Brexit’s Irish Border Problem

Those pesky Paddies. Just as the sunny Brexit uplands were coming into view, the Irish have thrown a spanner in the works. Dublin’s demands for a soft border have, variously, thrown ‘chaos’ and an ‘unexpected’ hurdle into the Brexit talks,‘blindsiding’ British officials.

Pity the Brexiteers. Who could have foreseen that wanting to impose different regulatory regimes on either side of a 310-mile long, undulating border through one of the politically delicate pieces of land in Europe might prove so problematic?

Thankfully help is at hand.

DExEU minister David Davis has ruled out the need for a ‘new border’in Ireland. (That’s the same David Davis who, last year, seemed to think Ireland was still part of the UK.)

On Twitter, author David Goodhart – well kent in UK government circles for his broadsides on metropolitan latte drinkers – assured his followers that the Irish border was an ‘internal one’ posing ‘mainly a technical problem’ that could be easily solved.

It’s striking that Brexit is being delivered by politicians who ‘have had enough of experts’ – except when it comes to the Irish border.

There, it seems, no problem is so big that it can’t be solved by a sprinkling of expertise and the warm glow of technology’s white heat. Fuel laundering? There’s an app to stop that. Cattle smuggling? Sure a simple tag system will make that impossible.

The Brexit ministries’ favourite ‘think tank’ Legatum – which is funded largely by a New Zealand-born, Dubai-based disaster capitalist – has suggested drones would solve the border problem and that the UK government “should consider giving a prize for technological solutions to incentivise the development of innovative solutions’ to the Irish border post-Brexit.

Actual experts on the Irish border dismissed this idea as ‘highly problematic’ – but as I discovered during the summer, the UK government isn’t actually talking to any experts about the Irish border.

The on-going failures over universal credit have, apparently, done little to erode the UK government’s faith in technology. Leaving aside the problems with the various fuzzy notions around ‘technological solutions’ to the Irish border proposed by the UK government and its janissaries – more on that here – the over-riding sense is that most British politicians and commentator just don’t get the Irish border.

Seen from Whitehall, the border might look quite straightforward. A squiggly line carved primarily by expediency in the early 1920s, the border separates the UK and the ‘not UK’. All that needs to be done is to set up a regime that allows the UK to fulfil the lofty ambitions of Liam Fox et al – ambitious trade deals with far flung nations etc etc – while ensuring the minimum level of disruption for those unfortunate enough to live on the edge of the British frontier. If that means a few customs posts here and there, so be it.

But there’s a problem: the Irish border is not just a line on the map, it’s a social, psychological construct that has, effectively, been rendered invisible. With both the UK and Ireland in the European Union, and the end of any territorial claim from Dublin with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the border has withered away.

I grew up on the southern side of the border. Where once checkpoints manned by the British army used to tell me I had crossed into Northern Ireland, now it can be very hard to tell what jurisdiction you are in. Sure the road signs are different but many of the 300 roads that crisscross the border are rural back roads with precious few markings.

The border region remains the poorest, least developed part of Ireland. This isn’t a co-incidence. Even with both UK and Ireland in the EU, the very fact that there are two jurisdictions – and a dark history – brings economic cost.

But over the last two decades, life has improved noticeably. Tens of thousands live on one side of the border and work on the other. For those living on the border, any change is a step backwards for peace.

So far Theresa May and her colleagues have shown little appreciation for the reality of border life. That your children might be born on a hospital on one side of the border, but go to school on another. You might – as my brother did – learn to drive in the Republic but take your rest in Northern Ireland, where waiting times are shorter.

Brexiteers adduce the Common Travel Area to argue that there is no need to restrict freedom of movement. That’s true, but there will likely be some form of customs checks if – as they say – the UK leaves the Single Market and the Customs Union. That will require road closures and lengthy delays on even the most quotidian journey. If you’re stuck in a two-hour tail back crossing from Derry into Donegal, it doesn’t much matter whether or not you have to produce a passport. You’ll still have to wait while the lorries at the front of the queue are checked.

