Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Thoughts on the border in Ireland

At one stage yesterday it looked like there might be a breakthrough in the Brexit talks.

But it never sounded plausible to me that Britain could agree a deal in which Northern Ireland was treated differently from the rest of the UK.

No significant player wants the return of a "hard border" in Ireland. It would be an economic and social catastrophe for people in both parts of the island of Ireland and it is very difficult to see how anyone in their right mind could want it for the reasons explained in this excellent BBC article.

There could also be dire results for the United Kingdom if any part of the UK had a different status to the rest with respect to the European Union. The DUP are not the only people who could not accept a solution in which Northern Ireland remained de facto in the Single Market and Customs Union while the rest of the UK left them. Any such solution would stir up monumental problems in both Northern Ireland and Scotland and jeopardise the very future of the UK.

For that reason there will not be a majority in the House of Commons for any proposal which would put Northern Ireland on a different basis to the rest of the UK in terms of relations with the EU.

It will not happen.

It will not be a simple matter to find a way through this.

I saw this problem coming before the referendum and the fact that I thought the question of how to avoid the disaster of a reintroduced hard border while "taking back control" of our borders in general would be exceptionally difficult to solve was one of the three main reasons I personally voted Remain. I wrote the day before the referendum that:

"Both sides in the present EU referendum have said some exaggerated, implausible or ridiculous things. But in terms of promises to the voters which are completely incompatible, one of the most completely incredible things said by either side is that Leave are simultaneously promising to "Take control of our borders" and promising the residents of both parts of Ireland that they are not going to introduce border controls along what would become the UK's land border with the EU.

I cannot understand how the Leave campaign can expect anyone in their right mind to believe both these promises, unless they are going to start introducing border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK instead.

How can you possibly promise Britain will "take control of our borders" by leaving the EU when what would become our border with the EU has no controls of any kind and anyone can just walk across it with no passport or ID whatsoever?"

So I'm entitled to an "I told you so" on this one.

However, Leave is what the majority voted for so we have to try to find a way to make it work.

As far as I can tell from the press and from the statements being made, the talks were never as close to success as the Irish broadcaster RTE suggested yesterday, and neither had the British government agreed to capitulate in the manner which they suggested thereby generating a backlash against what people thought might be about to be agreed. Neither do the talks appear to have completely collapsed or failed to the extent which some people are suggesting this morning.

Resolving this was never going to be quick or easy. It is going to take time, patience and nerve.

At the risk of being compared to Corporal Jones from Dad's Army. I am reminded of a comment that a senior backbencher made many years ago when another government was trying to get through a difficult problem:

"Pro bonam publico, no bloody panico!"

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