Neutrality towards the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan to lock the UK into an EU customs union is crumbling. Two Cabinet ministers have resigned, with other senior and junior resignations coming in. Already Chequers, the ‘half in, half out’ scheme, had provoked the resignation of two Cabinet ministers, with voters polling two to one against the plan and many MPs opposing it.
But this week’s formal 585-page draft deal goes further. The UK would have no say over many of the laws under which it is governed. It would also be locked into a customs union (‘single customs territory’) with the EU under the Single Market rule book, potentially forever. With no legally binding exit day, no means agreed to end the backstop written into the treaty, Britain, as Ireland’s Sunday Business Post claimed last weekend, is in reality ‘on track to stay in the customs union forever because it will not be able to achieve a better deal with the EU’.
Although it is alleged that only such a route would preserve a soft Irish border, the claim is no more than a pretext, a political fraud in which the leaders of both Ireland and the UK have been complicit with the EU. In fact, the EU has made clear from the start that reducing the UK and its economy to the EU’s ‘level playing field’ and so to subservience is the long-term aim.
The Prime Minister came to accept the long-term advice of her chief negotiators that economic ‘alignment’ with the EU and remaining in a quasi-customs union was a must. EU demands to uphold the soft Irish border have turned out to be a very useful whitewash for the breach of promises involved in accepting such an arrangement. Now that the political battle is to the fore, such deceit should be revealed for what it is. Whether there is or is not to be a deal, no one believes with any seriousness that there can be a return to a hard border in Ireland when Britain leaves the EU.
Not only has the UK made clear it will not instigate one, but international trade has moved on to technological borders, advocated not only by the WTO but by the EU, and proposed by the UK for the Irish border as far back as 2017. In fact the militarised 1970s borders, the barbed wired, sentry posts, police checks and shootings have been consigned to the films of the Soviet era – or the footage of the 20th century Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Militant IRA, of which Sinn Fein was the political arm in those days, used bombs, booby traps and bullets in guerrilla warfare to reach the goal of an ‘all Ireland’ republic, while equally militant Loyalists took to the gun to prevent it. Then the state and its police force were thought by many moderate nationalists to be a vehicle of repression. Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement followed, as did the outbreaks of violence and repression and over time the negotiation, ‘agreements’, stalled talks with interventions from both UK and Dublin governments.
The 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, which recognised Northern Ireland’s status could only change by the ballot box, proposed a power sharing executive, to which nine years later the Reverend Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, the two totemic symbols of orange and green militancy and the apartheid of their communities, signed up. By then, Paisley’s DUP and Adams’ Sinn Fein were the biggest parties in the elected Assembly.
Adams agreed to end the military ‘campaign’ in 2005, calling instead for peaceful means to establish Ireland’s unity and calling on the IRA to dump arms. He sealed the deal by camping his Sinn Fein tanks on the lawns of Dublin’s parliament, Dail Eireann, to which he was elected in 2011. Having positioned Sinn Fein to be ‘the only All Ireland Party’ and a socialist republican anti-imperialist party, it now has 23 seats in the Irish Dail to (the nationalist) Fianna Fail’s 44, while Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael won 50 seats.
Sinn Fein therefore is a potential rival in the political battle being played out with Brussels to win Ireland’s voters. Fine Gael aims at the elites and metropolitan classes and younger voters with their unquestioning europhile sentiment. Sinn Fein aims at the anti-establishment and those left behind in Varadkar’s new Ireland in rural or inner-city Fianna Fail and Labour strongholds.
Varadkar, modernising and europhile, is pitched against Adams’ successor Mary Lou McDonald, a radical, republican former MEP. Both are ready to play whatever it takes to win on EU terms, even if in the process they destroy their country’s close economic, social and historical ties to the UK.
Instead of falling in with the ploys of Brussels to manacle the UK economy and prevent a true Brexit, Britain’s leaders should respect their own voters. In that way they will also help the stability of their neighbouring island, the victim of a misleading EU campaign accommodated by Dublin’s warring leaders.
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It seems fair to say that the draft withdrawal agreement agreed between negotiators and published this week has not been universally welcomed. In particular the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland has been the source of much criticism. In a detailed briefing by the Institute of Economic Affairs, I described how, if it were to come into effect, this Protocol would effectively rule out an independent trade policy for the UK, and would throw up serious trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of why this Protocol was thought to be necessary. Our government agreed in December last year to guarantee that there would be no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In order to achieve this they conceded that, unless they could put forward alternative solutions, Northern Ireland would stay in alignment with the rules of the customs union and single market in all areas necessary for north south cooperation, the all-island economy and protection of the Belfast (“Good Friday”) Agreement. It was also stated in the Joint Report that the UK would not allow new regulatory barriers between Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The EU’s interpretation of that was a draft agreement under which, “unless and until” other terms were agreed that would meet the objectives for the Irish border, Northern Ireland would remain in a customs union and regulatory area with the EU. This is what the backstop is.
The facilitated customs arrangement and common rulebook of the Chequers plan were an attempt to provide the alternative arrangement that would mean the backstop would never be activated. When Chequers was roundly rejected by the EU, and the Prime Minister declared after the Salzburg summit that no prime minister could accept the EU’s terms, the negotiators went back into their tunnel and reformulated the backstop so that Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be in the same customs territory, and Northern Ireland would retain EU regulations on goods “unless and until” a new agreement could be reached. Mrs May is now satisfied that this is something that a British prime minister can sign up to.
