As October ends all is confusion and uncertainty over Brexit: the first round of UK-EU talks on the exit bill, citizens rights and Ireland are stalled; Brussels is worried that Britain’s weak prime minister and feuding Conservative leadership will mean an increasingly unreliable negotiating partner; Theresa May has announced that her government is starting to prepare for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal; and the British are still talking vacuously about a “frictionless” Irish border without specifying what this means other than an unconvincing dependence on technological wizardry.
In this atmosphere of growing crisis, a powerful cross-party group has come together in the House of Commons to submit numerous amendments to the EU withdrawal bill. They include one from Dominic Grieve (a former attorney general and a rare Tory friend of Ireland) that any final deal must be approved by a separate act of parliament, thus giving the Commons majority in favour of a soft Brexit the binding vote they have been seeking and therefore the ability to reject any ‘cliff-edge’ option.
As in most crises, there are opportunities here. Because it is in Ireland that the nightmare of a hard Brexit and therefore a hard border is looming largest. I have been reading RTE European editor Tony Connelly’s superbly researched book Brexit and Ireland (published earlier this month), which paints in graphic detail the kind of extreme difficulties this country will face if anything like the bad old border goes up again.
Connelly is no alarmist, but his descriptions of Brexit’s impact on a wide range of vital economic and administrative aspects of life in this country – and on the border – are frankly terrifying. There was “horror” in the Revenue Commissioners at the realisation that a typical lorry coming in from the UK might have “split consignments” of different goods that could represent 500 transactions at widely varying customs rates. A draft Revenue Commissioners report detailing the €63 billion in annual trade between the UK and Ireland had a stab at working out the “numbing layers of bureaucracy and compliance” required after Brexit, and the huge increase in resources needed both by the government and the private sector to deal with this. For example, there would be an “explosion” of Temporary Importation Procedures required for goods brought into Ireland and out again in a short period of time, many of these via the 30 million annual vehicle crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic. “Existing physical infrastructures and traffic streaming are likely to be stretched, if not overwhelmed, by the increased demand for customs controls,” says the report. It cites the logistical challenge of putting permanent customs controls at Ravensdale in County Louth, where over 730,000 vehicles crossed the border in a typical month in 2016.
And what about technology like security cameras to track cross-border movements? At a meeting between Whitehall and Stormont officials and haulage companies in Belfast last January, one NIO official did not mince his words: “We’re not even contemplating hardware like that along the border. Because the day it goes up, it will be down that night. There will be guys out with an angle grinder. The PSNI have already said they will not be policing any customs infrastructure along the border because it will make them sitting ducks.”
Connolly goes on: “Everyone is proclaiming no return to a hard border. But everything about the reality, from the EU’s non-negotiable Union Customs Code, to Britain’s determination to do trade deals around the world, to the phyto-sanitary requirements [regulations governing the processing and transport of livestock], all scream ‘hard border’. There may be room for tweaks here and there through technology, but the Revenue Commissioners’ own professional research suggests controls will happen on or near the border.”
That’s the nightmare scenario. But if the UK Parliament gets its way, we may still get a less terrifying ‘soft’ Brexit. So what about the opportunities in the event of this more benign outcome? We all know about the possibility (not yet completely realised) of companies moving from the City of London to Dublin. But I believe there are possibilities for the North-South relationship too, if the Irish government plays its cards right.
The EU’s negotiators have shown themselves extremely sympathetic to Ireland’s predicament. In a ‘guiding principles’ paper on the EU’s position on Ireland last month, the phrase ‘unique circumstances’ or ‘unique solution’ was used five times in the six introductory paragraphs. “In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, and in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order,” it stated. The leader of the EU team, Michel Barnier, has stressed that such an imaginative solution for Ireland will stand alone, providing no precedent for any other part of the Union. Connelly reports one EU agriculture directorate official telling an Irish diplomat: “At the end of the day, we can be astonishingly creative.”
It is in the key sector of agriculture where I believe the most creative and fruitful cross-border solution might be found. A group of academics at Queen’s University Belfast, led by political scientist Professor David Phinnemore and sociologist Dr Katy Hayward, have come up with a novel idea here.