Ardent Brexiteers – inside and outside Westminster – tell themselves that the Irish will blame the EU for any border difficulties. Common sense, and history, suggests that’s wishful thinking. During the
Brexit campaign no less than the UK secretary of state promised Northern Irish voters that there would be no border controls.

Any change at the border will likely be blamed on Brexit, and the British.

There’s a definite whiff of condescension about the British elite’s current attitude to Ireland. Nothing new in that, you might say. Churchill’s clichéd quips about the ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and
Tyrone’ have been matched by myriad UK politicians over the years.

But there is something particularly revealing in the failure of British political leaders to understand Dublin’s position, or the sensitivities of a part of the UK itself. As is so often the case, borders are places where grand colonial ambitions begin to fall apart, where restless natives and inclement conditions play havoc with even the best laid plans.

Brexit is not a well laid plan. Indeed, it is hardly a plan at all. The Irish border is the most obvious place where the easy logic of ‘take back control’ breaks up on contact with complex realities, but
it will not be the only one.

Comments (18)

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  1. w.b.robertson says:

    Dublin and Belfast want no change to the present “border”. But Dublin cannot openly come out and say that …without getting their fingers rapped from Brussels. I think the smart money will assume that the whole issue has already been fudged, wink wink, nudge nudge. There will, at the end of the day, be hatched a formula of meaningless words to keep everyone happy!

  2. David McCann says:

    Good piece.
    AS Winston Churchill once said “We have always found the Irish to be a bit odd. They refuse to be English”

  3. William Ross says:

    Peter

    I am glad that you have conceded that Brexit involves no problems in personal movement between the UK and Ireland. Neither will the border cause any significant problem with services. However, there is an issue with goods and cross-border agricultural business is very important.

    The extent of the problem with goods is dependent in large part on what kind of trade deal the UK and the EU arrive at, if any. If for example there was an FTA involving tariff free trade, then customs would not be an issue at all. The EU resolutely refuses to discuss trade and Irish authorities have stated that they “do not want to collaborate with Brexit”This is problematic and makes the early solution of the problem almost impossible.

    The failure to discuss trade is particularly perverse because the rule with the EU has always been that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

    However, it has to be said that even if the UK achieved a tariff free FTA with the EU there would still be the issue of regulatory compliance on both sides of the border. And unlike personal movement, this is a genuine EU issue.

    The UK government has proposed I think three technical solutions but none has come from the EU.

    Does it help to propose that NI should remain in the Customs Union when such a change is clearly constitutional in nature ( how would that affect the Good Friday agreement?) and NI exports four times as much to “Britain” as it does to ROI?

    In your stories the bad guys are always the same.. Can`t you change the tune a little, ever?

    William

    1. IAndI says:

      I am not so sure about the freedom of movement. After all it is the UK who wants to limit immigration into the UK. How can you guarantee this if you don’t have border posts? Easily any EU citizen could just fly to Ireland and walk to the UK then…

      “The UK government has proposed I think three technical solutions but none has come from the EU.”
      That is simply not true. The UK proposals involve technical approaches that have not been invented yet or just leave it as it is (which is contradicting the UK position in many ways). The EU suggested to make the sea the border and keep NI in the customs union and only do border checks when goods and people leave NI/Ireland towards the UK.

    2. Tearlach MacMicheal says:

      “The extent of the problem with goods is dependent in large part on what kind of trade deal the UK and the EU arrive at, if any. If for example there was an FTA involving tariff free trade, then customs would not be an issue at all.”

      It most certainly will be an issue. An FTA will not prevent customs checks unless the UK agrees to keep the exact same tariff regime as the EU in respect to non-EU countries. However this would make it very difficult for the UK to negotiate FTAs with non-EU countries (and has been publicly ruled out by the UK Government in any case)

      Goods from Norway and Iceland, which are both EFTA and EEA members, are subject to customs checks as are goods from Switzerland which has a series of bilateral agreements with the EU. If the EU allowed custom free access to goods from the UK then non EU countries could take advantage by routing their goods via the UK and thus bypassing EU tariffs. The only way to stop this is to check the goods.

