Expert View

PM takes another step deeper into the Irish quagmire

by David Hannay | 24.09.2018

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

Boris Johnson is fond of drawing parallels with Churchill. Perhaps he is therefore familiar with the letter Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, wrote at the height of the Irish Home Rule crisis in the 1880s, revealing his intention to mobilise and agitate Ulster unionist feeling in a bid to defeat Gladstone’s Home Rule. “The Orange card will be the one to play. Please God it may be the ace of trumps and not the two.”

That deeply cynical gamble paid off at the time in Westminster parliamentary terms but at the cost of dreadful suffering for all the peoples of Ireland thereafter. It is a pity that Johnson and his colleagues in government, including the prime minister, showed no awareness of the risks they were running when, following the fiasco of the 2017 general election, they handed the keys of the Brexit negotiations to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Now those risks are becoming all too evident as the Irish dimension of the Brexit negotiations become the touchstone of success or failure at the European Council summit in October. So far there is no sign of an agreed way of reconciling the red line of avoiding any new border controls between the two parts of Ireland (now enshrined in our domestic law in the EU Withdrawal Act) with the government’s determination to quit both the EU’s single market and its customs union. Nor any breakthrough in finding any formulation for a legally binding backstop in the Withdrawal Treaty being negotiated in Brussels.

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It is not even entirely clear that Theresa May herself fully understands the implications for the Irish border of a no deal outcome. In her plaintively defiant statement last Friday after the Salzburg meeting, she offered reassurance that even crashing out would not imperil the commitment to avoid any new border controls.

But WTO rules under which the UK would be operating in those circumstances would require us to charge the same tariffs from Ireland into Northern Ireland as we would do on all other imports into the UK worldwide. So the only way of avoiding applying tariffs on those imports from Ireland as part of the EU and thus of the need for controls would be if we removed all tariff protection on all our global imports. This was confirmed by the trade minister, Rona Fairhead, in the Lords debate on the Trade Bill on September 11.

A zero tariff on all the UK’s imports is the solution proposed by hard-Brexit economist Patrick Minford, which all commentators agree would lay waste to Britain’s industry and agriculture. Was the Prime Minister contemplating that as a possibility? Presumably not.

So, if the Irish knot is to be untied, it is going to require some further blurring or erasing of red lines. This will have to be done in the legally binding text of a backstop which will have to be given effect in domestic law if the Withdrawal Treaty is to be ratified before March 29, 2019. Will this be acceptable to the DUP and the ultra-Brexiters? If not, and if there is a no-deal outcome, then that will be another step deeper into the Irish quagmire.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “PM takes another step deeper into the Irish quagmire”

  • Rather than a comment, I have a question.

    At some point not too long ago I picked up (or so I seem to remember) that the Good Friday Agreement had been listed with the UN as an international treaty, and that as a result the UK will have to abide by its terms, no matter what.

    If I understood correctly, that would mean the UK is unable to change anything about the current situation re the Irish/Northern Irish border without being in breach of this (now) international treaty. Would not this trump any approach the UK is planning to take that deviates from the current situation, and what would be the consequences for the UK of breaching this treaty in this way?