Is the Irish border question really ‘intractable’?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A British Army Paratrooper looks though his rifle sight while stationed at the British Army watchtower post 'Golf One Zero' at Preeve Keernan in South Armagh, Northern Ireland, Monday 01 August, 2005. [Paul McErlane/EPA]

In the coming days the UK government will release its “carefully formulated” working paper on the Irish border issue. Dick Roche gives timely advice.

Dick Roche was Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs at the time when the country held the two referendums on the Lisbon Treaty.

The British Government is about to publish what it calls a series of “carefully formulated” papers in the coming days. One of those papers will deal with what has been described as the “intractable Irish border question”.

The problem may not be as intractable as it has been portrayed; with some common sense, political leadership, a little imagination and a pinch of goodwill from Brussels the post Brexit problem of movement of people and goods between the UK and Ireland can be resolved.

Let’s take first the movement of people. It is estimated that there are over 900,000 commuter trips per month across the Irish land border. In addition almost 6.4 million air or sea visits made between the UK and the Republic annually.

If a ‘hard border’ were to follow Brexit the daily ‘commuters’ across the border would face significant disruption.  Changes would be less significant in the case of air and sea travellers.

Restoring common travel arrangements that existed for all citizens of either part of Ireland and of the UK from 1922 up to 1973 – arrangements that preceded Schengen by more than 60 years – would resolve the issue of the free movement of people.

Intriguingly the common travel area that applied prior to the UK and Ireland joining the EU existed without any formal treaty or legislative structure. Formal legal provisions governing the arrangements between the UK and Ireland were only put in place post the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties.

There is no insurmountable reason why the common travel area should not be restored, allowing UK and Irish citizens to travel between the two islands without any new restrictions.

Arrangements to secure the external borders of the UK and Ireland put in place as recently as 2011 could continue in operation on a bilateral basis and could be strengthened if deemed necessary.

Strengthened arrangements would mean that any concerns about an “explosion” of illegal immigration through the Republic could be addressed.

Stories circulating about an ‘Irish Schengen’ suggest that reverting to a modified version of the pre 1973 travel arrangements between the UK and Ireland may be gaining traction in London.

When Brexit happens, the UK will be out of the customs union and the single market. A hard border will be the default reality.

The UK government has been talking up the idea of an ‘invisible’ or ‘frictionless border’ with modern ICT technology taking the place of the traditional custom’s checks. The idea is less than realistic.

The border between the Republic and Northern Ireland runs for 499 km. It is extremely porous, running through countryside with few natural barriers, criss-crossed by roads which intersect it at 200 crossing points. In many cases it bisects farms.

At the height of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland even a very significant British Army force could not ‘seal’ the border.

The idea of an ‘electronic border’ is a non-starter. It would be an open invitation to the criminally minded. It has, rightly, been ruled out as impractical by the Dublin government.

Something different is needed – particularly in the period immediately beyond Brexit while the new trading norm between the UK and the EU-27 is being established.

An all-island trading arrangement that would allow goods and services originating on the island of Ireland to circulate freely within Ireland offers a workable alternative.

This would require the creation of new structures. It would mean differentiating between goods originating in the rest of the UK from those originating in Northern Ireland. It would require very close cooperation between the government in Dublin and the devolved administration in Belfast. It would mean a trading area delineated by the Irish Sea rather than by a border determined by a troubled period in Irish history.

Establishing novel structures will be challenging but with a modicum of give and take overcoming those challenges should not prove impossible.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier has made it clear that he is willing to work to prevent a ‘hard border’ and concluded that, as in the many problems that have presented themselves within the EU over the years there is “always an answer”.

In the context of the overall volumes of the trading relationships within the EU – even post-Brexit – the volume of intra-Ireland trade is minuscule; finding ‘the answer’ should not be a major stumbling block for the EU negotiating team.

While the DUP leader Arlene Foster is reported as suggesting that “Northern Ireland could have a different relationship to the EU’s single market or customs union from the rest of the UK following its exit from the EU” there have been alarms from within her own party on the issue. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior Democratic Unionist MP has warned that any arrangement that would create a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘unacceptable’.

That there have been concerns from within the Unionist community is not surprising. The failure of the UK government to provide any detail of its thinking on the knotty issues thrown up by the triggering of Article 50 – including the issue of the Irish border – has meant that any discussion on resolving those issues has been taking place in a vacuum. Politics in Northern Ireland does not work well in a vacuum.

In the coming days the UK Government will release its “carefully formulated” working paper on the border issue. It will be closely read in Dublin and Belfast. Hopefully it will be a little more imaginative than what has been in mooted to date.

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