On Monday, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Business Secretary Greg Clark travelled to the Irish border. Unbelievably, despite being in post for two years, this was only the Brexit Secretary’s second visit to one of the most contentious and problematic areas in the negotiations with the EU.
It will, however, take more than a few flying visits to the border to understand what is at stake. Avoiding a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the North has become a stumbling point for the Government’s negotiations. For those whose lives depend on what happens next, it is far worse.
The Irish border is one of the most porous borders in the world. It is only 310 miles long, but has over 250 crossing points. Some 30,000 people cross it daily for their work. In places, it divides roads – if you are on the left-hand side, you are in the UK and on the right, you are in the Republic. It cuts through warehouses and homes. The late Spike Milligan had fun with this idea in his comic novel, Puckoon, but David Davis risks producing something more absurd than the collective comic genius of all the Goons could ever have managed.
The idea that someone might technically need their passport to go from their kitchen to their living room shows how absurd the idea of a hard border is. It simply would not work, either for the economy of Northern Ireland, itself significantly reliant on goods passing from one side to the other, or for the people and communities who live there.
There is a clear consensus in Northern Ireland in favour of maintaining the free and easy travel that has become a cornerstone for the peace process.
That could all be at risk because of the approach of the Conservative Government, and the indifference of the official opposition.
In Northern Ireland, borders really matter. Any new border arrangement is more than just an economic hurdle to be overcome. It goes to the very core of what these communities are. Their very identity. Any solutions need to be framed in the same way.
Alliance Party MLA and deputy leader, Stephen Farry and his party colleague, Sorcha Eastwood, summed it up well when they said: “Borders are emotional and psychological. Any border down the Irish Sea would be seen by many as a fragmentation of the UK ... In turn, any new border across the island would be seen as a reversal of the gains of peace under the Good Friday Agreement.”
Yesterday a joint statement from Alliance, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Greens made it crystal clear that the one and only solution to maintaining the Good Friday Agreement is staying in the customs union and single market. No matter how efficient, no matter how subtle these border circumstances are, there is a principle, and a symbolism at stake. A border, however soft, is an existential threat to the concept of a shared and peaceful Northern Ireland. Anything less risks causing significant disruption and tension.
Only by having the harmonised rules that will come with being part of the customs union can we have the zero border infrastructure that the Government claims to want. This would allow harmonised rules around quality and tariffs. Instead the can has been kicked further and further down the road. The Government demands more flexibility from the Republic of Ireland and the EU, while asking for something which they know to be impossible.
The proposed technological solution, however beguiling and modern it sounds, is wracked with uncertainties. Firstly, the technology doesn’t actually exist – nor is there anything to support the belief that it would actually work. Nowhere in the world, where there is a border with different rules and tariffs, has there ever been a successful technological solution which avoids physical infrastructure. And yet the Government continue to talk about this as if it is a practical and reasonable solution instead of the fantasy that we know it to be.
Government confusion should present opportunities for the official opposition. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has considered the EU a capitalist conspiracy for decades, has produced a position every bit as confused as that of the government.
They lurch from being opposed to the customs union, to wanting a bespoke deal, to wanting to be able to negotiate our own trade deals with other countries, and back again depending on which member of the Shadow Cabinet you are talking to. They claim to want to implement Brexit, while also maintaining that there will be no consequences of that decision.
Barry Gardiner, the Shadow International Trade Secretary, described the Good Friday Agreement as a Shibboleth – a Hebrew term for a belief that has been rendered irrelevant by the passage of time. Coming from a former Northern Ireland Minister, this is breathtakingly complacent at best.
Labour are no more capable of delivering a workable solution to the Irish border problem than the Conservatives. Without a reality check both will leave us crashing out of the EU, throwing up a hard border, and stoking old tensions.
In Scotland too, nationalist agendas have been stoked as a response to the Government’s inept handling of this negotiation. The SNP have used this to launch a fresh campaign for a second independence referendum, reopening old divisions.
The Northern Ireland border is a small snapshot of the larger Brexit picture. In June 2016, the referendum sparked a chain of events, the full consequences of which are only now becoming apparent. Communities are divided and nationalists on both sides of the argument are taking advantage of the opportunity to resurrect old grievances.
Britain voted to leave the European Union, and that must be respected, but it is not respectful of the process to allow a Government to run roughshod over the Good Friday Agreement. Respecting the result, especially when it is as close as it was, involves finding a deal that the majority of leave voters, and the majority of remain voters can get behind. The only people who know what that solution would be are the voters, and that is why I will not stop arguing for them to have the final say.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland