Why should we propose solutions to a ‘hard’ Border we don’t want?

Cliff Taylor: we need to keeping telling the Conservatives and the DUP we await their Border proposals

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar puts forth solutions to issues regarding Brexit and the EU customs union. Video: Queen's University Belfast


Leo Varadkar is right to refuse to offer possible solutions on the shape of the Border after Brexit even if this causes irritation in London and Belfast. There are high stakes for Ireland here. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. But the danger of being seen to engage in discussions on options for a Border on the island of Ireland after Brexit is that you then concede that one is going to exist.

It might, but there is enough to play for here to keep our cards close to our chest for the moment.

If Ireland starts to offer solutions on how the Border might work then the game immediately changes. As soon as we hint that we might accept the reimposition of any kind of hard frontier on the island, provided everyone works on technological solutions to make it as smooth as possible, then London and Brussels will jump on this.

It will be a box ticked. We would risk giving everyone an easy way out, and the negotiating train will start moving down this track.

It is a basic rule of negotiating that you don’t make the first move. If you are discussing a pay rise you wait to hear what your boss will offer. If you going to buy a second-hand car then you let the seller name the price and move from there.

And it is not that we are being unreasonable. All the Taoiseach needs to say to Arlene Foster or Theresa May if they accuse him of stirring up trouble is “well, what are you proposing?”

No answer

They have no answer because there is no answer – or certainly no easy one. On the version of Brexit currently being put forward by the British government, the Irish Border is on the way back. Why should we agree to this, or make it possible or be “ nice” and engage in polite negotiations?

Make no mistake, this game is not over yet and the shape of Brexit remains in question, as the Taoiseach said in his speech in Belfast yesterday. Indeed some believe that Brexit might not even happen, though it would be unwise to rely on that.

If Britain does leave the EU, there are a few ways that a hard economic Border might yet be avoided.

First, Britain might not leave the EU customs union – which allows the free movement of goods – at least for a transition period and perhaps in the long term. As the Taoiseach has indicated, this would greatly lessen the Border problem.

Second, it would be possible to set up customs checks at Irish ports and airports rather than at the Border as a way to control goods moving into and out of the EU. However, this would be a disaster for unionists. Politically, there would be a barrier between the North and the UK. Economically, there would be a new customs frontier on trade between the North and Britain, by far the bigger market for the North’s companies.

There may be a third way – some kind of special economic status for the North, or some negotiation offering special arrangements for sectors such as food. In his Belfast speech the Taoiseach also referred to the possibility of a new customs union deal between the UK and the EU after Brexit. But a special solution will not be easily found.

Trade deal

The Irish Border is one of three issues on which progress is meant to be made before talks start on a new UK/EU trade deal. The other two are the UK’s divorce bill – what it owes to settle its outstanding liabilities – and the post-Brexit status of UK and EU citizens living in each other’s jurisdictions.

The first question for Ireland as the negotiations heat up after the summer break is how far to press the Border issue. We should see progress by autumn on the Common Travel Area – the arrangement which allows Irish people to live and work in the UK and vice versa. However, the issues of trade – what the Taoiseach calls the “ economic Border” – will be much trickier.

There will come a point in the autumn when we will be asked to give the nod to whether “sufficient progress” – as the EU negotiating guidelines say – has been made on the Irish Border issue to allow the talks to progress. There will be a call for Ireland to make here. Do we want to be awkward, or really bloody awkward? As the Taoiseach said in Belfast, a transition period after Britain leaves the EU when current arrangements would apply while a new deal is worked out would take some heat out of the situation.

There are big stakes here for Ireland from trade and significant threats from a hard Brexit. For many business would continue, albeit with new customs barriers and bureaucracy. For some sectors, particularly parts of our food industry where tariffs would be high, the threat is serious. There would be widespread disruption and delay to the normal conduct of business.

Ireland has managed to get the issue of the Irish Border underlined in the negotiating agenda. Entering into talks now on how some new Border would work would give away this advantage.

For now we just need to keep saying to the Conservatives and the DUP that we await their proposals on how to square the circle of Brexit with the Irish Border. If this keeps up the pressure for a softer version of Brexit, then so much the better.

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