Along with the the status of EU citizens in the UK (and vice versa) and the financial settlement, the Irish border is the third major issue that needs to be resolved (or at least significant progress needs to be made) before talks on future trade between the EU and the UK can begin.
Sadly the situation regarding the border is far from clear. The UK government produced a position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland on the 16th August. This paper has not been well received in Ireland or the EU and is full of technical detail and very short on principle.
It was a wise Irish civil servant who told me once, years ago, that the time to be afraid of British negotiators was when they offered a flurry of ideas. “Read them,” he said, “and you’ll notice one thing. They’re trying to trap you into discussing points of detail, so you end up ignoring the fundamentals.” His remark was made in the context of Anglo-Irish negotiations about the Northern Ireland peace process, but it applies just as much to Britain’s position in the Brexit negotiations, at least where Ireland is concerned. Their negotiating stance is based on an age-old truism — get them haggling about price, and they’ll forget the point of principle.
The principle is simple. After Brexit, any border in Ireland is a border between Britain and the EU. That border affects how people and goods come into and out of the EU. If Britain leaves the EU and the customs union, then Britain, and by extension Northern Ireland, are on the other side of the border. Full stop.
Not surprisingly the EU negotiating team under Michel Barnier spotted this immediately describing the paper as inadequate (I think the term “Magical Thinking” was again used) and pointed out that Britain had entirely ignored the fundamental issue of principle.
I have spent some time on the Northern Irish Blog Slugger O’Toole recently. The blog is unusual in that both Unionists and Nationalist contribute, who generally have dramatically differing world views. The Unionists are very keen on the sovereignty of Westminster and very trusting of the Tory party to do the best for NI and the UK in general. They are deeply distrustful of the EU, indeed some are rabidly Europhobic. The Nationalists are suspicious of Westminster and the Tories in particular and in general are happy with the EU, whilst readily admitting it is by no means perfect. (Curiously some Unionists accuse the Nationalists of being Europhillic but the word Europhobic seems never to be used in retaliation.) Somehow on most topics there is a courteous if rather heated discussion. However the Slugger article on Friday The Irish border as a Brexit bargaining chip: A rejoinder to Legatum was so contentious that comments were closed.
Legatum is an International Think Tank driven it would seem by Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, with little to no experience of negotiating with the EU. According to Miriam González Durántez in the Guardian “A think-tank with unparalleled access to Davis and Theresa May and that seems to have been at the origin of some of the preposterous positions on Brexit taken by the government so far. Its inexplicable presence at that table was the clearest signal that the government has not changed its views on Brexit after the general election even one tiny little bit”.
What is worrying is that Legatum’s recent paper on Northern Ireland is a classic Empire Mark II analysis. The Slugger article was by the well respected Dr. Katy Hayward (a Reader in Sociology at Queens University, Belfast). Katy does not pull her punches and her analysis includes sections on: Leveraging a partisan opportunity from a shared problem and Turning ploughshares into swords. A flavour of some of her analysis is here:
“As if the welfare of Northern Ireland wasn’t enough collateral, Legatum sees fit to present the Republic of Ireland as potential leverage for a means getting a Free Trade Agreement from the EU.
Indeed, much effort is exerted by the authors towards aggrandising Great Britain in comparison to its nearest neighbour. They even go so far as to parade the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland as a negotiating strength……….”
Whereas it is not clear that this will become official British policy and things may be clearer after May’s Florence speech, Boris Johnson’s recent article in the Telegraph which rules out membership of the Single Market and Customs Union may be the shape of things to come. Immigration and border control seems to have become the “Holy Grail” of the Tory party (and is not challenged sufficiently by Labour).
In truth the Irish are very worried about the UK. They see Brexit as a manifestation of English Nationalism and even though only about 10% of Irish exports go to the UK, much of this is in the agribusiness sector and is very high profile and will hit rural Ireland badly. They are also deeply concerned by Northern Ireland; sometimes it is the “Elephant in the Room.” The Irish don’t talk about NI very much but are deeply concerned about it. (In contrast to Britain where it seems there is little interest or concern). There is a near universal belief in Ireland that Brexit will be harmful to the UK and negotiations will be a process of damage limitation for both the UK and Ireland. The belief is the harder the Brexit the worse the outcome for the UK and for Northern Ireland in particular.
In contrast to Britain, the Irish economy is doing very well; indeed it is possibly the strongest it has ever been, with strong growth and approaching full employment. Employment is marginally below 2007 levels but back then a vast amount of the jobs were in construction which was hit very badly by the GFC. Something like 80% of the new jobs in Ireland are high skill/pay in contrast to Britain’s low skill/pay model. Productivity is much higher than the UK and there is a very strong balance of trade surplus.
It would seem that a United Ireland is again on the cards. As Fergus Finlay puts it: “But the only possible way for us to protect the interests of the people of this entire island is by declaring that there will be no border on the island, not under any circumstances. A border between Britain and the EU can only be achieved by Britain leaving Ireland”.
Of course many of the Unionists, in particular those who vote for the DUP are vitriolically opposed to a United Ireland. Under the Good Friday agreement it would take just 50%+1 to vote in a referendum pro a United Ireland for that to happen. Of course the South would have to agree to take NI; which is increasingly looking impoverished compared to the South. It seems that many Unionists have become fans of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
I have lived in the UK for many years and have seldom if ever come across people with a passionate belief in the Union with NI (Scotland is a different matter). In 1922 when Ireland was partitioned the North was was easily the richest part of the island and furthermore strategically the naval ports were deemed to be very significant. Neither is the case anymore; Northern Ireland is the poorest part of the island and a major drain on the UK treasury (estimated in the region of around £10bn per year). Should a United Ireland be declared it is likely that champagne will flow in every bar in the Palace of Westminster for at least a week.
There is worry in Unionist circles and even talk of re-partition in the event of a positive UI outcome in the referendum – shrinking NI to say Antrim and Down, but it is by no means clear the UK would have them back.
Of course with the DUP propping up the Tory government a UI will not happen immediately and the prospect of a border poll is effectively vetoed. However it is unlikely that the current government will run a full term and things would look very different under Labour.
Will we see a United Ireland soon? The probability has seldom looked more likely.