border communities.

The UK’s stance is impossible

Under normal political circumstances, it would be an extraordinary act of selfishness for the Conservatives to put cabinet infighting and Theresa May’s survival above peace and stability in Northern Ireland and sticking by a pledge to our neighbouring countries.

But as the deeply divided and increasingly desperate government continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, it is not unthinkable that the Conservatives would now renege on the border promise to satisfy pro-Brexiters on the customs union.

The UK’s Brexit strategy thus far appears has been founded on a slippery strategy of refusing to be pinned down on policies, which has enabled them to placate all sides by being all things to all people.

However, the closer we get to the EU withdrawal date, the contradictions and impossibilities inherent in the UK government’s Brexit stance are being thrown into sharp and unignorable relief.

The inexplicable and indefensible u-turn on the Customs Union is an inevitable consequence of holding multiple fundamentally contradictory positions. It is unlikely to be the last of its kind as a final Brexit deal edges closer.

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