Brexit and the Irish Border

There are more road crossings on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic than on the entire Eastern border of the European Union. Actually, there are 275 Irish border crossings, compared to 137 from Finland to Greece, according to figures obtained by my Alliance colleague Stephen Farry MLA.

That emphasises why the Irish border is such an issue for Northern Ireland, for the UK and for Ireland.  Yet the Government’s “Position Paper” on Northern Ireland and Ireland is woefully inadequate, failing to deal with issues of both trade and justice co-operation.

It is clear is that this is one area where those leading the campaign for Brexit have no idea how to resolve matters.  We have had simplistic thoughts from the likes of Owen Patterson, citing TIR freight and Customs seals, while DUP MPs have suggested that automatic number plate recognition works on Irish toll motorways, so ANPR could perform border checks.  Has Owen Patterson forgotten all that he and I heard about smuggling when he was Secretary of State for NI and I was Stormont Minister of Justice?  While ANPR can identify a vehicle, can the DUP tell me how to identify who and what is in it?

Having campaigned for Remain, and horrified by all that is emerging from negotiations on an almost daily basis, I remain of the view that the people of the UK and Gibraltar should have the right to vote on the final deal.  Second to that comes the softest possible way of leaving the EU.  Ideally, the UK as a whole would remain in the Customs Union and in the Single Market.  This would avoid the need for any form of physical border controls on the land border, which would present clear targets for dissident republican groups.

Although some nationalists are suggesting that Northern Ireland should remain within the Customs Union while GB leaves (citing our vote for Remain), this would be at least as destabilising from a unionist perspective as border posts would be to nationalists, and would also create major difficulties for trade between the constituent parts of the UK.  While there may well be a need for a special deal for Northern Ireland, that is not the same as special status.

Despite the constitutional position, recent years have seen increasing integration of business and public services across the island of Ireland.  Justice agencies work in partnership to fight terrorism and organised crime.  We have a single energy market, significant cross-border supply chains (especially in agri-food), shared provision of acute hospital services.  Business regulation is different in Northern Ireland from that in England, Wales and Scotland.

All of that leads to the possibility that Northern Ireland could remain in the Single Market, even if the rest of the UK left.  It would be a unique arrangement, but might be a way of squaring the circle.  Instead of talking about imaginative solutions, the Government needs to produce them.

Editor’s Note: This will be discussed in a fringe meeting hosted by Liberal Democrat Voice on Sunday 17 September at 1pm in Bayview 2 at the BIC. David Ford will be one of the speakers.

* David Ford was leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland until 2016 and is a former Northern Irish Justice Minister

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23 Comments

  • The Guardian editorial on the Irish Border https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/07/the-guardian-view-on-the-irish-border-the-uks-brexit-blind-spot comments ” The UK government’s lack of practical solutions reflects a more profound failure to see how its actions are viewed from overseas ”

    The editorial concludes “Despite all the evidence that Ireland holds the key to a realistic appraisal of Brexit challenges and the clear moral and political obligation to address the border issue as a matter of first priority, the UK government’s stance is lackadaisical. The problem is not a lack of imagination on the EU side. It is the UK government’s lack of application to the task and lack of respect for its neighbours.”

    Shirley Williams, in a letter, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/11/post-brexit-irish-border-conundrum-deepens raises a new bone of contention as demonstrated in the leaked Home Office document about the proposal for a new immigration policy – and a very tough and harsh one – in a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

    She says “The prime minister should make it absolutely clear that she and her government reject the immigration proposals dreamed up in some xenophobic part of the Home Office and bring forward a policy that underpins the Good Friday agreement and honours the pledges made and agreed there.”

    The timetable for reaching a workable agreement on this issue is next month. Without sufficient progress talks on trade deal with the EU cannot progress.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '17 - 3:16pm

    “It is clear is that this is one area where those leading the campaign for Brexit have no idea how to resolve matters.”

    Is it? I’m not sure about that. Yes, the border is a potential problem and it’s likely to be just as much a problem for the EU, and the Republic, as it is for the UK.

    The UK could make it entirely the EU’s problem, even without NI being part of the single market. The whole of Northern Ireland could be given a special economic status with lower rates of income tax, VAT, excise and fuel duty. That way there would be no incentive to smuggle across the border from the EU. There could even be free movement from the Republic which may not extend to the rest of the UK. It’s even possible that Northern Ireland assumes a similar status to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, or Gibraltar which are technically not a part of the UK but are nevertheless considered to be very close to it.

    Any border posts would then be entirely down to the EU to erect and if the IRA want to blow these up, it’s really not our problem.

    Whatever we decide needs the consent of the people of Northern Island but “no ideas?”

    There’s lots. We just need to decide on the best option.

  • David Evershed 14th Sep '17 - 4:04pm

    Some equally possible (if unlikely) solutions:

    1. The UK remains in the EU; and thus remains in the EU single market and the EU customs union, contrary to the referendum result

    2. Ireland also exits the EU and makes a free trade arrangement with the UK

    3. Ireland becomes part of the UK once again.

  • David, delighted to see a post from our ally, and looking forward to hearing from you at Bournemouth.

    I am deeply fearful of the potential impact of Brexit on our relationship with the Republic. And, since the Con-DUP alliance, even more concerned about the fragile state of power-sharing at Stormont. Please tell me there is some hope that the situation can be resolved peacefully.

