What Irish Border Issue?
Is somebody looking to their next job rather than concentrating on the current one?
The Brexit furore is in full swing and commentators are now using the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland as political rhetoric to justify whatever their favourite resolution to Brexit is — usually that it will go away and the silly poor people should just go back to doing as they are told like they used to.
The framing is quite clever from Leo Varadkar, the current Irish Taoiseach, who is insisting that Northern Ireland, essentially, remain in the EU. Obviously, the rest of the UK will have to as well if there isn’t to be a ‘hard border’, and apparently, by implication, a return to the bombings in Belfast. Something even Gerry Adams admits isn’t going to happen.
There are lots of references to the Good Friday Agreement and how that drives deep integrations across Ireland and nothing must be done to jeopardise that. This is despite assurances that the constitutional positions will not change.
The politics in the UK is pretty clear. There is no way the DUP will accept any difference in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, they are holding the current UK government up and the population of Northern Ireland still wish to remain in the UK.
The politics in the Republic is pretty clear too. Leo is doing a Tony Blair and eyeing his next move to some higher political office in the European Union, after all there is little accolade being a mere state governor in a Federation, and the EU is trying to reverse the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Brownie points are being earned to be cashed in later.
However, in practical terms, the obvious solution is entirely the opposite to that proposed. If peace in Ireland is so important to the Taoiseach, and the entire Ireland economy so vital to the prosperity of the island, and the Good Friday Agreement trumps all, then the most obvious solution is to pull the Republic out of the EU and join a British Isles customs zone. The goods trade flows largely go via the UK anyway.
If he won’t do that then clearly the things he says are vital aren’t actually as vital as other things — like the fact that the Republic hasn’t voted for a change. Which leads to the second obvious solution — since we have a Common Travel Area across the British Isles and that is an exception to the EU’s usual rules and regulations, then a similar area should be constructed for Goods and Services across the British Isles. The Republic then ends up in two trade zones — the British Isles and the EU with open access to both.
The Republic is physically separated from the rest of Europe but physically joined to the UK. You only have to look at the electric plug sockets in Ireland before it becomes obvious that the Republic is closer to UK standards than European ones. Any differences that subsequently arise between British and EU standards can be dealt with at the ports and airports of the British Isles and otherwise ignored within the British Isles.
It’s an eminently practical solution that provides huge free trade benefits to Irish citizens — even if the rest of the EU ultimately rejects them.
It’s important to recognise that the current deal on the table is that the UK leaves the EU and the treaty simply ceases to apply. If that happens the UK will likely leave the border open and goods will come across as they always have done — unless the Irish stop them. And if the Irish stop the goods in the other direction then obviously sucking up to Brussels is more important than the standard of living of Irish citizens.
Since the Irish have no customs infrastructure on the Northern border either, and it is a much bigger job to secure a land border than a sea border, you have to ask how they physically propose to do it? And it would be an Irish choice not a British one. Or rather, since customs is an EU competency, it would be an imposition by Brussels on the sovereign territory of the Republic. You have to wonder why the Irish would accept that, given the history of outside impositions on island of Ireland.
And unlike the UK, which with its sovereign currency can direct resources within the UK as it sees fit, The Republic is merely a state in a larger currency area and uses a foreign currency. So the cost of creating that infrastructure is an impact in financial terms as well as real ones and will have to be paid for with tax rises on the population. Has anybody asked where the money is coming from, or rather who it is coming from? It can never come from the UK whatever happens because the UK uses Sterling, not Euros. Import tariffs are paid by importers in a floating rate system.
On leaving the EU the UK imposes an administrative border on the EU, not a physical one — EU citizens no longer have automatic rights to facilities within the UK. It’s not a matter of stopping people coming to the UK; vistors are not just welcomed but encouraged. What is ended is the right to work, and to the social facilities of the UK unless you have explicit permission. However, none of that applies to Irish citizens. Their rights to come to the UK and for UK citizens to go to Ireland remain as they always were.
The Irish have a huge opportunity here to retain favoured trade status with the UK and the EU regardless of what happens in the rest of the EU and perhaps even be the bridge between the two — as Belarus has become between the EU and Russia. But once again they are being let down by politicans who are looking to their next job in the wider EU rather than concentrating on the current one in Ireland.