Posted by on December 20, 2017 at 3:45 pm



Irish Politics expert Dr Shaun McDaid comments on the Brexit and growing problem of the Irish border.

“In the coming years, the country will witness a number of important centenary events. Among one of the potentially most significant will be the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland, which saw Northern Ireland remain part of the UK, and the rest of the island begin a long journey towards eventual independence from Britain.  2018 also marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement that forms the basis of the current peace process in Northern Ireland.  Despite the passage of time, the question of the Irish border transcends the realms of history, and has again strayed into the zone of current affairs.

This is due to the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union, and the need for a solution to be reached that does not see the re-imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland – which will effectively mark the frontier between an EU and non-EU country.

The decision to leave the EU in itself did not necessarily mean the frontier would be particularly problematic. Both the UK and Irish governments, and the EU team, state that they do not wish to see a border on the island of Ireland, and to uphold the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement which is the basis of the current peace process.  So far, so good.

However, the Prime Minister’s decision to interpret the vote to leave the EU as necessitating the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union automatically brings the prospect of a hard border in Ireland all the more likely. In many ways, the problem is of the government’s own making.

The decision to leave the EU customs union makes some sort of border inevitable, whatever the government may say. Differing tariffs between jurisdictions might be a temptation to smugglers.  This is just one potential concern, before the issue of standards for products such as food are even considered.

We are not talking about a security border, as pertained during the conflict. What is at issue is a customs border.  Norway (outside the EU) and Sweden (an EU member) are often cited as an example which Northern Ireland and the Republic could follow. The Norway/Sweden frontier is a “soft” border for the movement of persons.  But, crucially, there is a customs border, since Norway is outside the EU customs union.  To complicate matters further, Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (effectively the single market), and the Schengen area.

Thus, the Scandinavian model is perhaps not a very useful one, when considering how to deal with Northern Ireland’s frontier – since the UK’s current policy involves leaving both the single market and the customs union, and neither the UK nor the Republic of Ireland is in the Schengen area.

Nevertheless, recent negotiations between the UK and EU27 suggest that a solution to the border problem might be available, which would see Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland maintain close alignment when it came to regulations, thus avoiding the need for physical infrastructure to conduct checks.

However, this initial agreement in principle is already in doubt, as some leading Brexit supporters in government seek to ensure the UK can diverge from EU regulations as soon as possible after departure.

What all of this suggests is that of all the issues concerning the UK’s departure from the EU, the Irish border is the most difficult. It is on the question of the Irish border that much of the logic of pre-referendum discussion is tested to destruction.

The UK government’s current policy is both to have control of its borders and insist on not having one at its only land frontier with the EU – but avoid implementing the kind of “soft Brexit” that would make that goal most manageable.

So far, the Prime Minister has avoided having uncomfortable conversations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, with her backbenchers and some of her cabinet.

Having these conversations will be all the more necessary, as it is clear that the EU looks less inclined to accept the kind of bespoke arrangements that the UK wants with Europe – all the current benefits of membership but without payment, judicial oversight, and acceptance of freedom of movement.

And there may be further uncomfortable conversations to be had with the electorate about what the consequences of leaving the single market and customs union are for the entire UK economy, if the government continues with “hard Brexit”, with only a basic free trade agreement on goods negotiated on departure. These problems will be most pronounced in Ireland and at the border in particular.

As we approach the centenary of partition, and the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, few could have imagined that a UK government policy decision to leave the EU customs union would have re-opened the “Irish question” in such dramatic fashion. It remains to be seen if political leaders can find a way to “solve” it before March 2019.”


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