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Analysis

May admits a few hard truths about the Irish border

by Quentin Peel | 20.07.2018

Two years after she became prime minister, Theresa May has finally gone to Northern Ireland to see for herself the problem that is at the heart of the current deadlock in the Brexit talks: the inner Irish border between the Republic of Ireland and the North. How to avoid the re-creation of a “hard” border when the UK leaves the EU, and thereby fatally undermine the Good Friday peace agreement that ended 30 years of terrorist atrocities, is key to any wider deal.

Up till now, May seemed to think that simply by repeating her mantra that “there cannot be a hard border”, it would become a reality. This time she said: “The notion of a hard border is almost inconceivable.” Note the “almost”. But at least she now knows that like every other aspect of Brexit, it is not simple.

The good news is that she recognised two essential truths on her trip. First, “the issue arises because of a decision we (i.e. the UK) have taken. We cannot solve it on our own, but nor can we wash our hands of any responsibility for it,” she said. That was a direct contradiction of “hard” Brexiters like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, who maintain that the UK can simply announce that it will not impose any border controls and, if Ireland is forced by the EU to introduce checks on goods or people, they would be to blame.

“Like any country sharing a land border with another nation, we have a duty to seek customs and regulatory relationships with each other to ensure borders work smoothly,” said May. The Irish government will be relieved to hear that.

Second, she admitted that “no technology solution to address these issues has been designed yet or implemented anywhere in the world, let alone in such a unique and highly sensitive context as the Northern Irish border.” Another clear rebuke to the Moggites who insist the problem is easy to solve.

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The trouble is that May seems to think that it is up to the EU to produce a solution to the problem of our making. She insisted that the EU’s proposal of a “backstop” insurance policy to align regulation in Northern Ireland with EU regulation was “unworkable”. What she meant was that it was politically impossible to accept for a UK prime minister and a UK parliament, because it would mean having a border or sorts between Britain and Northern Ireland. She called on the EU to “evolve its position”.

Back in Brussels, Michel Barnier thinks that the UK’s alternative plan – for regulatory alignment of trade in goods (but not services) between the entire UK and the EU – is equally “unworkable”. It would undermine the integrity of the EU single market, he says.

But there is some sign of understanding on his side, not least about the problem of creating a border in the Irish Sea. He insisted that “at no moment whatsoever was it our intention to create a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”

What is clear is that the easiest way of maintaining an invisible border in Ireland, demanded by all parties in the North, by Dublin, and by the rest of the EU, would be to stop Brexit and remain a full member of the customs union and the single market. The fudge in May’s white paper is to remain in a customs “arrangement” and the single market for goods but not services, which is unacceptable to hard-line Brexiters and Remainers alike. There is no “good deal” to be had with Brexit: only damage limitation. That is why a People’s Vote is essential to decide if the deal is acceptable to the people.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “May admits a few hard truths about the Irish border”

  • There is no need for a People’s Vote (other than a General Election that is). Nor is there any need for more discussions or “white papers” from the Willie Wonka Choco Factory that is the Cabinet Office. What is needed is politicians and informed people with public following to man up and tell it as it is. This sorry exercise set in motion by that apology for a man, Cameron, to exorcise the spectre of UKIP and Eurosceptics from the Tory party, was always going be a fiasco and end in the deadlock and bitter infighting we see now. Men of honour who place country and people before personal gain or kudos need to hit the Alt Control Delete button and end this collective madness NOW before it’s too late. It was after all only an Advisory Referendum so can be put back in the box, and I am sure the other 27 EU member countries will follow Barniers frequent pleading for the UK to remain a club member, and happily tear up the Art 50 letter. They could put it down to a midlife crisis brought on by pressure from agitators from within with nothing better to do that pursue self harm.