Could Ireland’s border be the stumbling block for Brexit? James Anderson on carrots and sticks and collateral damage.
What are Britain’s Brexit negotiators up to on Ireland’s borders? We still don’t know, nearly two years after the Brexit vote and less than a year before the UK exits the EU. It’s a major sticking point, and unsurprisingly many in Ireland and among ‘Remainers’ in Britain have been quick to conclude that the British Government is so divided it doesn’t know what it wants. However perhaps too quick – it’s never wise to underestimate an opponent. Possibly they have a rabbit to pull from the hat, though maybe later rather than sooner as they focus on getting to the exit in March 2019.
On substantive issues, Britain’s negotiators have actually been quite consistent, if coyly unspecific, about what they want. They have talked about technology to avoid a ‘hard’ border, but no examples of this exist where the two sides are in different customs unions, and most take it with a large pinch of salt. It’s true the British side have shown a remarkable lack of interest in securing their land border with the Irish Republic and implied if anyone creates a ‘hard’ border it will not be them but rather the Irish Government and the EU to protect their Single Market. So much for “taking back control of our borders” to stop unwanted immigration, but here the British know the leaky Irish land border is unfit for purpose and they can always fall back on the Irish Sea border with checks at their ports and airports in Britain.
More seriously, they’ve also said they want a customs ‘arrangement’ where they ‘mirror’ or ‘shadow’ EU standards and regulations, presumably to argue that they should therefore have access to the Single Market. Moreover as they are explicitly not in a customs ‘union’ they could further argue that they should also be able to make their own trade deals with other countries, such as the USA. This could be what ‘having their cake and eating it’ really means.
Many will dismiss this as totally implausible, already ruled out by the EU to protect its Single Market. But what if we see the negotiators bargaining in relative terms with the British getting some limited access to the Single Market and some new trade deals, by using the Irish border as a ‘carrot and stick’. The merely ‘implausible’ becomes ‘perfidious’, indeed Machiavellian. It would provoke opposition – which may explain British delays on being specific. But in a weak position it may be their strongest bargaining ploy.
The ‘carrot’ is the claim that the UK getting what it wants removes the need for a ‘hard’ border which it is widely agreed would be a disaster – disrupting the integration of the all-island economy and the Good Friday Agreement that brought relative peace, still leaking like a sieve and providing a smugglers’ bonanza (not Single Market protection), and an attractive target for dissident republican paramilitaries. The ‘stick’ is the UK not getting what it wants and handing the EU and the Irish Republic the ‘hard’ border disaster. Northern Ireland would be collateral damage, with its Democratic Unionist Party collaborators in supporting the British Government.
Of course such a ploy may not work. Indeed some Brexiters may already conclude as much and are simply waiting for the exit date without an overall deal, or want out just as soon as ‘an unreasonable’ EU can be blamed for their exit. This is probably why the EU and the Irish Government tried to force the UK to agree the ‘fall-back’ position of Northern Ireland staying in a customs union or in alignment with the Single Market in the event of ‘no deal’, and the British negotiators seemingly agreed to this so talks on trading arrangements could start.
But the Democratic Unionist Party opposes any separate or ‘special’ status for Northern Ireland because it necessitates an Irish Sea border. This, they claim, would undermine the UK’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the reality is that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the UK can only be changed by referendum votes in both parts of Ireland. On Brexit the DUP does not command a majority in Northern Ireland where 56% (including a third of unionist voters) voted Remain, and they could be vulnerable if it emerged they’d been ‘DUPed’ into supporting a British ploy where Northern Ireland was collateral damage. A very uncertain future could boil down to an Irish land border disaster versus an Irish Sea border as the more practical solution. It’s still all to play for.
James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography, Queen’s University Belfast