Alex Redpath is an Ulster Unionist councillor and Secretary General of the European Young Conservatives.
The Government is grappling with the question of how to deliver a genuine Brexit whilst avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
This is often mistakenly boiled down to a straight choice between the UK staying in the Customs Union or granting “special status” to Northern Ireland. Special status would involve a border “in the Irish sea” and regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
This flawed analysis is based on the assertion that the UK is obliged to maintain a “soft border” on the island of Ireland as part of our obligations under the Belfast Agreement. This is lie which has been propagated by those who wish to frustrate a genuine Brexit.
The UK’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement relating to the EU are the continued availability of Irish Passports to Northern Ireland residents and support for the EU’s peace funding programmes. Both of these obligations have been guaranteed by the Government. References in the Belfast Agreement to border infrastructure are references to the security infrastructure of watch-towers, not customs posts.
However, there are still those who argue that it makes sense for the British Government to abandon Northern Ireland to achieve their preferred model for Brexit. This would be disastrous for the people of Northern Ireland and enormously dangerous for the Union.
The threats to Northern Ireland’s prosperity are obvious. The Legatum Institute recently compiled figures on Northern Ireland’s sales turnover: 21 per cent of Northern Ireland’s sales are to customers on the mainland, compared with five per cent in the Republic of Ireland and three per cent to the rest of the EU.
A customs barrier in the Irish Sea would impact two and half time more sales than one along the Irish Border. Northern Ireland’s economy is deeply integrated with the rest of the UK and any trade barrier between the two would have serious consequences, outweighing a similar barrier along the Irish border.
There would also be a clear and present danger to the Union were Northern Ireland left within the Customs Union and Single Market. Great economic alignment with the Republic of Ireland coinciding with divergence from the British market would provide an economic argument for Irish unification, something which has been greatly lacking until now.
Nationalists in other parts of the UK would also seize on any such arrangement in an attempt to justify special status for their region. The SNP are an obvious example, and I doubt the unique geographic position of Northern Ireland would stop them attempting to water down Brexit to the point where it was meaningless in their jurisdiction.
I would urge anyone within the Conservative Party advocating such a proposal to rethink their foolishness. I would also urge all Conservatives to unite in defence of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.