Noel Whelan: Varadkar’s straight talking on Brexit is welcome
DUP claims about frictionless post-Brexit Border have been exposed as fantasy
John McNamee, dressed as a customs officer, joined other members of Border Communities Against Brexit in setting up a mock customs post near Newry in April. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
When Leo Varadkar meets the Democratic Unionist Party today in Belfast he is likely to get a frosty, if polite, reception. Their noses are out of joint. Their backs are up. Our new Taoiseach has dared to call them out on some of their Brexit-related nonsense and they don’t like it.
When, as often happens, Northern Ireland unionism, and the Democratic Unionist Party in particular, lapses into political or fiscal fantasy it usually falls to the British government to talk sense to them. Tragically Theresa May’s government is not only itself delusional on Brexit but is now fatally dependent on the DUP for parliamentary survival.
In fairness to them the DUP have not been the only ones seeking to deny or deflect from the possible post-Brexit reality on the island of Ireland. Varadkar’s robust intervention last week is very welcome. Finally somebody is doing some straight talking on the topic. For 14 months discourse on the issue has been dressed up in diplomatic niceties and innocuous political phrases. When May visited Dublin last January, for example, Enda Kenny merely parroted her phrases about “no return to borders of the past” and how all were working towards a “frictionless” Border. Sinn Féin and others speak of the need for a “special status” for Northern Ireland but nobody explains what that actually means.
On the day the result of the Brexit referendum was announced, Seán O’Rourke devoted his RTÉ radio programme to an initial exploration of the implications. Among the contributors was the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson. When O’Rourke pointed out the basic logistical reality that a UK withdrawal from the Common Travel Area or the single market would inevitably give rise to passport or custom checks Donaldson dismissively told him “not to worry”. “We will come up with practical solutions to issues like that,” he reassured listeners.
When some of us in studio pointed out to him that the only “practical solution” would mean that either those of us from the Republic present our passports at a checkpoint somewhere just south of Newry or he would face such checks when landing at a airport in London on his way to Westminster, Donaldson was having none of it, saying there would be “technological solutions” to the problems.
In the intervening 14 months there has been no advance in the DUP’s understanding of this issue. The party has not published a single substantial paragraph on how customs or immigration controls might work after the Brexit for which it voted. It has simply repeated a vague mantra about how it wants a soft Border and that technology will solve the problem.
Last weekend, in response to Varadkar’s comments, Donaldson tweeted a map of the toll booths on our motorways saying “a country that uses electronic toll tag systems on 11 of its main roads can’t claim there isn’t a technological solution to the Brexit border”. In response several tweeters, including Alliance leader Naomi Long, pointed out to Donaldson that while technology could monitor car number plates it couldn’t determine the immigration status of the occupants, or the nature or origin of goods being transported in the vehicle. Others delicately asked how even if such wonderfully fantastic devices existed they could possibly be placed on the 400-plus roads crossing the border. Undaunted Donaldson maintained “technological solutions” would be “easily achievable”.
Talk of a frictionless Border post-Brexit has repeatedly been exposed as a fantasy. It is worth again recounting, for example, the evidence given to the Northern Ireland Westminster select committee last January by two EU customs and international trade experts, Michael Lux and Eric Pickett. When asked whether the “frictionless” and “seamless” Border was possible the witnesses dismissed this as “nice words”. When asked to comment on suggestions that modern technology would make it unnecessary to have physical restraints or manned customs posts they both made it clear that such technologies do not exist, and developing and implementing any such arrangements would take many years.
The capacity of technology to address the additional political and security complications which would inevitably surround the re-emergence of a border on this island is another matter entirely.
The most interesting fact to emerge about the DUP since the Brexit referendum was that during the campaign it received a £425,622 donation from a shadowy entity called the Constitutional Research Group. Strangely, most if not all of this money was then used to fund Brexit campaigning outside of Northern Ireland. It is a great pity the DUP didn’t hold on to some of this cash and conduct some actual constitutional and other research into what Brexit means.
This week, in another RTÉ interview, Donaldson was pressed by Keelin Shanley on what technological or other proposals the DUP has now come up with only to be told that the party is still “developing solutions”. We all await them with bated breath.