      Also FTA agreements usually define and specify the type of goods (over thousands of pages in mind numbing detail) that are covered by the FTA. The merchant has to submit paperwork and have their goods subject to spot checks to make sure they are complying and to make sure the correct tariff is applied.

      The USA, Canada and Mexico are in NAFTA-they all have customs controls against each other.

      And this is before we get to non tariff barriers such as health and safety rules and product specficiation requirements. If the UK does not retain the same rules as the EU then goods will not be allowed in. However if the UK does retain the rules it makes negotiating with non-EU countries, especially the USA, more difficult.

  4. Dougie McCann says:

    Winston blamed the Unionists for the loss of Ireland, and was for a United Ireland. When asked if he would return to Ireland. He replied the South yes but not the loathsome North

  5. MBC says:

    Is there any feeling Peter in the Republic or NI for reunification as a solution? Do you think it will be the eventual solution once support for the DUP evaporates on the back of Brexit?

  6. Willie says:

    Personally I think the EU border will be set at Scotland, Wales and England.

    The Northern Irish will be hung out to dry and will require to go through border and immigration checks before they are allowed to enter Britain.

    Cast adrift NI will ipso facto be a part of the ROI.

    1. Jim says:

      Far too sensible a solution!

  7. Crubag says:

    The Irish border excactly illustrates the issues with take back control – the Irish as a non-sovreign nation have very little control. At best, they will get a vote on the trade deal, if it is packaged in that form. But border controls? customs? tariffs?

    Forget it. Those decisions will be made hundreds of miles away by other, non-Irish institutions.

    I think the EU may have now reached its apogee and be incapable of further change – simply too many countries with conflicting interests – but if the federalists did get their way, then thise fragments if Irish exceptionalism like neutrality or low corporate tax rates could also be extinguished.

  8. William Ross says:

    IAndI

    Free movement of persons between ROI and UK is for now a matter between the ROI and UK. Macron and others want to change that. The UK`s clear position is to continue the pre EEC CTA. It is true that EU citizens could fly to Ireland and walk into the UK across the ROI/UK border if there are no passport checks. However, such persons would be illegally in the UK if they did not come on a tourist visa basis. Tourist access to Brexit UK from the EU 27 should be easy ( and vice versa) You are right that at every other point of entry to the UK tourist visas would be checked by immigration. There would be no-one to check such visas at the ROI/UK border. No big difference and no big problem.

    There is a problem with the transit of goods and that needs to be worked on and agreed by UK and EU.

    Peter falsely gives the idea that the UK is “looking down” on the poor Paddies. The latter word is his not mine. I reject this. If anyone is endangering the Good Friday Agreement it is the EU through its inexplicable failure to negotiate trade terms. The EU is simply using Ireland as a pawn in its attempt to reverse the mandate of the British people. And Peter should consider this: who was it that forced the Irish to vote again ( and get it right) on EU constitutional reform? Was Ireland treated well in the financial disaster? Who has recently struck down Irish tax agreements?
    How will Ireland deal with the coming EU tax and budget harmonisation and the EU army? Read Macron`s piece in last week`s Spectator.

    Would you like to explain this situation to Michael Collins?

  9. William Ross says:

    Tearlach

    I must admit that you have a point regarding tariffs on, say, goods of non-UK origin passing over the ROI/UK border. Therefore, even with a total elimination of tariffs in an FTA there is the issue of tariffs on goods of third country origin.

    Nonetheless, I think that you are greatly over-estimating the difficulties of cross-border trade outside the EU. Look at the ease at which business is done across North America. Think of the majority of our UK trade that is with countries outside the EU, and this is continually increasing.

    William

  10. Willie says:

    William Ross, are you really saying that EU citizens can simply fly into the ROI for them to then simply walk into the UK.

    Doesn’t sound like the type of UK that the Brexiteers had in mind when they wanted to control their border.

