Pat Leahy: Bad week for Ireland on the Brexit front

It is becoming clear there will be some sort of obvious Border in Ireland in the future

Enda Kenny and Theresa May said the Irish Border they wanted would be “seamless” and “frictionless” - but they quickly qualified this by adding the words “as possible”.

Enda Kenny and Theresa May said the Irish Border they wanted would be “seamless” and “frictionless” - but they quickly qualified this by adding the words “as possible”.

 

When it comes to Brexit, it was a bad week for Ireland. It became abundantly clear that an aspiration for an essentially invisible Border is unlikely to be realised.

During a series of questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, the morning after British prime minister Theresa May visited Dublin, Taoiseach Enda Kenny let slip an aside which perhaps revealed as much as all the carefully nuanced diplomatic statements.

“Deputy Adams asked me about having a situation where there is no land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. I am not sure that we are going to achieve that.”

The Taoiseach’s reply to Adams – delivered during Taoiseach’s Questions, a less combative and often more informative part of the Dáil day than the televised Leaders’ Questions – is a signpost to what the Government has learned in the past week or so.

There will almost certainly be some sort of a Border. The Government will make great efforts – directed at both the British and the other EU countries – to make sure it is as unobtrusive as possible. But it will still be a Border.

The language used by May and the Taoiseach at their press conference on Monday in Government Buildings was instructive.

The two leaders said the Border they wanted would be “seamless” and “frictionless” but they quickly qualified it by adding the words “as possible”. A Border that is seamless is not the same thing as a Border that is as seamless as possible.

Mixed views

There are mixed views in and around Government about Monday’s summit. One source said that there was no real deepening of the discussion on either side, and certainly neither government appeared to be saying anything different afterwards.

Privately, however, other sources say the Irish side was happy that there was a stronger acknowledgement of the Northern Ireland and Border difficulties by May.

The nature of these difficulties also became clearer this week. At Westminster on Wednesday the Northern Ireland committee heard from experts on customs and trade Michael Lux and Eric Picket.

Their view was there will have to be customs checks – proper, can you open the boot please, sir, customs checks – at least initially.

Lux, a retired lawyer who worked for the German ministry of finance, said Ireland would have no choice but to have customs checks on the Border.

The Guardian’s report of the proceedings noted that his evidence “drew audible gasps from MPs” as he told them that every vehicle carrying goods worth more than €300 crossing from the State into the North would have to be stopped and checked, even if only “for a few minutes”.

Wrong approach

The Government has always had a way around this in mind – some sort of special deal or special status for the North. But speaking in the House of Commons on the Brexit debate, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire ruled that out. Special status, he said, would be “the wrong approach”.

The British view, as indicated by the white paper on Brexit published by May’s officials on Thursday, is that it should be possible to agree a free trade agreement with the EU that enables the UK to have tariff-free access to EU markets for its goods, and vice-versa.

It’s easy to see what is in that for the British. It’s harder to see why the rest of the EU would agree given the repeated determination of EU leaders to ensure that if the British choose to leave the club they should not be able to enjoy the benefits of membership.

The British argue that such a deal is also in Europe’s economic interests. And it may well be. But EU leaders are not just thinking economically – they are thinking politically about the future of the union.

Unpredictable

And it is the unpredictable asymmetric interplay of economics and politics that will complicate the negotiations between the UK and the EU.

What is becoming clearer is that the North and the Border, while important to the British, are nowhere nearly as important to London as they are to Dublin.

In other words, while the British share the Government’s objectives, they do not share its priorities. This is perhaps only to be expected when you think about it. But it means that the Irish will have to make the running on the North – both with the British and with the rest of the EU members.

The emerging task for the Government is to negotiate while facing two ways. That is not an impossible task, but it is a horrifically complex one. This week it became more complex.

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