Brian Wilson: Why Brexit spat shows it’s crazy to create new Irish borders

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To anyone with even modest knowledge of Irish politics, the story that broke on Monday morning sounded deeply implausible.

It was set running by an Irish minister and enthusiastically taken up in Edinburgh.

A vandalised 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' sign at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Middletown, Co. Armagh. (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

A vandalised 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' sign at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Middletown, Co. Armagh. (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

According to Nicola Sturgeon’s tweet, a “special deal” would mean Northern Ireland “in effect remaining within the Single Market”. The actual phrase which gave rise to the furore was that “regulatory alignment” between north and south could follow Brexit, but that was soon overtaken by creative interpretation.

At the end of the week, the prospect of an all-Ireland “special deal” seems even less plausible. Whatever outcome emerges, it will not be contained within the island of Ireland. That might well turn out to be good news for the country as a whole, though possibly less so for Ms Sturgeon since it will not be based on exceptionalism.

It defies rational explanation that Theresa May was allowed by her officials to head off for Brussels on Monday without a form of words that had been worked through with the Democratic Unionist Party down to the last comma, syllable and nuance of interpretation.

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This is not a question of rights and wrongs but of straightforward realpolitik. Mrs May is dependent on the DUP for her fragile majority. The issue that the DUP cares about more than any other is Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Therefore, any initiative which impinges upon that relationship, actually or potentially, is of the utmost sensitivity.

The irony is that it might not have taken much semantic tweaking to do the job, as David Davis demonstrated in the House of Commons a couple of days later. “Any regulatory alignment we get as part of a Brexit deal for Northern Ireland will apply for the whole country,” he said. That crucial clarification conveys a very different meaning. Job done – but too late to avoid the Brussels fiasco.

Blame can be more widely distributed, however, and what happened before lunch is as interesting as the aftermath. In this respect, the role of the Irish Government left a great deal to be desired. News of the proposed “solution” was leaked and spun by the Republic’s deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, who went on radio that morning to convey a diplomatic triumph for his government.

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It is difficult to imagine responsible Dublin politicians of the past, who could see the bigger picture in the peace process, behaving in this opportunistic way. Even if the DUP leadership had been party to a carefully worded formula, the rug would have been whipped from under them by Mr Coveney’s triumphalist upstaging of the proposed agreement. That does not seem to have troubled him.

The Irish Government says its red line is the avoidance of border controls between the six and 26 counties and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar duly threatened to veto a move to the next stage of Brexit negotiations until there are “firm guarantees that there will not be a hard border in Ireland”. Ostensibly, this is a reasonable position but it is less convincing – and more obstructive – than it sounds.

To a unique extent in Irish politics, there is across-the-board agreement that there should be no hard border. Everyone from Sinn Fen to the DUP agrees. Belfast, Dublin and London agree. Therefore this proposition should be treated as a starting point for further discussion rather than an end-game. The presumption of “no hard border” should inform the trade talks, rather than forestall them, because it is only through negotiation that the means of implementing the desired outcome will emerge.

By 11.35am on Monday, Ms Sturgeon was on Twitter to crow that Ireland was “powerfully demonstrating the importance of being independent when it comes to defending your vital national interests”. Like Mr Coveney, she had jumped the gun and it was the DUP which “powerfully demonstrated” its own ability to put a very large spanner in the works.

It is childish to assume that everything the DUP says is solely the product of obdurate bigotry and can thus be ignored. As they had been articulating quite rationally for weeks before, their main concern was that an “Ireland only” solution would merely shift the border to the Irish Sea with all the same questions about “alignment” or lack of it to be answered. Surely Mrs May’s advisers should have been listening.

“Regulatory alignment” is actually a very good phrase for anyone who is seriously interested in finding a way through this mess, not just in Ireland but more broadly. It holds out the prospect of close ties with the European Union on many issues, including trade, while not reneging on the fundamental instruction to withdraw. Only the Tory ultras oppose the principle of “regulatory alignment” and at some point Mrs May simply has to face them down.

A few weeks ago, I wrote here that there was probably a lot more going on below the surface to move negotiations forward than the public confusion would suggest. Since then, the money issue seems to have been sorted without much political backlash – a far cry from Boris Johnston’s foolish “go whistle” remark. The continuing role of the European Court of Justice seems to be accepted. On immigration, there will be all sorts of sectoral exemptions, and so on. Now we have the principle of “regulatory alignment” enshrined into the process.

Of course, there is a strong case for arguing that all this is unnecessary and we should just forget about Brexit altogether. However, that is unrealistic. It is also worth remembering that hundreds of civil servants are now labouring over new, bilateral trade agreements with the big, wide world beyond the EU. The arguments are not all on one side and it is the balance of what emerges which should be judged, long after minor dramas and opportunistic tweets have been forgotten.

Indeed, the most lasting conclusion to be drawn from this week’s events may be that borders are fiendishly complicated things giving rise to all sorts of divisions, particularly within partitioned islands. While we have to live with the borders bequeathed by history, who in their right minds would want to create a new one in the 21st century?