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Ireland needs to reject the fantasy of no hard Border

We are deluded if we think the EU will not insist on post-Brexit checks on the island

Irish politicians need to get over the fantasy that the return of a land Border on this island can somehow be avoided after Brexit.

The soft words in the two position papers published by the British government this week are all very fine but they simply represent an opening negotiation position most unlikely to stand the test of serious negotiation.

The British papers appear to be a more sophisticated version of Boris Johnson’s initial response to the EU referendum result when he insisted that the UK could have its cake and eat it.

The persistent demands of a range of Irish politicians that there be no return of the Border in any circumstances are every bit as delusional as Johnson’s dream of having all the benefits of EU membership at no cost after leaving.


The cold reality still does not seem to have impinged on a range of Irish politicians, from the Taoiseach down

Of course, if there is a sea change in political opinion and the UK ultimately decides to stay in the EU customs union and single market, the return of the Border will be thankfully avoided. At present, though, the prospects of such an outcome seem pretty remote.

It is a year since European Council president Donald Tusk remarked that the UK's choice was simply a hard Brexit or no Brexit. Ireland's EU commissioner Phil Hogan subsequently elaborated on that by telling an Oireachtas committee: "It's only no Brexit that can give us the border we have now."

Publicity stunt

That cold reality still does not seem to have impinged on a range of Irish politicians, from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar down. His recent proposal that the post-Brexit Border should be in the middle of the Irish Sea may have been a good publicity stunt but it is not in the realm of practical politics.

His suggestion that it was up to the British government and not the Irish Government to come up with proposals for the future of the Border sounded good but meant little. Worryingly, it came in tandem with the announcement that work by the Revenue Commissioners on the practicalities of an electronic border were being abandoned.

In its position paper on the Irish Border, published on Wednesday, the British have made it clear that they have no intention of re-establishing Border posts and for the moment have no plans for an electronic Border either.

The general Irish welcome for this misses the point that, as members of the EU, we are the ones who will have to insist on a border if the UK leaves the customs union. The British may well not want any Border controls but unless there is a fundamental change in their position, we will have no choice but to impose a trade border of some kind.

It makes no sense to abandon work on how that border can be introduced in the most painless and cost-effective way possible. At the very least, we need to have a fallback position for the worst-case scenario.

Eye-catching proposals

It may make political sense for Sinn Féin to maintain that a hard Border can be avoided if Northern Ireland is given some special status in the EU. While it is all very fine for a populist opposition party to put forward eye-catching proposals that have no chance of being adopted, the Government has to behave a little more seriously.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on Brexit Stephen Donnelly is one of the few Irish politicians who appears to be in the real world on all of this. His description of the British document on the Border as "highly delusional" was spot on.

What is not in doubt is the overriding importance to this country of continuing EU membership

One of the real dangers of deluding ourselves that the return of the Border is not going to happen is the shock that will inevitably ensue when and if it actually takes place. It is all very fine for the British to say they don’t want a return of the Border, but the EU will have to insist on it and Ireland will have to implement it.

The subsequent disappointment that will ensue has the potential to provoke distrust of the EU and its institutions among Irish voters. That is why a more realistic appraisal of the available choices is important.

What is not in doubt is the overriding importance to this country of continuing EU membership. Writing in The Irish Times earlier this week, leading economist Kevin O’Rourke put the whole question in perspective. He pointed out that in the decades before Ireland joined the EU this country’s economy performed abysmally and there was massive emigration.

Living standards

Once we joined the EEC/EU in 1973, and ended our dependency on the UK, economic growth took off and there was a sustained improvement in the economy. This has manifested itself in the vastly improved living standards which have transformed the country over the past few decades.

Ironically, one of the benefits of ending our dependency on the UK has been a real improvement in relations between the two countries. One of the heartening things about the British position papers is the emphasis placed on continuing that good relationship after Brexit.

The common travel area will remain an essential component of that relationship but, unless there is a fundamental change of heart in London, the Irish land Border will be back.