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Expert View

Time for May to stop playing games with the Irish border

by David Hannay | 24.10.2018

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

Each time the prime minister addresses the Irish dimension of Brexit she only, no doubt inadvertently, makes it worse and less easy to resolve. That certainly applies to her latest foray and the four new red lines she outlined in Parliament on Monday. She also put forward a short extension – “a few months” – to the transitional period beyond December 2020 as an alternative to what has become known as the Irish backstop, an insurance policy against any increase in border controls between the two parts of the island of Ireland.

Leave on one side the question of whether a short extension of the grossly inadequate 21-month transitional period is a sensible idea. There are arguments for and against, although the duration of this extension being talked about would, in all likelihood, merely postpone, not remove, the risk of a cliff-edge crash.

But is there any indication at all that the other 27 EU countries would swap that extension for abolition of the backstop? None at all. Nor is there likely to be. The EU nailed their colours to the mast of a backstop long ago and it is a vital national interest for the Irish government, which would have to agree to any change. What’s more, the EU believed the principle of a backstop was accepted in good faith by the UK government last December. So the prime minister’s latest idea is pure fantasy. It simply won’t fly.

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But look behind this pointless manoeuvering and consider for one moment the implications for the Irish border of the outcome to the Brexit negotiations being no deal at all – which the Brexiters (and the prime minister herself) still tell us would be better than a bad deal (which they reserve the right to define). Those implications would be dire indeed.

It is common ground to all sides of the argument that in the circumstances of no deal both the UK and the EU would have to fall back on WTO rules. But those rules say that you may not treat imports from one WTO member differently to those from another unless you have a free trade or customs union agreement with them – the most favoured nation provision.

That would mean we would have to apply customs tariffs on imports from Ireland, and that Ireland (as part of the EU which is a WTO member in good standing) would have to do the same to our exports, unless we decided to impose zero tariffs on all our imports, industrial and agricultural, from all WTO members worldwide, a solution hardly likely to be greeted with cheering by British business and farmers. So the hard border which would result in Ireland would be the consequence of WTO rules, not of decisions taken in Brussels or London.

This is yet another reason for avoiding no deal. But it is also yet another reason for giving the electorate in Northern Ireland, as well as the electorate right across the rest of the UK, a chance to have their say once all the implications and consequences of the Brexit negotiations are known. It really is time for British politicians to stop playing games with sensitive issues relating to the future of both parts of Ireland, as they have been doing for centuries, until the Good Friday agreement set us all on a new, and better, course.

Edited by Quentin Peel

One Response to “Time for May to stop playing games with the Irish border”

  • David Hannay has got it right. The Irish case is treated as a piece of flotsam on the swirling waters of Tory partisanship driven by the DUP, which is obsessed by a de facto dismantling of the Good Friday Agreement and to preempt the demographics that could lead to a poll on the border itself, by waving a union flag. The mainstream UK media, including the BBC Today programme presenter John Humphreys, may conflate this with the lazy journalistic option of an unquestioning rejection of a Peoples Vote, which, right now, appears to be the most viable option of reviving the backstop agreement.