Standoff over Border is classic Irish-British misunderstanding

Failure of interest on British side meets failure of imagination on Irish side

Brexit is bringing a golden age of Anglo-Irish relations to an end – a period stretching from joint EEC entry through the Belfast Agreement to Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland. It would be melodramatic to claim that a dark age may succeed it. But there is now a serious risk that the Brexit negotiations will collapse over the two countries' land Border, followed by years of mutual recriminations.

We are where we are partly because of a classic Irish-British misunderstanding – born of a failure of interest on the British side and, if I dare say so, a failure of imagination on the Irish one.

From the start, Britain has shown a lack of interest in the deleterious effects of Brexit on Ireland. There is almost no upside to it. Economically, the negative impact is undisputed. Politically, it tilts the balance within the European Union towards more protectionist and interventionist countries in Europe’s south and east, leaving Ireland exposed as an English-speaking, free-trading and America-friendly economy. And culturally, Brexit disturbs the Irish psyche at an elemental level. To become an EU member has become synonymous in much of Ireland with being a modern country. Britain leaving raises memories of a troubled past.

There are two exacerbating complications. First, Border mapping has found 142 areas of North-South co-operation. This has clearly reinforced a sense in Ireland that maintaining anything like the status quo will be next to impossible. Second, to unpick the present arrangements has thus come to be seen as compromising the Belfast Agreement. Ireland tends to see continued EU membership as implicit in the agreement; Britain does not.

On the UK side of the Irish Sea, we have largely missed this development of the Irish position. When we speak of a hard Border, we have in mind checkpoints, watchtowers – all the paraphernalia of the Troubles. When a hard Border is spoken of in Ireland, it seems now to mean any significant departure from the present arrangements.

This being so, Britain is casting around for other explanations of a hardened Irish stance. One is that Leo Varadkar is a less steady hand on the tiller than Enda Kenny. Another is that he is under pressure – internally from Simon Coveney; externally from Sinn Féin and from Fianna Fáil. It is undoubtedly true that Varadkar must try to keep his confidence-and-supply partners onside, just as Theresa May must with her own – the DUP.

Antipathy to the suggestion of a hard Border running east-west is not confined to Arlene Foster’s party. It is objectionable to Tory unionism. But this does not seem to me quite what the Irish Government is really proposing. It doesn’t want Northern Ireland in the customs union so much as the whole of the UK in the customs union. For to most in Ireland, leaving it makes no sense. Nor does quitting the single market – or, for that matter, the EU.

Maximum vantage

Which brings me to that failure of imagination. I suspect that a significant slice of opinion in Ireland doesn’t really believe that Britain will actually leave at all. May’s government is weak. There is a lively pro-Remain media in Britain, which is well read in Ireland. Britain wants a transition in any event. Put the three together, and it is easy to convince oneself that Brexit won’t happen. If Ireland pushes hard enough at this moment of maximum vantage, some might think, perhaps Britain will at least give up on leaving the customs union.

However, the Bill moving article 50 here has got through parliament; the present EU withdrawal Bill is to date unamended, both the main UK parties are committed to the referendum result, and the polls on leaving haven’t moved. Britain is standing by Brexit. It is therefore possible to believe that if the EU 27 hold up trade talks further, the May government will stall the talks and prepare for trade on World Trade Organisation terms. Such an outcome would hit British exports to Ireland hard, but Irish agricultural exports to Britain harder. And a Border governed by WTO terms would be very hard indeed.

Since this is so, recent experience of Anglo-Irish relations (and the way the EU works) suggests a good old-fashioned fudge, within the eventual framework of a free-trade deal. Under its terms, Ireland would take a lead from Bertie Ahern’s words this week, and work for a soft Border, with technological checks for big firms and waivers for small ones. And Britain would give a guarantee on common standards, especially for agriculture, which has big implications for regulatory convergence. The special customs union for Britain that Varadkar has floated sounds not unlike the associate membership that May has advanced. All’s well that ends well, then? Perhaps – and perhaps not. Maybe this optimism demonstrates the same lack of imagination that I lay at the door of others.

Paul Goodman is the editor of Conservative Home