I’ve been worried about the Irish border for some time – my wife thinks excessively – but growing up on the island of Ireland it tends to loom large. Last night was difficult as the chances of a cliff edge Brexit in March and the return of a hard border have increased dramatically. I didn’t sleep very well.
There is some historical context here:
The actual topography of the border makes it almost impossible to use as a customs border:
There are good reasons also to think that Northern Ireland as a separate entity from the Republic is on borrowed time.
Or possibly not as NI is not a very attractive going concern, it is economically way behind the Republic and the Loyalists in particular may be troublesome.
Westminster Representation and the DUP
One major issue of course is that the DUP, a party that only got 292,316 votes in the 2017 GE but 10 seats has undue influence in Westminster. Sinn Féin who polled 238,915 votes, and seven seats, do not for historic reasons take their seats. There is a school of thought that given the tightness of the voting at present they should break the habit of 100 years and help vote down the government. There is another school of thought that it could backfire by frightening some of the Tory rebels to vote with the Government. There would be howls of derision also from the rabidly right wing press who see Sinn Féin as an unreformed terrorist organisation, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the DUP’s terrorist connections as detailed here:
The June Ashcroft poll (Fig. 1) shows that NI is fairly neutral on EU related matters. From a GB perspective, on the EU, the DUP are similar to UKIP and SF similar to the Lib Dems or Greens. The only question which is significantly far from the 50% line in the overall population is agreement on no hard border between NI and the RoI.
Another interesting study is that from the University of Kent: Little public support in Northern Ireland for a No Deal outcome on Brexit:
A University study investigating opinions in Northern Ireland about the fate of the Irish border after Brexit found that both unionists and nationalists would prefer the least intrusive arrangements possible and that there is a form of border arrangement that could command cross community support.
In a scenario where the border was East-West and characterised by an ‘electronic border with the provision of random physical checks, where there was shared control and maintenance of the border by the UK and Irish governments, and financial compensation for the costs of the border’ (a 10% rise in public spending in Northern Ireland) there was majority support expressed across BOTH unionists and nationalists surveyed (65%). (66% of nationalists and 65% of unionists).
The Backstop and the Withdrawal Agreement
The main worry from the Irish perspective is that the introduction of a hard border may destabilise the carefully crafted peace in NI which has now existed for 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. A hard border is in no ones interest and in any event would be well nigh impossible to either build or maintain.
There are advantages to being small and the NI economy is less than 2% of that of the UK as a whole. Ireland persuaded the EU that NI could be treated as a special case, being allowed to be part of the Single Market and Customs Union for goods without having to strictly abide to the Four Freedoms. On the 8th December the UK Government signed a political agreement including paragraph 49.
The EU has agreed that Northern Ireland can remain part of the “Customs territory of the EU” paving the way to a Hong Kong type scenario which could well make Northern Ireland prosper. This might well ensure the existence of Northern Ireland for decades. Indeed NI is already treated differently to GB in many respects:
There are already different rules and regulations between NI and England and between Scotland and England
As Brendan O’Leary put it regarding “here” in the Dalriada Document:
“ Northern Ireland is neither legally nor geographically part of Britain; it has a separate statute book, and a separate judiciary”…
Effectively this hyperbolic Unionist claim that having a system of trading differences somehow infringes U.K. sovereignty is simply rhetorical nonsense which apparently misunderstands the nature of how the Union actually functions between NI and Britain. If Unionists are genuinely requiring a truly homogeneous system across the entire U.K. a good start might just be to begin with demanding same sex marriage…
Whereas it is true that there is a general romantic desire withing the Republic for a United Ireland, there is no rush. Northern Ireland is an economic liability costing the UK exchequer c £10bn pa. Given that the British population is c 65M as opposed to 4.8M in RoI, the per capita subsidy would be more than 10 times greater on the citizens of the Republic. Northern Ireland also is still a very traumatised society after the troubles (NI ranks in the top 3 countries worldwide for most mental illnesses) and there is little appetite to absorb the Loyalists who consider a UI to be equivalent to Armageddon and fear they will be treated like the Rohyngia in Myanmar. This of course is complete nonsense.
The DUP of course see things very much from a Unionist/Loyalist perspective and rather than looking at the Backstop as a godsend, which could well revive the NI economy and ensure its existence into the foreseeable future are paranoid about anything which would distance NI further from Britain.
The reality is however that a hard border will make a United Ireland more rather than less likely. Opinion polls indicate that a hard border would move many in the middle ground towards a United Ireland. It only takes a simple majority, on both sides of the border, for a UI to happen. It is unlikely if push came to shove the Republic would say no.
The White Paper and the Backstop
My opinion of the White Paper is similar to that of many other commentators, for example Prof Chris Grey in This White Paper should be put out of its misery. There was however one very important piece of text “The operational legal text the UK will nonetheless agree on the ‘backstop’ solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.”
This is of vital importance and very welcome. Unless the Withdraw agreement is finalised the UK will have a “cliff edge” Brexit in March. From the EU’s perspective it is the withdrawal agreement that is urgent. The future trade arrangement can wait till the transition period.
The ERG and Wrecking Amendments
There is much discussion in the press about the wrecking amendments. The trade ones are not that important as the situation is fluid and there will be until the 31 Dec 2020 to come to agreement. The real issue is the amendment to make a border on the Irish sea illegal: “It shall be unlawful for the HMG to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain.” This amendment passed fairly easily, but of course it will take some time to put into law.
The situation remains fluid and the real border expert Dr Katy Hayward has tweeted:
Correction (thanks to @alanbell_libsol): Customs Bill is a money bill so House of Lords can’t propose amendments. 🤦
An upside of my mistake: Found this excoriating report by the HoL select committee on the constitutional implications of this bill. 🤺 https://t.co/tqaPcyRv16
— Katy Hayward (@hayward_katy) July 17, 2018
We live in uncertain times!