    So what do you think the Brexiteers have in mind. Sounds like you see it simply as a case of visa less visitors being allowed in willy nilly.

    As to goods and services, they used to run cattle across the Irish border, when there was a border, and of course more recently the IRA ran fuel across the border and onwards in fact to Scotland.

    The Brexiteers like your good self have got it all thought out – eh what!

  11. William Ross says:

    Willie

    Let me give you this example. My son is a British citizen and has just entered Brazil on a British passport for tourism purposes. This is very easy and he needs no visa but he did fill out a landing slip. Of course he cannot work in Brazil or form a business or anything like that. He cannot vote or draw benefits. He must leave after 3 months. This is great for the UK and Brazil and a similar relationship could easily exist between Brexit UK and the remaining 27. Not only could but should.
    If not Spain is going to hurt horribly, and for absolutely no reason.

    The difference with the post Brexit border between ROI and UK is that unlike Brazil there will be no-one even to accept a landing slip. However, EU citizens walking across the ROI/UK border seeking work in the UK without a work visa will be illegal and will find life very difficult. Now that means that we need to tighten up UK immigration rules, I accept that. You should also remember that ROI is not in Schengen so EU citizens flying to Ireland will have to record their entry.

    You seem to think that Brexiteers are anti-immigrant monsters. My wife is a Latin American immigrant. I was myself an immigrant for many years. What I do not want is our borders open to half a billion people, who can work, vote, draw benefits on an uncontrollable basis. Brazil would never accept that. It is a proud independent sovereign country.

    As noted, there is more of a problem on the ROI/UK border with goods, and goods are important on that border. So let both sides start serious negotiations and drop ridiculous positions which would involve NI staying in the Single Market and/or Customs Union.

    William

  12. Willie says:

    Glad that there is no border issue between Brazil and the UK.

    But there is a border issue between the UK and the ROI. Is an issue that Irish both sides of the border have difficulty with and its not something you can casually dismiss.

    Maybe you are right, maybe we should have an open border but strengthen the Border Agency, Police and Home Office to search out foreign nationals who walked across the Irish border with three month EU visa stay authorisation.

    It sure how you check the three month visa entitlement when you have an open ROI / UK border, but apartheid South Africa, used to have pass laws, and clearly you see similar as the answer William.

    But yes William I see your example of the UK and Brazil border working fine.

    You’re quite right!

  13. William Ross says:

    Willie

    I think you are passing into the realms of fantasy now: apartheid?

    All you need is to require UK employers to confirm the immigration status of every employee etc That is what normal countries do.

    And if the poor old UK is going to be the disaster you predict there will not be many EU immigrants anyway . Maybe we will be queuing in Dover to reach Calais……

    William

    1. Willie says:

      Good stuff William to opine that we don’t need borders, only that employers need to confirm the immigration status of everyone.

      That’s the stuff, throw open the borders at Dover, at Felixstowe,at Heathrow, and just walk in. Employers will do the rest.

      Simples really William. Can’t understand what all the Brexit fuss is about when you put it like that that.

  14. Redguantlet says:

    So, more bluff from the fantasist William Ross.

    William Ross likes the idea of people going to Europe on holiday, say, but not actually settling there or setting up businesses there… we have to stay in the country where we were born, just like William Ross… because that is what he does…

    The fact is, this is exactly what Europeans have done for centuries. Humans are a migratory species. The fantastic travel writer Bruce Chatwin even went so far as to attribute most of the ills of human society to the fact that we ceased to be migratory and started settling.

    The modern State has an unprecedented power and control over people’s lives. It’s an absolute outrage…

    If there is the slightest sniff of a border between north and south, the IRA will blow it to smithereens. As Bertie Ahern reminded us the other night when interviewed on Channel 4 news, the campaign prior to the Provisional IRA, that of the 1950’s, was centered on border warfare.

    He also reminded us that in Boris Johnson’s infamous Telegraph article which outlined his view of Brexit, he did not mention the word Ireland even once…

    Poor old Ireland…

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