Northern Ireland and Brexit

The first thing here is to recognise that this is an exceptionally complex and emotive issue for a troubled and fragile country; an issue hat has connotations and implications largely beyond the appreciation of anyone not local (including me).

Nevertheless, based on this recognition, it is evident that any solution to the conundrums of Brexit must be led by Northern Ireland. It is not for Dublin, London and Brussels to negotiate and impose solutions to suit their own distinct purposes. And by the same token, the issue of Northern Ireland cannot bind Brexit. Brexit must develop taking the interests of Northern Ireland (along with Scotland, Wales, London and everywhere else) into account, but ultimately Northern Ireland must adapt to Britain’s Brexit and Ireland’s EU membership, not the other way around.

The likelihood that the problems caused to Northern Ireland will force the UK as a whole to abandon Brexit or even substantially modify Brexit appears minimal — likewise the likelihood of Ireland abandoning the EU. Those seeking to leverage the intractable complexities of Northern Ireland to push either of these agendas are playing a dangerous game; those seeking to achieve either, while citing the interests of Northern Ireland, are playing a false and dangerous game.

The first critical issue facing Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland is how to safeguard and continue to grow the cross-border economy as regulatory regimes, customs regimes and tariffs between UK and the EU diverge post-Brexit. There was a good example (though I don’t remember the details) of foodstuffs originating on one side of the border, being processed on the other side of the border and returning for final sale to consumers or for re-export— a business critically put at risk by any trade or tariff barrier.

There is nothing to say, other than as a result of external impositions, that solutions cannot be found which will substantially mitigate the effects of Brexit, even solutions which derive benefits from Brexit for both sides of the border, whether it means Northern Ireland remaining in or associating with the EU customs union European Economic Area, free trade zones, or a variety and combination of different solutions.

The second critical issue is how a border manifests itself and how the procedures which are required by a border between diverging regimes can be implemented without creating a hard border, especially if/when the UK leaves the EU customs union and the North-South border becomes a customs border for goods leaving/entering Britain and the EU. Provided the Common Travel Area is maintained (and all bets are off if Ireland decides to join Schengen), and provided that there is continued cooperation between UK and Ireland in enforcing the external border of the Common Travel Area, there is no reason why, as far as individuals are concerned, any border needs to exist between North Ireland and the South, any more than it exists between France and Germany, except as a line on a map.

Yes, there will need to be measures to control smuggling of contraband (illegal drugs, illicit fags and booze), but I can’t imagine these don’t already exist behind the scenes as they will do (subtly or not so subtly) across any internal Schengen border.

The challenge of the border then is of commercial trade: i) implementing customs procedures for legal trade ii) measures to prevent illegal trade — e.g. to exploit post-Brexit differences in tariffs between UK and EU.

The first — procedures for legal trade — is a bureaucratic and technical challenge, which at worst may involve any cross-border trade traffic stopping at designated customs points and submitting to routine checks/controls and procedures. This would certainly be undesirable, albeit perhaps not the end of the world, but surely with good will, intelligence, technology and creativity, bureaucracy can be reduced to a minimum, especially for regular traders.

Likewise, when it comes to preventing unlawful cross-border commercial movements, the geography of Ireland (it is an island and a destination/origination point rather than a transit point for trade) is a huge advantage. The problem for Switzerland for example, is that transporters arrive at its border from anywhere in Europe to enter or transit — this is generally not the case in Ireland. Goods not originating in Ireland need to enter by sea or air, and then leave by sea or air. This means that the NI border is not generally going to be used to lawfully trade goods between third countries (e.g. China and France or Rest of UK and Germany), even trade between Northern Ireland and the EU and Ireland and the Rest of UK have more convenient crossing points.

In the case of illegal trade, barring high-value smaller items best combated via intelligence and targeted checks rather than generalised border controls, using Northern Ireland as a route into or out of continental Europe would seem a high-risk and unprofitable option for any regular operation that needs to circumvent controls. The majority of trade traffic between North and South will be local and familiar to authorities from afar— traders from outside the island regularly using country roads to avoid customs checks will stand out. All this supports a general soft-touch and non-intrusive approach to border enforcement, based on intelligence and cooperation, that is in keeping with the kind of border that is needed.

I am sure I have over simplified the issues, I am sure a series of seemingly intractable exceptions can be cited, but the blanket assertion that there are no solutions available under any circumstances is unabideable.

I don’t know what the solutions are, but I can be sure that the most likely source of good solutions is Northern Ireland itself, and that the greatest obstacle to good solutions is if outsiders like me try to impose or deny solutions over Northern Irish heads in support of our own agendas.

Instead, all sides need to respect that the onus for finding a solution for Northern Ireland post-Brexit situation is Northern Ireland’s. And Northern Ireland’s politicians also needs to step up (once again) to take ownership of and confront the enormous challenge that Brexit unavoidably poses for their country. The responsibility of all other protagonists is to give Northern Ireland the scope to step up. Specifically, the UK’s politicians, and Brexiters in particular, need to recognise that the circumstances of Northern Ireland are exceptional, that flexibility must be given to Northern Ireland and that a commitment must be made to support whatever approach Northern Ireland takes, even if that approach entails some degree of separation from the rest of UK, or entails Northern Ireland, on its own accord, retaining some aspects of EU membership by whatever means.

The particularities of Northern Ireland, along with the many other complex but not insurmountable problems of Brexit, call for a considered, gradual and flexible Brexit which gives everyone time and scope to adapt and participate, where questions are decided at the right time, not pre-determined from outset.

I cannot conceive how it is possible to respond to the challenges which Brexit poses for Northern Ireland on an ex-ante basis, before Brexit itself takes shape— it becomes a case of attempting to solve something without knowing, to any specifically useful degree, what problem you are solving. Yet this is directly contradicted by the EU’s red line that the issue of Northern Ireland must be “safeguarded” prior to countenancing any ongoing arrangement with the UK.

This approach seems less about supporting the people of Northern Ireland, and therefore securing continued peace in Ireland, more about using Northern Ireland as a tool to drive negotiations and condition overall outcomes. By seeking to rush an externally contrived solution to a problem which is not yet clear — a solution which may therefore be ill-fitting for the problem that eventually emerges, the EU risks precluding the outcome that is ultimately in Northern Ireland’s own best interest.

Even Dublin seems to be less and less concerned about the North versus protecting its own industries and agriculture, using the issues of Northern Ireland as an argument to secure that protection. Of course Ireland has every right to push its interests, but let’s not confuse the two motives. Ireland pushing towards a hard Brexit, seeking to block cheapened imports or chlorinated chickens from the UK or to attract bankers to Dublin is fine (even reasonable), but let’s not pretend that it helps Northern Ireland or that it is a policy imposed on Ireland by the UK, but Ireland’s choice.

In summary then, rather than seeking to subordinate Northern Ireland as a means to their own ends or bind Northern Ireland to solutions which are not of its own making, all parties need to ensure that negotiations give Northern Ireland the scope and support it needs to respond to the challenges of Brexit on its own terms and at its own pace, with the proviso that almost any solution is possible if London, Dublin and Brussels remain flexible, constructive and cooperative, and almost nothing is possible otherwise.

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