Last week’s parliamentary votes made clear that, were Brussels to drop the backstop, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement would likely get through Parliament. With that, the vexed issue of the Irish land border has shifted centre stage.
For months, arguments about this 320-mile frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have loomed over British politics, complicating the Article 50 process.
Events in the House of Commons last Tuesday mean it’s now undeniable that resolving this border dispute is a necessary and possibly sufficient condition if the Prime Minister is to honour the June 2016 referendum result and take Britain out of the European Union. Unless, that is, she leaves with no deal.
With Brexit’s fate now squarely contingent on the backstop, public discourse about regulating the Irish land border after March 29 has been replaced by mutual recrimination and finger-pointing. I’m now reading anti-Irish sentiments in UK newspapers, and anti-British outpourings in the Irish press, that take me back to my London-Irish childhood in the Seventies.
For someone of my mixed heritage, the pain associated with tension between Britain and Ireland is seared into my soul. And the anguish as the precious rapprochement of recent years is threatened is made far worse by knowing that today’s Irish border issue is eminently solvable.
For the sad truth is this essentially technical problem is being exploited by an increasingly irate anti-Brexit coalition across the UK, Ireland and among Brussels Eurocrats. Their cynical judgment is that if fears about a return to The Troubles are whipped up enough, then the biggest expression of democracy in the history of these islands might yet be thwarted.
As someone who crossed the border many times during that conflict, and now frequently visits Irish family and friends, my English accent doesn’t stop me understanding that sectarian sensitivities remain real. They could indeed be inflamed if, post-Brexit, customs posts or other new infrastructure appear on the border.
But the troops and military watchtowers of the Seventies and Eighties are long gone. Nobody wants them back. Governments in both Dublin and London have confirmed that, whatever happens with Brexit, nothing will physically change at the Irish frontier. What is now largely a virtual border will remain exactly that.
This border already copes with different currencies and variations in VAT and other taxes and duties. Yes, there is smuggling in rural areas but authorities in the UK and Ireland have built a system of intelligence sharing and collaboration to keep contraband trade in check.
There is no reason at all that the same invisible Irish land border coping with differing taxes cannot now handle minor post-Brexit differences in trading standards. Such variations, of course, would be even more marginal if the UK and EU got beyond this confected backstop nonsense and finally negotiated a free-trade agreement.
Soon after the Brexit referendum, under Taoiseach Enda Kenny, UK and Irish civil servants set to work in good faith. Proposals were developed using authorised economic operator and trusted trader schemes, continued away-from-the-border checks and derogations for local small firms.
Such methods were deemed entirely adequate to monitor cross-border trade flows, which, while vital to local communities, are really rather small. Northern Ireland accounts for just 1.4pc of the Republic’s goods exports.
In June 2017, though, not only did Mrs May lose her Commons majority, becoming dependent on DUP support, but Kenny was replaced by Leo Varadkar. Determined to exert leverage over Britain, the new Taoiseach ordered an end to direct UK-Irish collaboration, combining with Brussels to cook up the backstop – preventing the UK from leaving the EU’s customs union unilaterally, while drawing a border, incendiary to any British government, down the Irish Sea.
Varadkar has bashed the Brits in a bid to draw nationalist support to shore up his own minority government. Brussels, meanwhile, wants Britain trapped in the customs union so UK consumers and businesses keep paying the common external tariff on imports from outside the EU. Four fifths of those revenues – billions annually – go directly to Brussels.
The customs union stops London cutting bespoke trade deals suiting UK, rather than French or German interests, with the rest of the world. The head of HMRC has repeatedly said no additional Irish border infrastructure is needed “under any circumstances”, even with Britain outside the single market and customs union. His Irish counterpart said in May 2017 he was “almost 100pc certain” of the same. Since then, no doubt under political pressure, Dublin’s tax officials have changed their tune.
Yet numerous independent specialists have told parliamentary committees the Irish border can remain invisible after Brexit – comments barely reported.
The WTO, visiting Ireland last year in a bid to spread common sense, confirmed no new border infrastructure is needed.
Even the text of the ghastly backstop agreement concedes that, in the absence of a broader UK-EU settlement, “facilitative arrangements and technologies will be considered” to develop “alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.
So such solutions aren’t “magical thinking”, as the anti-Brexit lobby claims. They can be explored, but apparently only after the UK has signed a cul-de-sac Withdrawal Agreement from which it can only escape by making endless additional concessions.
Those who want good Anglo-Irish relations should convince Varadkar to climb down from his maximalist position on the Irish backstop. He is currently ensuring no deal – an outcome that harms the Irish economy more than any.
And anyone concerned about sectarian violence needs to acknowledge this ghastly backstop changes Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without consent.
That’s what imperils the precious 1998 Good Friday Agreement, not minor changes to the humdrum administration of the island of Ireland’s somewhat limited cross-border trade.
Click here to read the piece in full.