Ray Bassett is a former Irish Ambassador to Canada, head of the Irish Consular Service and Joint Secretary to the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Belfast. He is Senior Fellow for EU Affairs at Policy Exchange.
As the business end of Brexit negotiations begin, the unique nature of the Republic of Ireland’s relationship with the UK will increasingly come into play.
The Irish border has become a huge issue in Brexit negotiations, with some hoping that it might be the irrevocable contradiction on which Brexit founders. As so many Irish exports travel to and through the UK, there is an increasing alignment of interests between London and Dublin.
When push comes to shove, the worst-case scenario for the Irish Government is to push the British towards a “no deal” with the EU (by playing hardball on the border) as it would do significant detriment to the Irish economy. The Irish Government should insist on direct talks on the border issue rather than tying the matter to the broader negotiations agenda set by the EU, as there are practical technological solutions available.
Those Remainers using the border issue as a tool to prevent Brexit are focusing their energies on the wrong things. Despite some attempted early spinning by Dublin regarding Monday’s agreement between the UK and EU, it would seem the British have most reason to be satisfied. As has been noted separately in the Irish Times – not necessarily by people who would be happy at the fact – the Tory Brexiteers are muted and the DUP seem unconcerned. The backing of these two key constituents will give the Prime Minister some cheer.
But why is Dublin keen so keen to make the Irish border such an issue of controversy? In many respects this is a puzzle. The Republic of Ireland has an overwhelming economic interest in a free and easy border arrangement that works. Yet the Irish Government has set a bar in the negotiations that mean that an open border could only be maintained if the UK in effect remained in the Single Market and the Customs Union and the Brexit referendum decision were effectively set aside. Is Dublin’s support repayment to the EU for the inclusion of the so-called backstop, whereby Northern Ireland remains in the Customs Union and Internal Market if there is ‘no deal’?
It is not clear why Irish ministers thought that would be sensible. It may be that they genuinely wanted to try and get the UK to think again about Brexit. Alternatively a country that has always seen itself as making the most of Europe, may have wanted to demonstrate to the Commission that it could still be more communautaire than the Commission itself. What good this will do Ireland is not clear. The Irish Government should perhaps heed the lessons of its membership of the euro. At the height of the banking crisis, the powers that be in Brussels and Frankfurt were forceful in insisting on measures that were damaging to Irish taxpayers’ interests in the interest of the wider eurozone for little practical effect.
In the House of Lords, the debate on the Withdrawal Bill is in its Committee stage, while the Government begins to consider its response to the amendments tabled. There has been a lively debate on the effect of Brexit on Ireland, with a number of well-intentioned interventions by those in the Remain camp. Various amendments have been tabled which would have the effect of reining in the British Government’s freedom of action even further, with the professed intention of avoiding a hard border. For some, indeed, the ructions over Irish border are seen as the Achilles heel of Brexit, with the potential to sink the entire Project.
It is time for political game-playing over the Irish border to be brought to a close. What Ireland needs now – along with trading companies in both Britain and Ireland – is some certainty. The European Union, and in particular the Commission in Brussels, will not seriously engage in any compromise while the possibility remains on the table of either overturning Brexit or getting the next best thing – keeping the UK in the Customs Union and Single Market (a Brexit in name only). The stronger that the opposition in the House of Lords is to the UK Government, the less likely the EU side will be willing to relax its rigid red lines and offer a fair deal for the UK in the rest of the discussions.
Why an easy trading relationship with the UK is vital to Ireland
For Ireland, the border issue is vital, of course. Yet this applies not just on the North/South divide on the island of Ireland but also to the possibility of a border in the Irish Sea between the Republic and ports in western Britain, especially those in Wales. While the Northern Ireland border issue is of great symbolic importance to the Irish State, the volume and importance of the East/West trade flows are of a magnitude which dwarfs the former. The Welsh port of Holyhead is now the second busiest ferry port in the United Kingdom, after Dover. It is the port where much of Ireland’s exports to continental Europe pass on board HGVs heading for the Channel ports. It is estimated that 90 per cent by volume and 80 per cent by value of Irish exports pass through the UK transport system. In 2016, 423,000 lorries and trailers passed through the Holyhead port. The number since then has risen considerably.
Despite the tension between London and Dublin in recent months, this is where the convergence begins to occur. The economic interests of Ireland and the United Kingdom are completely aligned in the negotiations on the next stage of the Brexit discussions. Just as the Irish Government have raged against the possibility of a hard border between the North and the Republic, it is vital for the material interests of the Irish economy that there should also be no hard border in the Irish Sea. Ireland should jump at the offer of the UK to tariff free trade, with customs authorities in both the EU and the UK acting as proxies for each other when goods from third countries arrive at their ports.
Yet the Irish Government has been very coy about supporting the UK proposals. Why?
The question has to be asked as to why Ireland is set on a course which is inimical to its national interest. Is this a payback to the EU for Brussels’ support for the so-called backstop? The backstop is the third option in the phase one agreement or understanding whereby the UK promised:
In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
EU negotiators have interpreted this to mean that in the absence of any other agreed solution, Northern Ireland would remain in the Customs Union and Single Market when the rest of the UK departs. This would essentially pass over the economic management of the area to Brussels.
