Brexit: prepare for the worst

Irish readiness has been hampered by the fact that the UK’s intentions are still not clear

An anti-Brexit sign on the Northern Ireland side of the border between Republic and Northern Ireland. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An anti-Brexit sign on the Northern Ireland side of the border between Republic and Northern Ireland. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

 

The enormous strain Brexit will impose on Ireland’s customs infrastructure, as well as on the country’s economy, is revealed in an internal memo from the Revenue Commissioners. It spells out in frightening detail the nature of the extra and potentially overwhelming demands that will be imposed on the customs service and on the tens of thousands of Irish companies that trade with the UK.

A huge increase in personnel, mounds of extra paperwork and new office space will be required by the Irish customs authorities if the UK leaves the EU customs union. The Department of Finance has pointed out that the memo was drawn up in 2016, well before the UK triggered article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and that thinking has moved on since then.

One important development is that the future of the Irish border has been made one of the top priorities by the EU negotiators and there is a clear awareness of the problems this country will face if there is a hard Brexit. A European Commission discussion paper from February, which was leaked last week, contained a proposal for borderless trade in agri-food products between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Nonetheless, the basic problem remains. If the UK leaves the customs union then the current arrangements, which facilitate trade on the island of Ireland and between the two islands, and which have been vital in underpinning the peace process, will simply not be able to continue as before.

While there may be some argument about the level of disruption, there is no question about the fact that serious damage to the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic will ensue, with untold consequences for the peace process.

Irish preparations have been hampered by the fact that, well over a year after the Brexit referendum, the UK’s intentions are still not clear. Until the Conservative government makes a final decision on its future relationship with the EU it will not be possible for the government in Dublin or Irish business to finalise a coherent strategy. It would be as well to prepare for the worst.

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