The UK should realise that Ireland is an island

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

Irishborder [Clodagh Kilkoyne/Reuters]

The fixation amongst Brexiteers to take back control of Britain’s borders makes resolving the Irish border issue nearly impossible, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is the former Irish Minister for EU Affairs. During his period in office, he led the Irish government’s campaigns in the Irish referenda on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties. Roche also led the Irish representation on the Convention on the Future of Europe.

The rather clumsily titled Northern Ireland and Ireland position paper has, like the proverbial ‘curate’s egg’ – some good bits and some bad bits.

On the positive side the strong commitment to the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement is welcome.

The paper affirms the ongoing support of the UK, Ireland and the EU for the peace process, commits to formally recognising the citizen’s rights set out in the Agreement into the future and, agrees to a continuation of the peace funding in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic.

On the peace funding, however, the paper stipulates that the funding commitment “should not be taken to imply any wider policy positions on the financial settlement as whole:  a reference to the “Brexit” divorce bill which might have been better left unsaid.

The paper expresses unequivocal commitment on the Common Travel Area [CTA] which has existed between the United Kingdom and Ireland since 1922.

The CTA allows citizens of both countries to travel freely between both states, to take up employment, to settle, to avail of public services and to vote in specified elections.

The CTA was ‘overtaken’ but not dismantled when the UK and Ireland joined the EU in 1973.

The commitment to return to the pre-1973 CTA arrangements post-Brexit is welcome if, perhaps, a little surprising given the fixation amongst Brexiteers to take back “control of Britain’s borders”.

The fact that Ireland is an island and that it is easy to put in place checks to stop citizens from EU countries other than the Republic “flooding” into Wales, Scotland or England is of course helpful. Any problem arising post-Brexit could be ‘contained’ with relative ease at Britain’s ferry ports and airports. In such a scenario the Irish Sea becomes the de facto border:  a point which is of some significance when one turns to consider the third element in the Position Paper – the issue of trade.

The position paper falls down badly on the issue of the future trade relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Instead of putting forward a creative solution based on the geographical reality that Ireland is an island ideally suited to an all island free trade arrangement the UK government has gone for a clumsy rehash of the customs proposals contained in the Future Customs Arrangements: A Future Partnership Paper which it published on 15 August.

The position paper recognises the economic significance of Northern Ireland’s trade ties with the Republic of Ireland, particularly in the food industry. The Republic is Northern Ireland’s biggest ‘external’ trade partner.  By volume, 36% of Northern Ireland total exports go south of the border.  Food, live animals, beverages and tobacco account for 49% of that trade.

There is traffic in the opposite direction – but it is less significant to the economic life of the Republic.

The position paper commits to a post-Brexit border which will be free from border customs posts.

It proposes a novel exemption from customs for small and medium businesses. This will mean that the overwhelming majority of individual business transactions will go ahead much as they do today.

In the case of large businesses the position paper provides for a variation on the ‘frictionless’ ITC based proposals contained in the UK government Future Customs Arrangements  position paper – arrangements that Guy Verhofstadt has dismissed as a “fantasy”.

In Ireland, the trade proposals have been met with cynicism.

Questions as to where the cut-off point between the business which will be exempt from customs and those that will not enjoy an exemption have been raised. Questions as to how the proposals sit with WTO rules and with EU law have been mooted.

The Irish government does not share the UK government’s view that technology can create a “frictionless and seamless border”.

The Irish foreign minister has said, bluntly, that what the UK is proposing “won’t work”.  Other Irish critics have labelled the proposals as ‘absurd’ and ‘delusional’.

In addition to the criticism, there is also a suspicion that the UK government may be trying to use the particular difficulties that Brexit poses for Ireland as a crude lever to get some traction for its wider trade proposals.

If that is the case the UK side would be well advised to bury the tactic.  On the basis of their performance to date, the UK negotiators are going to need all the friends they can get.  Dublin, while mystified disappointed and concerned by the Brexit decision is the closest thing that the UK Government has at the moment to an ally: it can ill afford to squander Irish goodwill.

During the current week, second level students in both the UK and in Ireland have been receiving the examination results that determine whether they will get into university. Their progress depends on the number of points they score.

If the authors of the Northern Ireland and Ireland position paper were being exposed to the same rigorous testing on their work as the students have been, their progress would be less than assured.

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