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Analysis

May set for Irish border defeat in Lords

by Hugo Dixon | 01.05.2018

Peers vote tomorrow on stopping border controls in Ireland. They are right to do so. We must not throw Northern Ireland under a bus.

Brexiters blithely ignored the Irish border during the referendum two years ago. Boris Johnson airily pretended there was no issue.

In fact, the Irish border has become the knottiest problem of all in the Brexit talks. The peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland has been underpinned by the absence of border controls. The Republic of Ireland has insisted that they must not return. The rest of the EU is backing it to the hilt, saying we have to guarantee this or there will be no divorce deal.

Theresa May has promised that there will be no border controls. But she also says she wants to pull the UK out of the EU’s customs union and single market, which means that frontier checks will have to return. In other words, she has made incompatible promises.

The prime minister pretends there is a way out by using new technology to support the convoluted “customs partnership” her Brexit war cabinet will discuss tomorrow. But the EU says this cockamamie scheme is “magical”, Michael Gove calls it “bonkers” and Jacob Rees-Mogg says it is “cretinous”.

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The House of Lords is absolutely right to enshrine May’s promises over the Irish border in law. Amendment 88 to the EU Withdrawal Bill would hardwire a host of pledges she has made over the months.

The Lords voted two weeks ago for us to stay in a customs union post-Brexit. That’s necessary but not sufficient to avoid border controls. We will also need, as a minimum, to have the same regulations as the EU for goods and agricultural products.

In theory, it would be possible to have this regulatory alignment for just Northern Ireland rather than the whole UK. But this would mean border controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and the prime minister is rightly opposed to carving up the UK in this way.

So it looks like we may be heading for a customs union and regulatory alignment covering goods and agriculture for the whole UK. That will infuriate Brexiters. But it won’t please patriotic pro-Europeans either. The EU would call the shots on trade both with the single market and the rest of the world. We’d turn from being one of Europe’s most influential nations into a rule-taker. That would be bad for our power and bad for our pride.

The Irish border didn’t figure prominently in the referendum campaign. The knock-on consequences of solving it are a big new fact that the public is only just becoming aware of. All the more reason for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal – with an option stay in the EU if they don’t like it.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “May set for Irish border defeat in Lords”

  • The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was always going to be such an issue that the only way to maintain the current freedoms cross-border is to remain in the EU or for Ireland to leave it. That it would be mad to do. Anyone from Northern Ireland (as I am) would know this immediately. Now, there is another issue. The Conservative Party owes its current existence as government to the DUP, a party which is not a spokesperson for the whole of Northern Ireland, and not even for all unionists there. It is going through a power struggle with Sinn Fein, with no guarantee of coming out with any honourable partnership. So what next? Don’t even bother to mutter about trade talks until this Border issue is solved: I really can not see a way that it can be in time for any agreement with the EU to be concluded, especially with the DUP nipping at the Tory heels.

  • The United Kingdom including Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU
    The Belfast Agreement commits Northern Ireland to be an internal part of the United Kingdom so therefore it leaves the EU along with the rest of the UK
    The position of the DUP simply re enforces this reality
    The EU referendum in 2016 did not provide for any regional opt outs