Now whatever about the firmness of the commitments made in phase one of the Brexit talks, or in the transition agreement, realpolitik means that the backstop is undeliverable. It cannot be conceivably delivered by Theresa May, and not just because she needs the support of the DUP at Westminster. No British Prime Minister could agree to internal custom barriers inside the UK. It was noteworthy that no major British political figure, pro- or anti-Brexit, supports the backstop option. If Ireland and the EU pushes the backstop to finality, then the British, in the end, will have to go for No Deal. This will mean a hard border, not just North/South but for the vast bulk of Irish exports which access the world through the UK transport system. Therefore this proposal appears to represent overreach on the part of Dublin, Brussels and the die-hard remainers of Westminster and Whitehall.
I have been told by those close to the Government in Dublin, that this tough negotiating stance is simply a device to get the British to “come to their senses” and accept that they should stay in the Customs Union and the Single Market. However, in any game of bluff there has to be a reasonable possibility of having one’s bluff called. Anybody looking at the situation cannot help but conclude that Ireland would not bring the house down in a single-minded pursuit of a political goal, if this was to do huge detriment to the economy. Any hard border in the Irish Sea and North/South would hurt Ireland a lot more than it would Britain.
Would any Irish member of the Dáil (Irish Parliament) for a border constituency stand over a decision by an Irish Government to implement custom controls and regulatory checks as part of a hard border on the orders of Brussels? Could Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party of Eamon De Valera and the main Opposition Party, support a new border? I do not believe they would and neither would any serious outside observer.
Ireland needs to remove its rose-tinted cataracts when it comes to EU institutions
For that reason, the Irish attitude to Brussels needs fundamental re-evaluation. There is no doubt but that EU membership has been good for Ireland – not just economically but also psychologically. However, things have changed. The country is more affluent and confident than it was at the time of accession to the then EEC.
After many years of assistance from Brussels, Ireland is a net contributor to the EU budget this year of €800 million (or around the same level per capita as the United Kingdom). After the country’s treatment at the hands of the EU during the infamous bailout, with tough terms enforced by Brussels and Frankfort to help stabilise mainly continental banks, the country should not be timid about putting its own national interest first. EU law was turned on its head. Instead of no bailout, suddenly no bank could not be bailed out, whatever the cost to the local taxpayer whose interests were being sacrificed. Meanwhile, it was the UK Government, under no obligation as a non-Eurozone member, which came to Dublin’s aid and helped bail out the Irish banks.
Once the UK leaves the EU, it will be a much colder house for Ireland. The Macron/Merkel axis will undoubtedly continue to pursue their further centralisation plans and assault on member states’ fiscal and taxation autonomy. Even the use of the English language will be threatened by Macron’s aggressive attempts at pushing French in the EU institutions. Ireland, as an Anglophone country, will scarcely share Macron’s vision of a Europe-wide En Marche movement.
It is not in Ireland’s interests that the Irish border issue be used as a weapon by Brussels in its attempts to ensure that Brexit is messy and unachievable. This means that Ireland should reverse its refusal to accept Prime Minister Theresa May’s invitation to direct talks, involving the UK, Ireland and the EU, to solve the border issue. Even the Remainer-dominated House of Lords EU Committee argued strongly for a compromise.
These discussions could look anew at the British paper of last August which offered the possibility of a combination of exempting local traffic and agriculture (together amounting to 80 per cent of the total) and relying on enhanced technology for the remaining 20 per cent.
Likewise, the recent report by Lars Karlsson, a former Director of the World Customs Organisation and Deputy Director of Swedish Customs, entitled Smart Border 2.0 – Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons, which was prepared for the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, should be another item to be considered by these talks. There is room to explore a potential bilateral agreement whereby UK and Irish Customs can undertake inspections on behalf of each other. Yet in a recent House of Lords debate Karlsson was dismissed variously by ardent Remainers as a ‘consultant’ or ‘researcher’ – the hostility to experts would seem to cross the Brexit divide.
That is not to downplay the challenges ahead but it is, nonetheless, to suggest that practical and technical solutions are available to avoid serious friction on the border. Any arrangement on the Irish border is likely to have to break new ground because of the political background and the conflicting national allegiances of the communities in Northern Ireland, as well as the need to preserve the gains of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. This will only be achieved, as was the 1998 Agreement, by the deepest cooperation between the authorities on all sides, especially in Dublin and London.
The present impasse is serving no good for Ireland or the UK. It has the potential of poisoning further community relations within Northern Ireland, relations between the North and the South and damage the growing rapprochement and good will between Britain and Ireland that has blossomed in recent years. Therefore, my advice to those Remainers who see Ireland as the trump card to kill the Brexit project is this: drop the idea, it will only create disharmony and alienation on all sides. Better to put all our efforts in reaching the best possible outcome for all sides to this difficult and thorny situation.
This article was originally published on the Policy Exchange blog.