Brexit impasse: Ireland has boxed itself in on Border issue

Border imbroglio may lead to hard Brexit - disrupting trade between Britain and Ireland

During Prime Minister questions, British PM Theresa May said that both her and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, were committed to no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Video: Parliament TV

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The fiasco that is the British government’s approach to Brexit continues. The British authorities object to EU proposals for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland but haven’t been able to come up with any proposals of their own.

There is a reason that the British government has not been able to produce its own detailed proposals. Its position is fundamentally inconsistent. The logic of the UK’s position since Theresa May set out her “red lines” in her Lancaster House speech is a hard border of some kind.

If the UK is to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice then EU law and World Trade Organisation rules mean that border checks between EU states (including Ireland) and the UK are unavoidable.

The British government has not been honest about this, but is now boxed in by its own dishonesty. After centuries of being the big player in a bilateral relationship with Ireland, the British government appears to have assumed that it could get away with making reassuring noises about not wanting “a return to the borders of the past” but then brushing aside Irish protests if such a promise got in the way of their desire for a meaningful Brexit.

Their miscalculation was to fail to realise that Ireland, as an EU member could not be treated in this patronising way anymore. Instead, the UK has found itself as the smaller party in a bilateral negotiation with the much larger EU. The EU is now asking the UK for details of how it intends to honour promises that the British government never intended to be bound by.

Loyal EU member

Yet, at the same time, this is not an unmitigated triumph for Irish policy. By relying on its status as a loyal EU member Ireland has managed hold the British government to its promises in relation to a hard border in a way that would have otherwise been impossible. But it has also meant that the chances of a hard Brexit have been increased.

Inside Business Brexit podcast (feb 28th)

Both for the Republic and for Northern Ireland, trade with Britain is more important than trade across the Irish Border. Both economies would be greatly damaged by a deal that keeps an open economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland aligned but involves a customs and other trade barriers in the Irish Sea.

Indeed, the Irish Government is also, to an extent, boxed in. If the talks reach an impasse on the issue of the Irish Border, the chances of a hard Brexit disrupting trade between Britain and Ireland increase.

Having cited the need to protect the Belfast Agreement and recruited EU partners to hold Britain to its words on no hard border, it is hard for the Irish authorities to back off and admit that, for both Ireland and Northern Ireland it is more important economically to get a deal that allows maximum east-west trade than avoiding a border.

Economic damage

The Brexit process was always going to be destabilising and damaging to Northern Ireland and the Belfast Agreement. This underlines just how irresponsible it has been of the DUP to engage in what Newton Emerson calls “recreational British nationalism” by supporting a process that could only turn out badly for the North.

The unpleasant truth is that for Brexiteers, economic damage to Northern Ireland and some undermining of the Belfast Agreement was a price worth paying to get to their promised land of a UK outside the EU

The unpleasant truth is that for Brexiteers, economic damage to Northern Ireland and some undermining of the Belfast Agreement was a price worth paying to get to their promised land of a UK outside the EU.

On the other hand, it is true that free trade and the nature of the Border were not actually part of the Belfast Agreement. Joint EU membership was assumed in the negotiations in 1998 and made life in Border communities and the operation of cross-Border bodies easier. But customs barriers between North and South were not among the many issues and injustices that caused the Northern Ireland conflict to erupt.

Armed conflict

While customs posts may attract paramilitary activity, they are not likely, of themselves, to cause significant armed conflict to re-emerge. Indeed, the crushing of the more moderate parties and the inability of the DUP and Sinn Féin to get along is a much more significant threat to the peace process than customs and trading arrangements. A hard border would disrupt economic life in Northern Ireland greatly but would be less disruptive than a customs border in the Irish Sea.

The problem is that both the UK and Irish governments are now boxed in. The UK government cannot now admit that, despite its protestations, it never intended to be bound by a promise to avoid a hard border.

The Irish Government, having marched its European allies to the top of the hill and made an open border between North and South a condition of the progression of talks, cannot now admit that for both Northern Ireland and the Republic, fewer east-west economic restrictions is a more important economic goal than an open border between North and South.

The danger is now that the UK’s insincerity on the Border issue, and the wide chaos in its government, will cause a collapse of talks altogether leading to the hardest of Brexits, something that is in no-one’s interests other than perhaps the most delusional of Brexiteers.

Dr Ronan McCrea lectures in EU law and UK constitutional law at University College London

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