DUP is defending a seamless sea-crossing that doesn’t exist

by Bruce Clark | 08.10.2018

Rab, whose home is in mid-Ulster, breeds goats as a hobby. He searches online for fecund-looking pairs to stock his herd. One recent purchase involved a 1,000-mile round trip by sea and road to southern England. But that proved the easy part.

He and the seller diligently prepared for the journey by ensuring the beasts were isolated at their point of departure for 30 days beforehand and blood-tested. Papers proving all this was drawn up. Rab then escorted the hoofed couple by ferry from Scotland to the port of Larne. On arrival, he presented the documents to the Northern Irish veterinary inspector who said they were deficient in one small detail, and threatened to have the goats destroyed.

Rab and the beasts had to take the next ferry back to Scotland, where he found a fellow goat-lover who was willing to repeat the 30-day isolation until a second (successful) attempt at importing them could be made. If this had been a business, not a hobby, the whole episode wouldn’t be so funny.

Such stories provide a bit of perspective at a time when Arlene Foster, leader of Democratic Unionist Party, is calling the avoidance of an Irish Sea border a “blood-red line” in the final phase of Brexit negotiations.

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Travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whether for animals or human beings, never has been and never will be completely seamless. Physical reality imposes certain constraints. Living things can move easily across long, meandering land borders, while crossing the sea is much harder. Hence it is almost inevitable that some forms of control – say, against terrorism, illegal migration or animal epidemics – can best be imposed by policing coastlines. Little-England Brexiteers understand that too.

At the same time, Rab’s experience is a reminder that any set of rules which avoidably complicates the movement of people, animals or goods in any part of the British Isles is something to be avoided or minimised. That is simple common sense.

You might well ask, then, why Foster is so overwhelmingly seized of one common-sense proposition (that movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland must remain easy) at the expense of another: that any hardening of the inter-Irish land border would be an economic, political and human disaster.

She is, in fairness, accurately reflecting the mood of her party and community. The DUP’s sanguinary threats to defend the principle of seamless unity between their region and Great Britain have grown louder this month. That is precisely because the sacred principle looks, objectively, almost impossible to defend.

Despite, or maybe even because of, the temporary leverage they now enjoy as proppers-up of the government, the Democratic Unionists’ vision of the post-Brexit future – one that puts UK unity before inter-Irish fluidity – looks ever-less tenable.

In the worst-case scenario of a no-deal Brexit, the economic fallout will be particularly severe for Northern Ireland. Among the region’s Catholic nationalists, who could be a demographic majority within a decade or so, demands for a united Ireland will grow more pressing. Violence could return. Across both islands, the DUP will be blamed for pushing the whole situation to an unnecessary extreme, and sympathy for the Ulster-Protestant quandary will be in short supply.

In the increasingly likely scenario of a deal being hammered out, it is hard to see how its terms won’t in some way infringe on DUP sensibilities. The EU’s stated priorities include both the preservation of the single market’s integrity and the preservation of the all-Ireland economy mandated by the peace process. The UK’s stated core principles include leaving the single market and the customs union. There is only one way in which this circle can be squared and that is by differentiating economic and regulatory conditions in Northern Ireland from those in Great Britain, albeit with as light a touch as possible.  

That may be a bitter pill for the DUP to swallow, but it is not something entirely new. Whatever politicians may decide, it will always be easier to spirit a pair of goats over a heathery mountain than to guide them through a bureaucratically administered port.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “DUP is defending a seamless sea-crossing that doesn’t exist”

  • What about freedom of movement? Is there biometric passport controls in the ports on the Irish sea? Will there be such controls? If not, how is the UK going to implement its immigration policy?
    I suppose passport controls are ruled out on the inland border.

  • There is an existing phyto-sanitary border in the Irish sea to prevent cross-contamination between the two nations; an incremental product extension of this could largely solve May’s border issue. The real issue is that the DUP considers a deeper integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom will frustrate efforts of a majority vote for a united Ireland. But Arlene Foster’s ‘ lines of blood’ may well end up as Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ and put back community relations by two decades.