Andy Pollak: Vacuous Brexit talk could yield to creative solution

Regulatory line of Irish Sea far easier and less disruptive than land border

The challenge of preventing a “hard” border between the two parts of Ireland is among the obstacles preventing the UK and the EU moving on to the second phase of Brexit talks, the future trading relationship that the former is so desperate to find agreement on.

When they think about Ireland at all, the British side is still talking vacuously about a “frictionless” border without specifying what this means other than an unconvincing dependence on technological wizardry. The Government has ruled out coming up with what it calls “technical solutions” to the impasse of the Border after Brexit because it insists the British government must find a political solution to a problem of its own making which will be enormously damaging to the island of Ireland.

As RTÉ’s European editor, Tony Connelly, pointed out in a book on Ireland and Brexit earlier this month, everything from the EU’s non-negotiable Union Customs Code, to Britain’s determination to do trade deals around the world, to the phytosanitary requirements [regulations governing the processing and transport of livestock], all scream “hard border”. He goes on to detail just how fiendishly complex those border controls will be.

Imposing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea is much easier and less disruptive than on the Irish land border

In this situation, ideas are thin on the ground. Those that have emerged, such as some unspelled-out “special status” for Northern Ireland which will keep it in either the customs union or the European Economic Area, are quickly dismissed by the DUP as weakening British sovereignty. However, Michel Barnier’s negotiating team have repeatedly stressed how open they are to “flexible and imaginative solutions” to Ireland’s “unique circumstances.” Connelly quotes one EU agriculture official saying “at the end of the day, we can be astonishingly creative”.


Island of Ireland

In this context, a group of Queen’s University Belfast academics, led by political scientist David Phinnemore and sociologist Katy Hayward, have come up with an interesting proposal. They argue that an “island of Ireland” zone of common, rigorous EU regulatory standards could allow agricultural and food products from both jurisdictions to continue to be exported tariff-free to both the EU and Britain. Of course, if Britain were to do deals to import food from lower-standard countries like Brazil and Argentina, this would have to be a one-way traffic from west to east. If it meant additional customs checks for food products crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland, the Belfast academics believe the DUP would have to accept this as the price for safeguarding the North’s important agricultural sector.

Because, as the Financial Times columnist Martin Sandbu pointed out recently, imposing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea is much easier and less disruptive than on the Irish land border. "Goods trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain already involves the disruptions of sea (or air) travel: loading, unloading, the crossing and all the associated logistics. That means the hard and soft infrastructure for an economic border is already present."

Constitutional link

A British government determined to reach a favourable “soft” Brexit deal could pressure the DUP to accept this seemingly unpalatable arrangement using four arguments. First, Sandbu’s contention that it would be far less disruptive than an Irish land border; second, it would be good for the Northern Ireland’s struggling rural economy (beef farmers, many of them DUP supporters, are already calling for a five-year Brexit transition); third, it would be in the overall British national interest if it could be used as a bargaining chip for something Britain really wanted in its horse-trading with the EU; and finally there is a precedent for it in the second World War restrictions on movement between the island of Ireland and Britain.

Irish food from both jurisdictions could for the first time be marketed jointly overseas as high-quality 'island of Ireland' produce

This relatively limited but commercially important initiative would have zero impact on the constitutional link between Britain and Northern Ireland, but it would soften the impact of Brexit on the weak, exposed Northern Ireland economy significantly. As always in Northern Ireland, the language of any agreement would be key to its acceptance by unionists.

There would be other beneficial spin-offs. Irish food from both jurisdictions could for the first time be marketed jointly overseas as high-quality “island of Ireland” produce. This could turn out to be as, if not more, successful than the cross-Border agency Tourism Ireland’s campaigns to market the island to overseas visitors. And it would recognise how integrated the Irish and Northern Irish food industries have become in recent years, with most of the Republic’s principal food companies having taken over or merged with northern counterparts, or in other ways become involved in integrated cross-Border supply chains.

Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies in Armagh and is a former Irish Times journalist in Dublin and Belfast