Brexit Britain faces devil’s choice over Northern Ireland

by Bruce Clark | 13.09.2017

It is being claimed that deliberations over Ireland’s future after Brexit are making fair progress, at least when compared with other bits of the Brexit negotiation. If that is true, the broader bargaining must be in a truly dire state.

Amidst much posturing and buck-passing, one thing is becoming clear. Either some arrangement will be made that suits the social, economic and political circumstances of Northern Ireland, in which case the six northern counties will become a bit more detached from Great Britain. Or no such arrangement will be devised, in which case barriers (albeit not necessarily physical ones) to inter-Irish trade will go up, with bad and probably unsustainable effects.

The bare facts are this. In mid-August, the British government aired proposals whose stated aim was to avoid the construction of any new physical boundary between the two parts of Ireland, and make trade as smooth as possible. It suggested a customs arrangement which would see 80% of businesses on the island exempt from any new tariffs after Brexit.

The waiver could apply to small and medium-sized firms involved in localised cross-border trade. For other firms engaged in international trade, the government suggested that they could adhere to any new customs regime by completing retrospective declarations, ideally online.

This month, Ireland and the EU have made impressively well co-ordinated responses. Indeed one of the striking things about this negotiation is how strongly the Irish republic’s concerns have been taken up by the Union as a whole.

A position paper released by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, on September 7 agrees that imaginative ways must be found to keep the inter-Irish border seamless. But it emphasises that they must respect “the proper functioning of the internal market and of the customs union as well as the effectiveness of the Union legal order”. Moreover, in constructing these imaginative devices, the main burden must lie on the shoulders of Britain, whose idea Brexit was.

Yet another onus on Britain, the paper added, was to ensure the preservation of the Good Friday agreement, on which Northern Ireland’s peace process is based. This agreement was predicated on close collaboration between the two jurisdictions in Ireland, and on the right of people in Northern Ireland to consider themselves Irish, British or both. It followed that the rights of Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland must be fully respected; they should not be compromised by living on the “wrong” side of a newly reinforced border.

Albeit couched in mild language, this amounts to a tough riposte to Britain. It comes close to saying that to avoid any hardening of the border, Northern Ireland must stay in the single market and accept some jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice, even if Great Britain eschews those things. And if those things cannot be achieved, and the border becomes somewhat harder as a result, the fault will be entirely Britain’s.

This is more than a debating point. Let’s imagine that Britain, freed from its European shackles, negotiates a trade deal with America which allows GMO foods into the UK, something the EU still abhors. If Northern Ireland wanted to preserve its all-important agri-food trade with the Irish Republic, it would somehow have to stay out of that deal with the US. And that would be a step towards Northern Ireland leaving the UK.

In some ways, the European demand for London to come up with cleverer solutions seems a little petulant and unfair; Britain did, after all, make some quite detailed proposals a month ago. But the more fundamental point that Brussels and Dublin are making is this: decisions of principle (above all, to what extent Great Britain and/or Northern Ireland remain in the single market) have to come before questions of bureaucratic detail, important as they are.

Moreover, those questions of principle are deep and intractable. Suppose the consensus in London comes down in favour of a hard Brexit, with all its costs and perceived opportunities. That may be a thinkable option for Great Britain, but it is almost unbearable for Northern Ireland. At that point, Great Britain and Northern Ireland will find themselves moving inexorably apart.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon