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March 26, 2018 2:14 PM
By Christopher Woods

The insuperable political problem for Mrs May and for the Brexit project will be the Republic of Ireland. It is obvious to Irish observers that Mrs May has entrapped herself by undertaking last December not to impose United Kingdom (UK) customs controls on the Irish border, and not to make any changes to the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. In my view, she may well at that moment have undermined the whole project of leaving the European Union (EU). Brexit may very well never happen.

Controls at the North-South Irish border were abolished with the coming into existence of the EU Single Market on 1 January 1993. Although the UK and the Republic of Ireland had previously been EU members for 19 years, all commercial traffic, major and minor, was subject to customs control. I recall a Belfast bookseller telling me at a book fair in Dublin how he had to show his boxes of books to Irish customs officials on his way south and to British customs on his way back north.

Unless the UK remains in both the EU Customs Union and the Single Market (both of which Mrs. May rejects) it would be necessary for both the UK and the EU to re-instate a hard border. It would be insufficient to remain in the Customs Union while leaving the Single Market, a point made more than once by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. This is the conundrum for Mrs May. At least Mr Corbyn has come round to the view that the UK should become a sort of honorary member of the EU Customs Union (if not a full member) inter alia on the grounds that it would keep the Irish border open.

The options outlined by the European Commission on the matter are each problematic for one or both parties. A comprehensive EU-UK trade treaty (Option A) would have to replicate both the Customs Union and the Single Market not just for Northern Ireland but for Great Britain, making the UK a virtual member of the EU. The 'technological' solution (Option B) could be effective only for large-scale commercial traffic, and would have to apply to traffic passing through sea and air ports as well as to traffic crossing the land border. Option C envisages Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union (and presumably Single Market) but this could disrupt the UK internal market.

The trouble with these proposals is that they ignore the fundamentals of the relationship between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland does far more trade with Great Britain than cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland and the other parts of the EU. Similarly, the Republic of Ireland does more trade with Great Britain than with its cross-border neighbour. Indeed it exports hardly anything to Northern Ireland except food and drink.

This exception is, however, a major and problematic one. The agricultural economies of the two parts of Ireland are fully and tightly integrated. For example, there are several large processing plants close to the border, e.g. several creameries in County Monaghan in the southern side serve producers in the northern side. Hardly any one, certainly not Mrs May and not even Monsieur Juncker, has mentioned the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). CAP payments in Northern Ireland, where farms are generally very small, account for 83 per cent of farm incomes. CAP payments also form a high proportion of farm incomes in the Republic. It is hard to understand how the integrated agricultural sector could function without CAP benefits. There is also the matter of the heavy reliance of the Republic of Ireland on food exports to Great Britain (which, for example, consumes half of its cheddar cheese).

In addition to economic challenges, there are political ones. Those who voted 'Remain' in Northern Ireland (56 per cent) did so in answer to the question 'Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?'. This cannot be interpreted as the same majority for 'Remain' in answer to another question 'Should Northern Ireland leave the European Union?'. Many of the 56 per cent would be against remaining in the EU if this meant leaving the UK internal market. Another problem is Northern Ireland's budget deficit of about £10 billion. It seems unlikely any British government would be willing to make huge further subventions to a deteriorating fiscal situation in Northern Ireland, nor would the Irish government (already managing €200 billion of its own accumulated debt) be willing to take it on.

It needs to be more widely understood in England that public opinion in the Republic is highly supportive of membership of the EU, which is seen as a great asset, the engine of modernisation, social reform and prosperity. By far the main objection to Brexit is the damage it would do to the Irish economy, forecast in a pre-Referendum assessment by the Irish Government, to be even greater than the damage to the British economy. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is seen as strengthening the Irish judicial system and safeguarding citizens' rights. None of the political parties in Dáil Éireann is for 'Eirexit'. There has never been a sustained anti-EU campaign, and no Irish newspaper is anti-EU even if they criticise aspects of membership. A 27 January 2018 Irish Times / Ipsos MRBI poll on the question 'would the Republic of Ireland, in the event of a 'hard border', be better off leaving the EU?' found 78 per cent would definitely 'Remain' and 10 per cent would definitely 'Leave'. Any popular resentment that exists in the Republic is directed against England, not the EU.

