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Analysis

How to solve Irish question? Stay in the EU

by Hugo Dixon | 28.11.2017

Theresa May has been guilty of obfuscation on Northern Ireland and Brexit. Now’s the time for straight talk. Far too much is at stake.

The starting point should be to admit we cannot avoid the return of a hard border in Ireland if the government sticks to its plan to pull the whole UK out of the EU’s single market and customs union. The government used to pretend technology would magic the problem away – something David Davis, the Brexit secretary, eventually admitted was “blue sky” thinking – but it has still not come clean.

Some government sympathisers are finally admitting that there is a problem. For example, William Hague, the former Tory leader, wrote in today’s Telegraph:

“We have to admit that our decision to leave the EU does create serious problems for Ireland. Brexit will deprive Ireland of her biggest ally in Europe on liberal trade policies and respect for national sovereignty on taxation. It is bound to throw up barriers to trading with and through us, their main trading partner and physical route to the Continent.

“Worryingly, it also complicates immensely the relationship between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Their being in the EU together has helped with sharing public services, cross-border reconciliation projects, and boosting trade. So it is perfectly reasonable for the government and people of the Irish Republic to feel pretty cross about the situation they are landed in by Brexit, and that far too little attention was given to this during our referendum campaign.”

If the prime minister had been honest and suitably apologetic a year ago, we wouldn’t be in the current impasse – with the Irish government threatening to block progress in the overall Brexit talks. Many people on both sides of the border would have been unhappy but we could have got on with the business of mitigating the damage.

May’s terrible diplomacy means she now has no good solution. Even Hague’s best attempt at a solution was to say that “what is required is a granular matching of problem with solution, in the light of what matters in practice on the island of Ireland.” Not much there then.

The prime minister’s failure to grip the problem could even bring the whole Brexit process crashing down on her head. This is because the only way of avoiding a border is for Northern Ireland to stay in the single market and customs union. But if the rest of Great Britain quits the single market and customs union, this will create a sea border between Northern Ireland and Britain – unless the government can produce some magical technology to solve that.

Imposing such a sea border wouldn’t just madden the DUP, which is propping up the government. It could undermine the peace process as Northern Ireland’s protestant community could feel they had been sold out.

The only way of avoiding either border is for the whole of the UK to stay in the single market and customs union. But if we do that and press ahead with Brexit, we will become a rule-taker. The only sensible solution therefore is to stay in the EU after all. It’s not too late to change our minds.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “How to solve Irish question? Stay in the EU”

  • Indeed the only solution is for the UK to stay in the EU. But is this a decision the present government can possibly make and retain any credibility? It would have to be a decision by a different government……..following a new general election.