Expert View

Ireland’s Brexit border: a masterclass in fecklessness

by David Hannay | 09.08.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

When the British government’s archives on Brexit are opened to the public it is a fair bet that one of the most startling revelations will be the sheer fecklessness with which the Cameron and May governments drifted towards putting at serious risk the Good Friday Agreement which ended eighty years of tension over the division of the island of Ireland.

At that time, we will finally get some idea whether that drift was the consequence of mere ignorance and inattention, or whether, worse still, it was a deliberate gamble, a Panglossian punt that all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.     

When you think of the blood and treasure that successive British governments devoted to maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the massive efforts that the governments of John Major and Tony Blair put into finding a peaceful solution to the period of troubles, it is hard to credit that attention deficit disorder took over so rapidly. But it did.

The Irish dimension was barely mentioned by the leading lights of the Leave campaign – indeed one of them was the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, whose duty it was to uphold the Good Friday Agreement. And when John Major and Tony Blair spoke out in warning they were treated as mere blasts from the past.       

Well, now the chickens are coming home to roost; and the government seems at a loss to know what to do. It is all very well saying how important it is to maintain the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland, and to express a desire to avoid the return of hard border controls on trade in goods and services between the two parts of the island.

But in practical terms that does not take matters very far, particularly when Theresa May has ruled out, even before the Brexit negotiations had begun, the two most obvious ways of squaring the circle: remaining in the EU’s single market or its customs union; or both.

And what about the de-politicisation of law enforcement on the island of Ireland and the strengthening of the fight against terrorism which flowed from the network of EU Justice and Home Affairs legislation and which could all lapse in March 2019?        

So far these are all unanswered questions, and they will not be easy to answer.

It is indeed the case that the Common Travel Area has existed for far longer than the EU’s freedom of movement. But it has never had to be applied by two states, one of which remains legally bound by that freedom of movement obligation and one of which seems hell bent on rejecting it.

It is true too that free trade existed between the UK and Ireland in the past; but that was when they were both outside what has now become the European Union.

As for cooperation over law enforcement, there was little enough of that at a time when any extradition could become a major political issue and when there was no European framework to wrap around it.       

It really is high time that the government put on the negotiating table some practical solutions to these complex and sensitive issues which, however much goodwill there is in Brussels – and there is plenty on the Irish dimension of Brexit – cannot just be resolved by warm words and vague generalities.

It would be a tragedy if the recent remarkable improvement in the relations between the UK and Ireland were to become just another piece of collateral damage in the wake of last year’s referendum vote.

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    Edited by Bill Emmott

    2 Responses to “Ireland’s Brexit border: a masterclass in fecklessness”

    • Totally agree. Thank you for an excellent article, and your ongoing attempts to educate the Great British Public.
      How do we get the message out to those who only read the Daily Mail, Express etc and remain in blithe ignorance and/or denial of the problems they’ve unleashed?