Some of us have long been convinced that keeping the Irish border free of infrastructure could be achieved by way of legal, technical and technological solutions. European customs experts Hans Maessen and Lars Karlsson have confirmed to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that this can be done. But the EU negotiators and the Irish government have been adamant that the requirements of EU law mean that only a customs union and regulatory harmonisation on goods can achieve this, as even with a free trade agreement with zero tariffs and quotas, the risk of goods that have not been duly declared for customs purposes or that do not meet EU regulations might cross the border cannot be tolerated. Except, it now transpires, for fish. Because under article 6 of the Protocol, fisheries and aquaculture products will be excluded from the customs union arrangements (and therefore fish caught by British and Northern Irish boats would be subject to tariffs) unless an agreement between the UK and the EU on access to waters and fishing opportunities is reached. But by the EU’s own reasoning, the exclusion of even one product would require a full customs border, to ensure that that product isn’t smuggled in undeclared. Now Irish government and EU negotiators could be forgiven for assuming that the British negotiators will concede on this as they have on almost everything else, and sign away fishing rights to the EU. But they might not, and then we would need a hard border wouldn’t we, and the Protocol would be for nothing? Or could it be, that for fish, as for everything else, it is possible to manage a customs border without physical interventions, and the EU is prepared to take the risk of having to do so in order to leverage access to UK territorial waters.
It is often overlooked that as well as being by far the biggest market for goods sent outside Northern Ireland 64% of goods brought into Northern Ireland come from Great Britain, with 12% from Ireland and 59% of its external sales are to Great Britain, as against 12% to Ireland. In seeking to preserve frictionless trade with Ireland, the Protocol, if it were to come into effect, would introduce costs and formalities for the vastly more significant trade within the UK. As former Brexit minister Suella Braverman noted in her resignation letter, customs professionals are clear that this could have been avoided. It’s time to start listening to them.
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The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is constructed on the principle of consent, including;
- Consent of the British Government that a part of its territory, Northern Ireland, will be subject to special arrangements, including those with the Irish Republic;
- Consent that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only occur if desired by a majority;
- Consent by the Nationalist community there to the present constitutional status, along with a mechanism to change that status, if a majority so desire; and
- Consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly to any alteration in the cross-border arrangements
All these interlacing sets of arrangements are delicately balanced and were arrived at after many years of painstaking discussion and compromises. The Agreement represented no single party or side’s ideal but there was enough consensus there to achieve a durable settlement on the basis of consent.
The hardline demands of the EU today, essentially driven by the Government in Dublin, are light years away from the approach which characterised that of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the late 1990s and made the Agreement possible. The Agreement was designed to usher in a new and constructive era of mature relations between the UK and Ireland. We were to become close partners over a whole series of areas.
The reaction of the authorities in Dublin to British efforts to negotiate a sensible and smooth Brexit has been the antithesis of the process that led to the GFA. Instead of the two Governments’ commitment to “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours “, there has been a stubborn resistance to accepting the UK decision to leave the EU. This has been alongside a strong alliance with implacable Remainers in London. This has made the Brexit process much more difficult and fed into the agenda of those in Brussels, and also Paris, who are determined to make an example of Britain for daring to leave their club. It is completely contrary to Ireland’s real national interest and the spirit of the GFA.
This hardline policy from Dublin is now endangering the entire GFA, which can only function as long as the participants in that Agreement are willing for it to do so. Demanding that Northern Ireland is detached economically from the rest of the United Kingdom, without the consent of the population, carries the danger of strongly alienating one side of the community there. Frustrating the UK’s efforts to come to a balanced accommodation with Brussels will inevitably lead to some in London questioning the foundation on which the GFA is based, trust that Ireland and the UK can be close and mutually supportive allies. There is also the damage that is being done to community relations in Northern Ireland.
The GFA recognised that cross border co-operation was dependent on consensus north of the Border. Meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council always had at least one Minister from either side of the communal divide; and the GFA specifically states that any further development of North-South arrangements is “to be by agreement… with the specific endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas (Irish Houses of Parliament)”. By seeking to bypass the consent of one side of the community, the Irish Government is deepening division and undermining the whole basis on which the GFA was built. This position is developed further in our recent Policy Exchange paper The Irish Border and the Principle of Consent.
The upholding of the GFA is, of course, a laudable aim and is shared by authorities in Dublin, Brussels and London. The maintenance of the present mutually beneficial arrangements on the Irish border is also very desirable. The present policy course by Dublin is unlikely to achieve either. By ignoring the essential element of consent, the Irish Government is placing the progress of decades of good work in jeopardy.
There needs to be a new British/Irish initiative to break the present logjam by making a declaration that the future of the border will not be used to stop the signing of a Withdrawal Agreement. Both the EU and the UK should undertake to use their best efforts to preserve all existing measures to secure an invisible border and to preserve all existing measures of cross border co-operation under the aegis of the GFA. This would allow Brexit to proceed in an ordered manner and the two-year transition period to kick in. The future trade talks would hopefully achieve the above aspiration.
The alternative – a continued impasse, economic damage and resultant ill feelings all round – is in nobody’s interest.
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