Saturday, August 18, 2018

Reflections following a holiday in Ireland: part one

I have just returned from a brief family holiday in Ireland, staying with relatives in the Western part of the island.

The holiday inspired a number of reflections on various issues, but let me start with a few comments on the border between the United Kingdom and the country of Ireland. In less than a year when Britain leaves the EU this will become the one land border between Britain and the EU.

During the course of our stay in Ireland we crossed over the border in both directions more times than we could count. It was not unusual during a thirty mile drive between the homes of two family members on the same side of the border in places like County Leitrim and County Donegal to find that the recommended quickest route put forward by the satnav took you over the border several times.

It has so often been remarked in recent British political debate by those who pay any attention to what goes on in Ireland as to become almost commonplace that the only way you can tell when you cross over the border is that the speed limit signs change from miles per hour to kilometres per hour.

This is basically true, although it is also a very slight oversimplification - UK and Irish speed limit signs are also a slightly different style, and at a minority of places where the road crosses the border you will also see a sign welcoming you to the particular Irish county you are entering. So if you know which are the six counties in Northern Ireland and which are the 26 in the country of Ireland and you've been keeping track of which county you were in, this may give you an addition means of telling when you move between countries. And if you have a Smartphone it will try to keep you advised of which country you are in, although our experience was that this is not 100% reliable.

What you are most unlikely to see is a sign saying "Welcome to Ireland" or "Welcome to the UK" or any border infrastructure such as customs barriers, although the police on both sides of the border can and will stop and check people they suspect of illegal activity.

The border is three hundred miles long, is not always based on easily identifiable geographical features and is sometimes a very peculiar shape. It runs through farms and homes: during the troubles when there was a "hard border" it was a nightmare for the authorities on both sides.

People on both sides of the border routinely go to the other to shop and many traders take both pounds and euros. We filled up at one petrol station which was quite literally a stone's throw from the border and there were two hoses at each pump, one which you used if you wanted to pay in Euros and the other if you wanted to pay in pounds sterling.

Almost nobody, and nobody at all with any sense, wants a hard border to be re-established and the consequences for both parts of the island of Ireland if either Britain or Ireland did attempt to enforce a hard border would be serious.

Resolving the issues of how this border will be managed after Brexit is quite genuinely an extremely difficult problem, though it is, I regret to say, my impression that some of the EU negotiators have made it even more difficult than it is to increase their bargaining leverage against the UK. If that is true they are playing a very dangerous game.

It is very much in the interests of both Ireland and the UK to get a sensible resolution to the problem of the Irish border, It is impossible for Britain to "take back control" of our borders without either a hard border in Ireland or an agreement with Ireland and the EU.

There are circumstances in which Britain might have to walk away from the EU without a deal. For example, if the EU side were to insist on the absurd suggestion of an effective border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which neither the present House of Commons or any imaginable one would ever vote for, Britain would leave the EU without a deal.

This would, however be damaging for both sides and it is highly desirable to avoid it.

The risk of a "no deal" Brexit is real, but I hope people on all sides see sense and sign up to a deal which everyone can live with.

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