The reinstatement of customs controls on the Irish border after 25 years of free passage risks the return of widespread terrorist activity. A former assistant chief constable of the Northern Ireland police service, Peter Sheridan, made it clear, in an 15 July 2017 interview published in the Irish Times, that policed British customs posts along the border would be targets for terrorists, requiring the army to be deployed. This would necessitate the construction of army posts, helicopters pads etc to support the police and customs officials. He noted there is already low-level terrorist activity (e.g. murders of officials) with the potential for it to increase. Unfortunately, little of this has been reported in the English media, certainly not by the BBC.

Mrs May's decision to proceed with hard Brexit, despite her public statement in Northern Ireland in June 2016 when she clearly stated Brexit would prove disastrous for both Northern Ireland and the Republic, is widely regarded as acting in bad faith. Her 2 March 2018 speech, in which she purported to 'be straight with people' and to face up to the 'hard facts', was in reality her most dishonest. She continued to suppress the Treasury's forecast of 'severe turbulence' for the six years after Brexit. She did at least propose some possible solutions to 'the Irish problem'. She acknowledged 80 per cent of north-south trade 'is carried out by micro, small and medium-sized businesses' … 'their economic role is not systematically significant for the EU market' for which reason 'we would allow them to continue to operate as they do currently with no new restrictions', whilst 'for larger traders we would introduce streamlined processes, including a trusted trader scheme'. However, she wants to abolish the best of all possible 'streamlined processes': membership of the EU. She repeated the Brexit delusion that small businesses would be little affected by Brexit. On the contrary they would suffer more as most depend heavily on agriculture. Furthermore, any disparity between one side of a border and the other will increase smuggling.

In not acknowledging her proposals might ultimately have to apply to all trade between the UK and the EU, not just between the two parts of Ireland, she compounded the error she made in December when she failed to consult her allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They would have pointed out the impossibility of keeping the Irish border open without imposing controls on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and would have insisted she confirm that Northern Ireland's relationship with Great Britain be unchanged. Obviously, she should have done so before guaranteeing to keep the border open.

Mrs May might usefully have have read the DUP's 2017 election manifesto in which it committed itself to keeping the Irish border open, a position confirmed by Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader at Westminster, in a TV interview on 18 February. True, the DUP advocated a 'Leave' vote during the 2016 referendum campaign, but this was for reasons of internal Northern Irish politics. Leaving the EU and keeping the border open is a paradox that is helpful in Irish internal politics but not in the present situation. When it comes to the crunch, the DUP will desert Mrs May on the border issue. It is at least consoling to Remainers that Mrs May's incompetence has got her into a situation from which it is impossible to escape without jeopardising Brexit.

As for the Irish government, immediately after the Brexit vote its immediate concern was the likely damage to the Irish economy, rather than possible damage to the 'peace process'. The Irish government is currently placing considerable emphasis on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The GFA's purpose was to formalise the 'peace process' and barely mentions the EU (although EU membership underpins it). Progressing a hard Brexit in this context exposes bad faith on the part of the British government, and is generating ill feeling among Ulster Catholics that could damage or destroy the peace process.

The whole Brexit deal could possibly be blocked by the Dáil Éireann, in light of particular objections to outline arrangements concerning the future trading relationship and the nature of the border. The present Irish governing party, Fine Gael, lacks a parliamentary majority holding only 49 of the 157 seats. It relies upon various Independents (altogether 29 seats) for support and has a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Fianna Fáil party (44 seats), its long time antagonist. Any likely future Irish government would either be similar in composition or, in the worst possible scenario for Mrs May, be a Fianna Fáil government reliant on Sinn Féin (23 seats).

Even if Taoiseach Varadkar recommends acceptance of any Brexit agreement, he will not be able to count on the other parties voting for it. If Sinn Fein should decide to oppose a trade agreement necessitating the return of customs controls, Fianna Fáil would oppose it too, as would some minor parties and independents. Many Dáil deputies would derive immense Schadenfreude from blocking a UK trade treaty for the damage it would cause to the British economy, in spite of the inevitable damage to the Irish economy.

I cannot see how an agreement retaining an open border could be consistent with the UK leaving the EU. The UK would have to be a virtual member of the EU for the border to be kept open, ie. remain in the Customs Union, the Single Market, CAP, probably the Common Fisheries Policy and be subject to ECJ jurisdiction. Even if Mrs May and her close supporters came round to the idea of virtual membership, many in her party would not and would revolt. If Varadkar and Coveney told the truth now, they would be accused by Brexiteers of alarmism or blackmail, which is perhaps why they are currently holding their tongues.

Christopher Woods

The author was very active in Liberal politics in Leicestershire in the early 1960s and has lived in Ireland since 1965.

This blog represents the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Liberal Democrat European Group or any other organisation.