Lesley Riddoch: Irish Border conundrum is an epic and perfect storm

FOR good reasons Ireland is not a minor Brexit issue that can be easily swept under the carpet, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Protests outside Stormont against Brexit . Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

When is a border problem not a real problem at all – when it suits the British government.

A new level of jaw-dropping complacency and double standards was reached yesterday when International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said a final decision on the Northern Irish border cannot be made before a UK-EU Brexit trade deal is brokered.

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That’s a direct snub to the EU, who’ve warned trade talks cannot start till “the Irish Question” is sorted out within days. It’s a kick in the teeth for Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, who believes the only way to avoid a hard border is for Britain to stay in the single market and customs union post-Brexit or agree special laws for Northern Ireland that “mirror European regulations”.

It creates a dilemma for the Democratic Unionist party, which holds the balance of power at Westminster. Their Brexit-supporting leader Arlene Foster insists there can be no deal “decoupling” Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK but 56 per cent of voters in the province voted to remain and anything that suggests the border issue isn’t being taken seriously in London will look bad for her in Belfast. And the Scottish Government will be mildly amused at the Tories’ relaxed attitude to an external border in Ireland after the suggestion that a similar border with an independent Scotland would be impossibly complicated to construct and police.

In short, the Irish border problem stands revealed today as an epic and perfect political storm affecting not just two but five governments. Yet the real heat will soon be felt by Theresa May. As one political commentator observed after Liam Fox’s provocative comments on Sky TV yesterday: “If he sticks by this, and the EU doesn’t move, then it’s certain ‘sufficient progress’ on divorce won’t be made by December. So trade talks won’t begin either – a disaster for business and citizens.”

Whether the Westminster political machine and London-centric media like it or not, Ireland is not a minor Brexit issue that’s easily swept aside – for good historical and trade reasons.

The biggest worry is that a hard border will create border posts and roadblocks staffed by British government personnel (since no-one on the island of Ireland actually wants any physical barrier to movement) and that will inevitably create ready targets for terrorist action. As former Taoiseach John Bruton pointed out on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, a border of 500km offers huge opportunities for smuggling, organised crime and therefore paramilitary activity. But the trade consequences for Eire are just as serious. More than that 80 per cent of trade between Ireland and the rest of the world goes through the UK, so a hard Brexit will force Irish goods through four separate customs checks before reaching Europe. Bruton said it seemed strange France and Germany were more interested on the impact of Brexit upon the violence-ending Good Friday agreement than the UK government that brokered it and asked if any new trade deals have yet been agreed to compensate Britain for the loss of trade with Ireland and the EU. Good question. According to the World Trade Organisation database there are only four countries in the world not part of a regional trade agreement for goods and services with neighbours – Mauritania, Congo, Somalia and South Sudan. This is the exceptional company Britain is about to keep.

Tory backbench MP Owen Paterson was rolled yesterday out to explain Liam Fox’s hardball position and told the BBC there would be no physical infrastructure nor hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic and that it was ”provocative in the extreme to suggest that the province should become a sub-colony of the EU,” – a reference to proposals Northern Ireland should mirror EU regulations to ease cross-border traffic. He insisted a frictionless border could easily be achieved by pre-registering goods. With electronic invoicing and goodwill, he said, the common travel area would continue with ”trusted traders” making regular trips to deliver standard products as traders do all over the world. But there is the rub. If even 2 per cent of traffic is stopped and checked – as Owen Paterson suggests – there will have to be patrols posts along a border that’s currently unpoliced.

Such “small” interference might be unremarkable elsewhere but not on the barely healed wounds of Ireland.

But it’s the damage facing Ireland’s economy that has really motivated the Irish government and EU commission to demand a border solution by next week. As John Bruton put it, the likely impact of Brexit on the Irish economy will be catastrophic. And though Irish attempts to force a soft Brexit on Britain look like a bad case of the tail wagging the dog, the former Taoiseach is surely right when he says: “Nothing should be off the table when existential issues are at stake.”

Fine Gael MP Fergus O’Dowd put it even more strongly. He told Radio 4 that the UK exports more to Ireland than China, India and Brazil combined. 200,000 British jobs rely on that trade – so do one in ten jobs in the Irish Republic. All jeopardised by Brexit.

So this is no mere technicality. Even if pre-registering goods can be made to work without any physical border infrastructure, there is still the problem that a Brexited Britain leaves Ireland marooned in the North Sea – an enthusiastic part of the EU, physically separated from its trading partners by a self-harming, isolationist Britain which is ready to abandon tariff-free exchange with its physical European neighbours despite the fact it has found no better trading deals anywhere else in the world.

Liam Fox appears to have forgotten that Ireland has friends and clout – it has an absolute veto on any post-Brexit trade deal with the UK. Fox’s shameful attempt to use Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip doesn’t strengthen Britain’s hand – it weakens that hand immeasurably and creates a useful precedent for any second Scottish independence referendum. Next time round sabre-rattling about impossible border dilemmas won’t be taken so seriously.

Meantime, it’s plain to see there is no planning, care for neighbours, long-term thinking or responsibility in British Brexit strategy.