The UK Government’s new position paper on Northern Ireland fails to settle the issues raised by Brexit for Northern Ireland
THE UK GOVERNMENT has outlined its proposals for post-Brexit border arrangements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In a position paper published on Wednesday, Theresa May’s government laid heavy emphasis upon the need to avoid a hard border – a point generally agreed upon in Northern Ireland and the Republic – and stressed that any post-Brexit border should come with no new physical infrastructure.
In the aftermath of the UK leaving the European Union, Northern Ireland will be the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU state.
While the position paper reflects and attempts to address concerns in both the UK and Ireland concerning the possibility that the necessities of Brexit may undermine the Good Friday Agreement, the paper has attracted widespread criticism for failing to fully account for the difficulties involved.
“This will require a political and not just a technical solution, as well as recognition that the land border on the island represents a unique and unprecedented set of circumstances.” ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland – a position paper’
Arguing that there must be an “unprecedented solution” to the question of a post-Brexit Irish border, the open nature of which is a key plank in the Good Friday Agreement, the UK Government has called for a “light touch” approach to securing the 310-mile border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, in the hopes that border control can be made “as seamless and frictionless as possible.”
The position paper states that the UK Government “has made clear its priority that there be no visible, ‘hard’ border on Ireland. This will require a political and not just a technical solution, as well as recognition that the land border on the island represents a unique and unprecedented set of circumstances.”
This echoes two further proposals made in a separate paper published on Tuesday, in which the UK Government suggests either a customs partnership modelled upon the EU’s approach, which would supposedly preclude the necessity of a hard border, or a “streamlined” border managed by the UK.
“What we’re not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they’re the ones who want a border.” Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar
The Irish Government issued a statement in response to the UK government’s plans, saying: “The taoiseach and the minister for foreign affairs and trade have called for greater clarity from the British Government on its approach to the negotiations, and publication of the new paper is timely and helpful in this regard.”
“The emphasis on the priority areas identified by the government, including the Common Travel Area, the Good Friday agreement, north/south cooperation and avoiding a hard border is welcome. Protecting the peace process is crucial and it must not become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.”
This statement strikes a notably more diplomatic tone than that of Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who earlier this month appeared combative when he said: “What we’re not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they’re the ones who want a border.”
“The government say they want trade across the Irish border to be frictionless and seamless, but actually they look clueless as to how they’re going to achieve that.” Owen Smith, Labour shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland
Also expressing scepticism about the UK Government’s plans was the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who said earlier today that Ireland will not be used “as a pawn”, and that the Irish government was preparing for a “worst case scenario.”
Other critics of UK plans have gone further in their condemnation. Owen Smith, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said in response to the release of Wednesday’s position paper: “The government say they want trade across the Irish border to be frictionless and seamless, but actually they look clueless as to how they’re going to achieve that.”
In the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane, the party’s spokesperson on Brexit, responded to the UK Government proposals in the Dail by stating that anyone who believes that Brexit won’t be bad for Ireland “is living in cloud cuckoo land,” and that Ireland, North and South, should not become “collateral damage in a turf war between rival factions in the Tory Party.”
Cullinane went on to argue that the best way to maintain free movement and trade and to protect the Good Friday Agreement would be to grant Northern Ireland ‘Special Designated Status’ for the North within the EU.
This may have been in response to the UK Government’s commitment in Wednesday’s position paper to “ensure the protection of the rights of those in Northern Ireland who choose to exercise their right to hold Irish, and thus EU, citizenship, and will advocate for continued EU engagement in Northern Ireland.”
This protection for Northern Ireland was today described by the Daily Express as a “Brexit loophole.”
“With no Irish border controls, US beef, Australian lamb, Chinese steel and Indian cars can be imported into Belfast, sent an hour down the road to Dundalk and exported tariff-free to France, Germany or any other EU country.” Fintan O’Toole
Further criticism of the UK Government proposals came from notable Irish political commentators.
On the subject of post-Brexit border arrangements, Veteran columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times today: “People and goods will pass over it without let or hindrance. Smugglers, people traffickers and terrorists will go on their merry way unmolested. Small companies will not have to do customs checks at all; large ones will operate a charming honour system in which they retrospectively declare the goods they have moved and pay their duties.
“The absurdity of the proposition becomes clear when we think about all the new trade deals that post-Brexit Britain is going to make. With no Irish border controls, US beef, Australian lamb, Chinese steel and Indian cars can be imported into Belfast, sent an hour down the road to Dundalk and exported tariff-free to France, Germany or any other EU country.”
“No Irish government backing a Brexit deal that brings back the border can expect to remain in office for long.” Peter Geoghegan
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, the Scotland-based Irish journalist, author and lecturer Peter Geoghegan argued: “The naive belief that Ireland will bend to Brexit logic, or even leave the EU altogether, ignores political reality. The Good Friday Agreement effectively removed the border from Irish politics… No Irish government backing a Brexit deal that brings back the border can expect to remain in office for long.”
The UK Government’s latest position paper may again draw comparisons between its proposals for a ‘soft’ border with the Republic of Ireland, and prior suggestions by Scottish nationalists for how border arrangements between an independent Scotland and the remaining UK might function.
In particular, there are some similarities between the current UK government proposals, and those outlined by customs experts Bill Austin and Peter Henderson in an earlier report for the pro-independence think tank Common Weal. The report, published in January, advocated a “smart” border with England similar to that of Northern Ireland’s.
Picture courtesy of European Council
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