The European Union (EU) has published its plan for resolving the problem of a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, once the UK leaves the union. In the worse-case scenario, of no other workable alternative being found, which looks to be the case now, Northern Ireland will be considered part of the EU’s customs territory after Brexit. In effect, Northern Ireland will remain in the customs union and single market, and checks will be needed on goods passing between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.
“A common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established,” the draft paper says. “The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protected.”
Northern Ireland would stay under the jurisdiction of the European court of justice and the EU’s VAT regime and state aid rules would apply.
Michel Barnier, who is leading the negotiations on Brexit for the EU said: “We are just saying that on the island there are two countries, we need to fund the capacity for certain issues relating to the internal market and customs union, that we need to ensure the Good Friday Agreement can function ... We need to ensure there is regulatory consistency, alignment.”
Yesterday, Boris Johnson the foreign secretary, being interviewed on the BBC radio Today programme, claimed that the Irish border was being used to ‘frustrate’ Brexit, and further claimed that the problem could be resolved by a similar system of CCTV cameras that is used to enforce London’s vehicle congestion area. Johnson was trivialising the situation disgracefully, because the analogy is completely different. He shames his high office with such blithe statements.
It was also revealed yesterday by Sky news, that a leaked letter from Johnson to the prime minister also trivialised the problems, and did not shy away from maintaining a hard border.
The prime minister, Theresa May, said at PM questions today that there would not be a hard border in Ireland, but she also ruled out the EU’s solution, which effectively would draw the EU/UK border in the Irish Sea. May refused to be drawn on the practicalities of this when pressed by the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn on the issue. No doubt this is because there is no workable plan, so yet again the government indulges in magical thinking, but this can’t last. Decisions need to be taken, and the EU has taken one. Over to the UK.
Since the problem of the Irish border has begun to receive attention in recent weeks, although it has been known about all along, the value of the Good Friday Agreement has been brought into question by the looniest Tory Brexiteers.
Tory MP Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland secretary, tweeted a link to a piece with a comment which claimed that the Good Friday Agreement ‘had outlived its usefulness.’ Paterson was sacked by former prime minister David Cameron as environment secretary, for making a complete shambles of the west of England badger cull, blaming the badgers ‘for moving the goalposts.’ A towering intellect he is not.
Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who is close to Boris Johnson, has claimed that the Agreement is ‘flawed.’ But it brought to an end twenty years of military conflict, and shakily has maintained the peace for a further twenty years.
Journalist Fintan O’Toole writing in the Irish Times said that although the Agreement was imperfect, the Brexiteers are playing a dangerous game by trying to rubbish it and puts it down to Britain’s priority being a recklessly pure Brexit, not peace in Ireland. “If the Belfast agreement must die so that the glorious ideal of Brexit may live, so be it” he concludes.
One can hardly blame the EU for becoming exasperated with the UK’s contradictory and completely unrealistic positions on Brexit. They have now given Britain a clear choice on the Irish border, either accept the EU’s solution, or have a hard border. That’s it.
The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement, and an open border in Ireland is part of it. If we reject the EU’s terms, which the UK accepted in December as a fall back option, then we will break international law. But more than this, if the conflict returns to Northern Ireland, the British government will have to justify to the families of British soldiers, the death of their loved ones. All to uphold the ideology of the most crazy wing of the Tory party.
Will the families be comforted by this? I very much doubt it.