London must respect the Belfast Agreement
Northern Ireland should have a choice in the event of hard Brexit
Two men dressed as customs officers protesting outside Stormont against Brexit. There is a solution which protects the open Border, and the jobs that go with it, without adding to regulatory checks across the Irish Sea. Photograph: Getty Images
Thirty years ago the writer Colm Tóibín spent a summer walking the Border. He tells of empty lanes and military checkpoints, of concrete blocks festooned with barbed wire; and of the brutal violence and fear blighting people’s lives on both sides of the Border.
I remember that unhappy time, as a young civil servant working for a Northern Ireland minister, and the pervading sense of how far away any political settlement seemed to be.
Twenty years ago the Belfast Agreement allowed Northern Ireland’s communities to work together within an agreed constitutional settlement of powersharing. Part of that agreement was the removal of Border obstacles and the enhancement of economic and tourism links on the island of Ireland. Both London and Dublin committed themselves to this outcome, in a groundbreaking treaty.
Today the old physical Border is almost unrecognisable. Farming and the agri-food industry flourishes on an all-Ireland basis; health, transport and education services are shared in Border communities; and the British army is long gone. Relations between the Republic and the United Kingdom have been transformed for the better. Northern Ireland politics remain challenging, but are no longer wracked by paramilitary violence.
This is why providing legal certainty that there will be no new regulatory barriers on the island of Ireland – the so-called Northern Ireland backstop – is a different issue from all the economic and trade arguments around Brexit. Both London and Dublin have made clear their commitment to maintaining their legal commitments made in the Belfast Agreement, and later ratified by referendums North and South of the Border.
There is a solution which protects this open Border, and the jobs that go with it, without adding to regulatory checks across the Irish Sea. It requires a customs union agreement between the UK and EU. This maintains the status quo of the last 45 years and is economically in everyone’s interests.
But the Westminster politics around a customs union deal remain complicated. The resulting deadlock is affecting business confidence across the UK, reducing investment and forcing some firms to move jobs to the Continent. It is urgent that we agree an Irish backstop so that these negotiations can continue without the damaging prospect – for Britain and Ireland – of a legally chaotic Brexit now just six months away.
If Northern Ireland can remain part of the EU single market, Belfast will become an attractive centre for international investment
If after further discussion it ultimately proves impossible to reconcile UK and European requirements for a customs union and frictionless trade, then Northern Ireland will face a choice.
It may choose to continue with the Belfast Agreement’s commitment to an open Border by maintaining the economic status quo. Northern Ireland would follow those EU rules which ensure free movement of goods, services, workers and capital across the Border - and accept that this will mean some checks on goods coming from the British mainland into Northern Ireland. Or it may decide that it prefers a customs union with the rest of the United Kingdom, at the cost of a less open border and new economic barriers on the island of Ireland.
If Northern Ireland can remain part of the EU single market, whatever the wider UK-EU negotiation brings, Belfast will become an attractive centre for international investment, offering UK business taxation rates with guaranteed access to the EU single market, and its third-country trade deals.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve the right to decide themselves on their economic future
Northern Ireland’s skilled workforce, its research base and its growing digital tech sector would receive a significant boost, though some of this may be at the expense of other parts of the UK, including Scotland. Its constitutional status would remain as now governed by the safeguards within the Belfast Agreement.
If there is ultimately to be an unwelcome economic choice, it is right that it be made by the Northern Irish themselves, not by Westminster. The choice could be made by the Assembly if it is no longer suspended. Or, given its significance for the Belfast Agreement, a referendum in Northern Ireland on the specific issue of border controls may be the most appropriate democratic means of deciding the issue.
Meanwhile, the British government can sign up in good faith to a legally binding backstop now. This in turn would unblock the Withdrawal Agreement, provide more time to negotiate a final deal, and ensure that jobs and investment are no longer threatened by the risk of a chaotic Brexit next March.
Most importantly it would reiterate London’s respect for the Belfast Agreement and the path to peace it set out. The people of Northern Ireland deserve the right to decide themselves on their economic future.
Martin Donnelly is a former permanent secretary of the UK department for international trade and the department for business, innovation and skills. He is a senior adviser with the consultancy Teneo