Is May heading for parliamentary defeat on Irish border?

by Hugo Dixon | 26.03.2018

Labour’s plan to get cross-party support to stop border controls in Ireland could put the prime minister in a box. In a speech today Keir Starmer said he wanted to enshrine in law the government’s promise not to have a hard border in Ireland. To achieve this, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson hopes to amend the EU Withdrawal Bill going through Parliament.

Many Tories are unhappy that Brexit could destabilise Northern Ireland. Labour may therefore be able to secure cross-party backing for this initiative, especially since there are already moves afoot in the House of Lords to do something similar.

Parliament should ideally prevent a sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain too. Otherwise, there is a risk that Northern Ireland could be partly cut off from the rest of the UK post-Brexit. Theresa May says no prime minister could ever accept this. But again it would be useful to nail this down in law, so there’s no risk of back-pedalling.

Making it illegal to have border controls in Ireland – or across the Irish Sea – would shape the overall Brexit talks. The government, which today started talks with the EU on how to solve the border question, would lose wiggle room.

The only realistic option would be for the whole UK to keep free movement for at least all goods. This, in turn, would mean we would have to stay in those parts of the EU’s customs union and single market that relate to manufactured goods and agricultural products. And that would mean we would have to follow the EU’s rules on goods and farming, as well as the tariffs it charges on imports from the rest of the world.

The prime minister seems willing to go along with at least part of this script, according to Politico. It says the government is about to propose a back-stop plan to keep the whole UK aligned with those single market rules that concern goods if it can’t find another way to keep the Irish border open.

If so, this would turn us into a rule-taker in a vast swathe of areas. It would also mark another big climbdown by May, who has said we should pull out of the single market. It would go a lot further than her proposal in her Mansion House speech earlier this month to follow the EU’s rules on pharmaceuticals, chemicals and aviation as well as competition policy.

But even such a big u-turn wouldn’t do the trick, because we would also need to have the same tariffs as the EU. That means we would have to stay in chunks of the customs union too – something a separate parliamentary rebellion may force the prime minister to accept.

Staying in chunks of the customs union and single market would indeed solve the Irish border problem, but at the cost of turning us into what Jacob Rees-Mogg likes to call a “vassal state”. It would also do little to protect our world-beating services industries.

If we’re going to do all that, one might well ask what’s the point of quitting the EU. Surely, it would be better to stay around the table as one of Europe’s most powerful nations making the rules than take dictation like lackeys.

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This piece was updated on March 27 to make clear that to avoid border controls there would have to be free movement at least for goods. The word “all” was added.

3 Responses to “Is May heading for parliamentary defeat on Irish border?”

  • You say “If we’re going to do all that, one might well ask what’s the point of quitting the EU. Surely, it would be better to stay around the table as one of Europe’s most powerful nations making the rules than take dictation like lackeys.”
    The only points that we have are (1) To do enough to satisfy the extreme right-wing Tories and (2) To do enough to satisfy the Brexit-supporting public. Other than these points, there is no logic in Brexit and there is little point in arguing it. Unless we can organize a Big Bang and get the referendum cancelled for breaking the rules in some way, perhaps the strategy is to force Brexit to morph into a Brexit-lite…which will be very similar to what we have now. Personally, I think our leaders deserve the Big Bang solution for getting us into this situation through their pure management and political incompetence

  • I dont know enough to give an answer to Ireland but understand there will be a return to a wall or barriers as before and fighting as a minimum … the war will return like it or not
    But what they do there to be repeated in Spain with Gibraltar?
    Perhaps we need to look at what happens today with isle of Mann jersey Guernsey and other islands do they have the answer?

  • It just goes to show the poor assessment of the situation regards Ireland is concerned. Just after article 50 was invoked an Irish affairs sub-committee of parliament questioned two experts on what could be done about the Irish Border. The answer was quite unequivocal, that there is no way of squaring this particular circle. As those who follow this column will know I have been going on about this since listening to these experts. It was always obvious that a solution should have been sought from the start of the negotiations and since there is no answer the negotiations could have stopped at that time saving a great deal of time and expense. Since the hard liners have not given any answers they should have been asked at EVERY interview what their answer would be. The existence of the Real IRA shows that there are many hard men in Ireland who would rejoice at the re-establishment of a hard border. Asking the hard liners at every possible opportunity what is their answer and whether they would be prepared to take responsibility for a resumption of violence would certainly have concentrated their minds. Should they even consider ditching Northern Ireland would they be prepared to take responsibility for the breakup of the UK since Scotland would have every excuse for a further referendum which the leavers would almost certainly win and that would probably be followed by Wales. These are questions that Messrs Johnson Gove and Rees-Mogg should have been asked until they were forced to come clean about the Irish question.