They argue that an ‘island of Ireland’ zone of common EU regulatory standards could allow agricultural products from both jurisdictions to continue to be exported tariff-free to both the EU and Britain. Of course, if Britain were to do deals to import food and other agricultural produce from lower standard countries like Brazil and Argentina, this would have to be a one-way traffic from west to east. If this meant additional customs checks for food products crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland, Hayward believes the DUP would have to accept it as the price for safeguarding the North’s important agricultural sector (although it would lead to major headaches for the Irish retail sector on both sides of the border).
Martin Sandbu pointed out in his Financial Times column earlier this month that imposing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea is much easier than on the Irish land border. “Goods trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain already involves the disruptions of sea (or air) travel: loading, unloading, the crossing and all the associated logistics. That means the hard and soft infrastructure for an economic border is already present. Customs and regulatory filings can be pre-processed and checked in conjunction with loading and unloading; inspections can take place on board during the crossing. The additional disruption to Northern Ireland-Great Britain trade from an economic border would be much smaller than that of a land border on the island of Ireland.”¹
A British government which was determined to reach a favourable ‘soft’ Brexit deal could pressure the DUP to accept this seemingly unpalatable customs arrangement using four arguments. Firstly Sandbu’s contention that it would be far less disruptive than an Irish land border; secondly, it would be good for Northern Ireland’s struggling rural economy (beef farmers, many of them DUP supporters, are already calling for a five year post-Brexit transition); thirdly it would be in the overall British national interest if it could be used as a bargaining chip for something Britain really wanted in its horse-trading with the EU; and lastly there is a precedent for it in the Second World War restrictions on movement between the island of Ireland and Britain. For good political (getting the DUP onside) and commercial (excluding additives from third countries) reasons – this arrangement would have to be restricted to a limited, if valuable, range of fresh products, e.g. meat and dairy.
This initiative would be much less drastic, and thus easier for the DUP to accept, than the controversial and impractical proposal that the island of Ireland should become a single customs entity, with no land border, which would require the North to remain in the EU customs union while the rest of the UK departed. As the economist John Fitzgerald has pointed out, this fails to take into account the extremely close integration of the North with the British market, with, for example, three quarters of its imported goods coming from Britain.
This more limited proposal would not concern itself with tariffs or customs: it would mean rather that Northern Ireland would agree to abide by the EU’s rigorous agricultural and food safety standards in order to continue to have full tariff-free access to Irish and European (and of course British) markets. It would have zero impact on the constitutional link between Britain and Northern Ireland, but would soften the impact of Brexit on the weak, exposed Northern economy significantly. As always in Northern Ireland, the language of any agreement would be key to its acceptance by unionists.
There would be other beneficial spin-offs. Irish food from both jurisdictions could for the first time be marketed jointly overseas as high quality ‘island of Ireland’ produce. I believe this would be as, if not more, successful than the cross-border agency Tourism Ireland’s campaigns to market the island of Ireland to overseas visitors. And it would recognise how integrated the Irish and Northern Irish food industries have become in recent years, with most of the Republic’s principal food companies having taken over or merged with Northern counterparts, or in other ways having become involved in integrated cross-border supply chains. It might even require the establishment of a new North-South body in agriculture (thus pleasing Northern nationalists).
This proposal could be the central element in an innovative package of EU-supported North-South cooperation projects, between them amounting to a “flexible and imaginative solution”aimed at minimising the deleterious effect of a newly reinstated border. There would be other elements, based on maintaining and developing existing cross-border institutions and structures with EU support.
In health, there would be a continuation of EU funding for significant North-South projects – largely pioneered by the highly successful Cooperation and Working Together health authorities network – in radiotherapy, cardiology, ENT and paediatric heart surgery.
Health is one of 12 areas laid down for particular North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement. Under a special deal for Northern Ireland as part of a wider EU-UK agreement, existing cooperation – including EU funding – would also continue (and even expand) in the 11 other areas: agriculture, education, transport, environment, waterways, social welfare, tourism, EU programmes, inland fisheries, acquaculture and marine matters, and urban and rural development. The successful Single Electricity Market on the island and cooperation on justice and security issues would also be continued and funded.
During his last visit to Ireland in May, Michel Barnier asked his hosts for some good ideas about how to minimise the impact of the post-Brexit border. I submit this as one modest proposal worthy of consideration.
¹ ‘How to solve the Irish Brexit problem: Let Northern Ireland decide which customs union it want,’ Financial Times, 11 October