Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017. He is Chairman of a security company.
Boris Johnson is right to ‘do or die’ for Brexit on October 31st. As the first crack starts to appear in the EU edifice, with Angela Merkel’s reference to 30 days, it is right that No Deal planning continues relentlessly, both to keep up the pressure and in case there is no agreement.
Many of the fears from the anti-No Deal camp will prove to be exaggerated or groundless; some must be – and are being – tackled as a priority. This article seeks to address the one really serious danger which could sour the whole process and make our departure a very different business from the government’s intent. We need to examine what happens to the Irish border under No Deal if the EU rejects our proposals for alternative arrangements.
I suspect I was not the only supporter of the Leave Campaign who campaigned hard to take back control, but harboured doubts on this one area. No sane politician of any ilk wants to see an upsurge in the paramilitary groups – a ghastly euphemism for terrorists and organised criminals.
Yet the mishandling of the withdrawal negotiations by the last Prime Minister has left us with a real danger that exactly this may happen. By agreeing to a Withdrawal Agreement entirely separate from a trade agreement supposed to follow it, she left the Irish border issue up in the air – allowing the EU free rein to wheel out the infamous backstop, an arrangement that no sovereign country should contemplate.
The problem for our government, as it bravely faces an intransigent EU, working hand in hand with some UK politicians, journalists, big business lobbies, academics and others, is that the Irish border issue cannot be brushed aside; terrorist movements, from Peru’s Shining Path to the Taliban, have thrived on racketeering and smuggling. If we were simply to move to WTO rules without enforcing the duties which we would be required by those rules to introduce, we would be making a present to the terrorist gangs. They continue to commit occasional murders in the province, and attempted another attack on the police last week. The new arrangement (or lack of arrangements) must not end up as the kind of boon which prohibition was to Chicago’s nascent gangs.
Resurgent terrorism should concern us greatly, but the problems would not stop there. Nancy Pelosi’s threats to block a trade deal with the US would crystallise fast were American TV screens filled once more with stories of terror in Ireland. Moderate opinion in Britain would shift, and the more extreme Remainers would have just what they need to launch a campaign to re-join.
So what should we do? It seems to me that this issue has to be approached at several levels, starting with dialogue with Ireland. The fact is that big players like Germany and France will not face the economic hammer blow which Ireland would suffer in the event of no deal, with so much of its trade either with the UK or via traffic across the UK.
Realisation of this is starting to dawn in the Republic, with growing concern among some journalists. Polls are showing increasingly divided views on Leo Varadkar’s policy, emphasised again in his recent much-publicised phone call with the Prime Minister. This shift should not give us the false hope, however, that Irish policy can be transformed by economic realities alone.
The Irish national narrative is rooted – with good reason – on past predations by the British, just as ours is still is framed by our lonely stand at the beginning of the Second World War. As Churchill put it “Cromwell in Ireland, disposing of overwhelming strength and using it with merciless wickedness, debased the standards of human conduct and sensibly darkened the journey of mankind”.
The horrors of the nineteenth century potato famines, the behaviour of absentee English landlords for centuries and the armed struggle for independence in the twentieth century are all still part of the Irish psyche. Without a game-changing approach from us, Varadkar can probably maintain his hard line by propagating the lie that our rejecting the so-called Irish Backstop is one more example of an over-mighty Britain bullying and marginalising Ireland.
Our new Prime Minister is a gifted communicator. He should speak to the Irish people over the heads of their Taoiseach and do so in terms which they can sympathise with. Either by means of a visit to Ireland or by getting Irish journalists into Downing Street, he should explain to the Irish exactly what the Northern Ireland backstop means for Britain. He should spell out the proposed indefinite subjection to diktat by Brussels with no say. To put it in language they would appreciate, he should ask the Irish people to consider whether those people who struggled for Irish independence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have agreed to such terms.
This gambit could work – it certainly has a better chance than assuming that Varadkar will act in Ireland’s best economic interests. If it does, and public opinion forces Varadkar to change course, then it is a much shorter step to persuading EU leaders, especially Angela Merkel, to drop the Northern Ireland backstop and deal with the border in the planned trade agreement.
If it doesn’t work, the solution will have to be more complicated. To start with, we should remember that WTO rules are just that. As we would become dependent on WTO rules for most of our trade, we would rightly want to be seen to support the institution. Nevertheless, while Britain has a long history of standing by its treaty obligations as a firm supporter of a rules-based world order, WTO rules do not apply directly in UK law. Furthermore, there is a long backlog of cases awaiting decision by the WTO Appellate Body.
So in the event of No Deal – and hence no agreed alternative arrangements – we should announce that we were putting on hold the implementation of certain WTO tariffs for Irish trade on those items most likely to offer opportunities to organised crime in Northern Ireland. Agricultural livestock and products would figure large in this plan and – unlike in mainland Britain – generous subsidy to protect farmers will not do the trick if large price differences across the border offer enhanced opportunities for smuggling.
Next, we need to introduce best practice from existing well-managed borders, like Switzerland. The key must be to use existing technology, based on satellites, cameras and perhaps drones, but networking it in an innovative fashion, bringing live feed together with tax databases and a range of other sources of information. I introduced one company with impressive experience in this field (not commercially linked to my own operation) to the informal but rigorous and well-grounded commission headed by Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands. I understand they found its input useful. It is likely that Ireland would co-operate with this approach once Brexit had occurred, but a great deal could be done on a unilateral basis.
Once workable systems were in place, we could tidy up the gaps in our WTO compliance and introduce whatever tariffs are required. If someone took us to the WTO tribunal in the meantime, our lawyers should be able to find small print around national security – or some other way of adding to the delays in that lengthy process – to give us time to get the new systems implemented and working.
Of course, No Deal would be followed by negotiations between Britain and the EU, and Irish arrangements would help to shape those negotiations, including exerting pressure on the EU to go light on tariffs affecting British-Irish trade. (That was, of course, the original reason why the EU insisted on dealing with the border before the trade agreement).
A great deal depends on Boris delivering Brexit on October 31st, including our national credibility, public support for our institutions and the very survival of the Conservative Party. But we have to get the Irish border issue right, whether we have negotiated a deal without the backstop or left with No Deal.