Bordering on delusional

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 28.07.2017

Theresa May is caught between the devil and the deep blue (well, grey) Irish sea. We don’t want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, because that would jeopardise the peace process. We don’t want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, because that would jeopardise the peace process.

But as I wrote here more than a year ago, this seems to be the choice we’re left with. If the UK persists in leaving the single market and the customs union, then there will need to be customs checks and immigration controls between Britain and Ireland.

While some hoped that high-tech solutions to policing the land border might be found, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has dismissed these as unworkable, instead suggesting that immigration and customs checks should take place at ports and airports – a sea border between parts of the UK. That may be a pity, but a 300-mile border would indeed require an awful lot of cameras, mostly in remote areas.

While Varadkar’s idea would minimise disruption on the Irish border, the idea of customs and passport checks between different parts of the United Kingdom – emphasis on the first word – was never going to be popular, and Theresa May’s parliamentary reliance on the DUP likely makes this a political impossibility.  

Dublin may be attempting to highlight the difficulties posed by a hard Brexit with the hope of swaying the balance towards a softer exit. If this is the case, Varadkar should not overplay his hand. If Britain drops out with no deal, the default status will be a hard border – which the DUP would prefer to any ‘special status’ arrangement.

Moreover, any hope for a soft border between Britain and Ireland relies on a good deal being struck between the UK and the rest on the EU, one good enough to make controls and paperwork moot. Attempting to “apply pressure” on the UK by winning border concessions before discussing trade may prove to be counterproductive if it results in talks being held up.

If Britain insists on a hard Brexit, then for all that the overriding concern for London and Dublin is avoiding further damage to the situation in Northern Ireland it will almost certainly mean a hard land border. It will be a question of priorities, and Brexit will have won over peace. A recent Lords report concluded that “the Brexit debate has undermined political stability and exacerbated cross-community divisions”. If the Brexit process proceeds to unravel decades of economic integration, it is hard to see how we avoid a further deterioration.

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Edited by Bill Emmott