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Noel Whelan: Government is right to be evasive on no-deal Border plans

Ministers know that sometimes it is more dangerous to answer a question than to avoid it

It is not often that it proves appropriate to congratulate a government for being evasive. At this point, however, the Government deserves recognition for how successfully it has managed to avoid being specific about the arrangements which would be put in place for cross-Border trade in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Ministers were adept at avoiding demands for details in the weeks before the original Brexit deadline of the end of March. They are doing the same this week as the clock winds down to the next potential no-deal date of April 12th.

Some in the media and on the Opposition benches, frustrated at the pace of the Brexit story, or their low profile in it, have demanded to know what the arrangements would be in a no-deal scenario. “Paddy wants to know,” they claim, and proceed to accuse the Government of being either unprepared or dishonest.

The Government has been wise to avoid detailed answers. It has left them open on occasion to derision that was a price worth paying in the short term. Sometimes it is more dangerous to answer a question than to avoid it. Discretion has proved the better part of valour at this diplomatically-delicate moment.


All of the catastrophising about a no-deal Brexit on March 29th dissipated when the British government sought an extension from the European Council. Thankfully the alarmist talk about a crash-out on April 12th is now also abating as Theresa May finally reaches for a cross-party consensus to avoid it, and the House of Commons passes a Bill which requires a further extension.

These latest twists come after indicative votes last week in which MPs voted by more than two to one against a no-deal exit. The Government’s quiet confidence that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided has been justified.


What possible good could it have done for the Government to particularise Border arrangements when any such particulars would only have been speculative? There can never be true clarity about what those arrangements would be until and if a no-deal Brexit actually happened.

Talking about potential scenarios would not only have exacerbated tensions in the Border area but would have provided fodder for the DUP and others to make mischief. They would have claimed the backstop in the withdrawal agreement was not necessary because the Government had stated it would not impose customs or regulatory checks on the Border even if there was no deal.

The Government’s position is, of course, more nuanced than that and more complex because after Brexit the Border with Northern Ireland will become the EU’s frontier. The current convulsive atmosphere does not lend itself to nuance.

All the signs are that Brexit will be delayed and diluted to something softer than the withdrawal agreement

The other reality is that any move to finalise or publicly speculate about Border arrangements would touch on a sensitive faultline between the Government and the European Union.

In order to protect its customs area and its single market the EU would prefer relatively rigid checks. While recognising its obligations as a member state, the Government is acutely aware of the political and security implications of any kind of physical infrastructure at or near the Border. Such physical infrastructure, or even steps to erect such infrastructure, would immediately become the focus of community tension or worse, dissident activity.


Other member-state governments are sympathetic to our concerns in that regard. Yet doing nothing at the Border in the medium term after a no-deal Brexit could test the particularly warm goodwill we currently enjoy with our fellow member states.

It makes no sense for the Government to say anything now which might press on these potential sore points.

The EU is still talking about the fact that a no-deal scenario is a real possibility but it is doing that to get a measure of clarity from the UK about the purpose of a further extension of article 50.

Nobody wants to be taken for granted, but if the UK asks for an extension it will happen. If someone hanging off a cliff edge asks for a hand up you let them up, especially if someone else (ie Ireland) is tethered to them.

There is every reason for Ireland to be sanguine (if not happy) about what is happening. All the signs are that Brexit will be delayed and diluted to something softer than the withdrawal agreement, if Brexit happens at all.

If, as seems likely, that is what occurs then the arrangements that would have pertained on the Border had there been a no-deal Brexit will fall into the realm of “what if” history.

The Government has been wise not to answer the question.