  • One of the difficulties about the present situation is that since Sinn Fein members of the House of Commons (for reasons of their own) do not take their seats in our parliament, the Roman Catholic community in Northern Ireland currently has no voice there. This, I fear, has deluded our present government into supposing that their DuP allies speak for a larger share of the population of Northern Ireland than they actually do, forgetting that a clear majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted Remain. The government needs to be reminded as forcibly as possible that it is only through the combination of the quirks of our electoral system and Sinn Fein abstentionism that the DuP is the only Northern Irish political party which is presently in a position to voice its opinions in the Commons, and that proper weight needs to be given to the majority view of the Northern Irish electorate as expressed in the BREXIT referendum.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Sep '17 - 11:41pm

    What a welcome poster of an article, David Ford is, and how good to see some of Northern Irelands concerns raised.

    As a longstanding admirer of the Alliance party , we need more like this.

    I echo Mary Reid in her as usual, sensible and friendly response, to say we are glad to see this here and the former leader and minister at our conference, his conference, as David has long been an individual Liberal Democrat member too.

    Is it time, as I have said many times recently, for us to become The Alliance Party, of Liberals and Democrats ?

  • @David – you omitted:

    4. NI becomes part of the RoI.

    Given the nature of the government’s Brexit stance (and some on the Labour benches), namely proceed regardless of the cost because the referendum result must be honoured, I wouldn’t rule this one out, even if the DUP object… The sad thing is that given the evidence of both the Article 50 bill and the more recent first reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill, Parliament is still showing little sign of wanting to assert it’s authority over the Executive and hence it would probably vote for the ceding of NI to the RoI.

  • David Pocock 15th Sep '17 - 1:34am

    @David Ford, would your conclusion not mean that borders would then have to be raised between Britain and NI?

    I agree that Irish free movement between NI and RoI must be protected but I wonder about an EU citizen who could then freely travel to RoI and then freely enter NI and then onto the mainland. Personally I have no problem with this but I imagine our Tory overlords might.

    The only border free solution I can see working is that we keep free movement within the EU.

  • Peter Martin 15th Sep '17 - 7:50am

    Actually, there are 275 Irish border crossings, compared to 137 from Finland to Greece ???

    Finland to Greece ? I wouldn’t have expected there to be any at all!

  • Peter Martin 15th Sep '17 - 8:01am

    @ Roland and David,

    You’ve both overlooked a 5th possibility

    5) NI assumes a semi-independent status, possibly like Gibraltar, aligned with the UK, but not technically part of it.

  • Denis Loretto 15th Sep '17 - 8:41am

    Good to have you posting here, David, and to see my former colleagues in the Alliance Party continuing to fight the good fight. Two points must be born in mind in all this –

    1. The Irish Republic is a member of the EU and will remain so. There is no question of being able to do some sort of separate deal with the Republic.

    2. The Good Friday settlement was accepted by referendum effectively in both North and South. The positive vote was overwhelming – unlike the June 2016 UK referendum. Airy ideas such as a border down the Irish sea or even ( pace Roland ) enforced Irish unity are simply unthinkable.

  • The sad thing is most Brexiteers either don’t care, don’t understand or assume it will be alright on the night. This is very much their take on all issues regarding Brexit. It isn’t their desire for Brexit that frustrates me, it’s their inability to put forward a plan never mind actually implement it. By the way Tinkerbell will wave her wand is not a plan, neither is putting the mortgage on the blue unicorn in the 14:30 race at Sun Lit Uplands.

  • @Peter Martin – Good point.

    Interestingly, all five require a degree of courage and bold action in the face of opposition 🙂

    Now is there a cowards solution? ie. something that politicians can declare a success, walk away and then blame the implementation mess on someone else…

  • This would avoid the need for any form of physical border controls on the land border, which would present clear targets for dissident republican groups.

    Um… would you suggest not building bank branches, as they present clear targets for bank robbers?

    We shouldn’t not do things because we’re worried that criminals might target them; if criminals target them, the fault lies with the criminals and they should be locked up.

  • John Probert 15th Sep '17 - 9:41am

    David Ford says there are 275 Irish border crossings.
    How many border crossings has Britain got on the English Channel and how could trade keep flowing fast through them after brexit? The Road Haulage Association is among the trade bodies urgently demanding answers.

  • Peter Martin 15th Sep '17 - 2:10pm

    @ Ian Sanderson,

    I’m still not sure I follow the “from Finland to Greece” argument. To get out of Finland, on the way to Greece, without leaving the EU requires going though Sweden, then over the Oresund Bridge to Denmark. Then through Germany, Austria etc. And there are just 137 ways to do this?

    Or are we talking about going via Russia, Georgia and Turkey?

  • Peter Martin 16th Sep '17 - 8:26am

    @ Ian Sanderson,

    Even David Evershed’s # 1, ie the status quo, is repugnant to some. The bombings didn’t stop immediately after the Good Friday agreement.

    The border is either there or it isn’t. It’s a binary issue and there’s never going to be total agreement on that. We just need enough agreement on both sides to formulate some form of acceptable compromise to most people.

    Whatever we do decide upon will only be successful if the economy of the North is itself successful. If Northern Ireland is allowed to become a semi-stagnant backwater as it was in the 50’s and 60’s we’ll end up with a re-emergence of the violence in some form. We aren’t short of ideas as the OP suggested. We do need to choose the best option.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Sep '17 - 4:57pm

    It sounds as if Northern Ireland will adopt some sort of intermediate position and probably make a good profit out of it. With the DUP exacting a good sum from us, it seems it might be the place to be. Could a country be in two different organisations simultaneously? If anyone can it will be the irish.

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