If there is no deal between Britain and the EU, trade between the two will be conducted on WTO terms. If so, there will be mutual tariffs (unless we go flat out for free trade, and imposes none on all comers, regardless of what the EU does). And if there are such tariffs, Irish farming will be ravaged. About two-fifths of Irish agri-food exports come here. These include about half Ireland’s beef exports, the best part of two-thirds of its cheese ones, and nine-tenths of its mushroom exports.
You may therefore wonder why the new Irish Taoiseach and Foreign Minister have been rebarbative recently about our Government’s ideas for dealing with customs after Brexit, further details of which are released today, since failure to reach agreement would hurt Ireland’s economy even more than ours. The Central Bank of Ireland estimates that Irish GDP could shrink by three per cent over a decade, and that the country could lose more than 40,000 jobs.
There are several reasons. First, there are doubts in Dublin about the capacity of technology to deliver the soft border that Theresa May wants (the Government today rejects border posts, the classic instruments of a hard border). Second, there is anxiety that any form of border control at all will undermine peace in Northern Ireland. Third, there is concern within Ireland’s establishment that, even if controls turn out not to be bad for peace, they will be good for Sinn Fein, both in Northern Ireland and in Ireland itself. There is evidence since the referendum that this last factor is at work. The more moderate parties were squeezed out in May’s general election. The Commons now has neither Ulster Unionist nor SDLP MPs. Sinn Fein gained three seats. Brexit was not the only reason for its advance, but it was a significant contributor.
Fourth is a more subtle but pervasive factor. We all have a tendency to believe what we want to believe. And what might be called Official Ireland – its equivalent of our own political and media elites – wants to believe that Brexit won’t happen. If your reading about Britain was concentrated on the comment pages of Guardian, the Financial Times, and the Economist, and your friends and contacts here consisted largely of Remain supporters, you might well come to believe that Brexit will somehow be stopped between now and March 2019. That there is no known means of halting the Article 50 process does nothing to weaken this hope. A variant on it is that Britain will decide, after all, to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union. Belief that the latter is possible will not have been weakened by our Government’s own proposed interim solution as published yesterday.
Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, there is a deep cultural antipathy to Brexit on Ireland that reaches far wider than its establishment. The attachment of the English in particular to self-government is seen as somehow unmodern. It wakes atavastic fears of the Brits throwing their weight around, unrestrained by international obligations and agreements. This anxiety is heightened by a sense that Britain is pulling the rug from under Anglo-Irish relations at a time when they have never been better, when Ireland is undergoing a transformation from being a recipient of EU funds to being a donor, and when it thus needs an Altanticist, free trade-backing, English-speaking ally within the community more than ever. The case for Ireland itself to leave the EU, put on this site by Ray Bassett and Anthony Coughlan, is very much a minority concern. EU membership and Ireland’s self-image are too intertwined for it to be otherwise.
All this may help to explain why it was reported that the Irish Government wants the post-Brexit border to be not a land one within the island of Ireland, but a sea one between it and Britain. (Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, says there is no such proposal.) Certainly, last year’s referendum result has revived hopes of Irish unity in some quarters, since Northern Ireland itself voted to Remain. But a border poll would do nothing to buttress the peace settlement there to which Ireland’s Government is committed, and there is no sign that opinion in Northern Ireland has swung in favour of Irish unity, since Sinn Fein’s electoral progress was more than matched last spring by the DUP’s. In any event, Theresa May’s confidence-and-supply arrangement with it would quash any support for a sea border within our own Government – of which there is none in the first place.
There is an irony in the Irish Government’s criticisms of our own over the border. Leo Varadkar, the new Taoiseach, has said that Ireland will not design “a border for Brexiteers”. (“It is the British and the Brexiteers who are leaving, so if anyone should be angry it’s us quite frankly,” he added.) However, the insistence on a border post-Brexit comes from Brussels. The EU’s Brexit negotiating guidelines say that “in view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order” [our italics]. In other words, the EU itself believes that there must be border controls. There is no reason why London and Dublin would be unhappy with the status quo on the movement of goods if left to themselves. But as part of the EU27 the latter is scarcely going to say so.
Ireland thus finds itself in a Janus-faced position as negotiations continue. On the one hand, it must stand with the other EU states against the UK if necessary – if the former insist, for example, that no trade deal can be discussed because progress on money is unsatisfactory. On the other, it must quietly work with the UK against other EU states if necessary – or at least further the UK’s case to the Commission and within the 27 – since the collapse of talks, or no deal at all, would be a disaster for Irish agriculture.
In short, the logic of Ireland’s own interests should lead its Government to press for precisely the kind of free trade agreement between Britain and the EU that our own wants. Perhaps Irish Ministers are so rattled by Brexit that they don’t see this. More likely, they think it will do them no good in Brussels to stress the point. But there is a gleam of light amidst these gathered clouds. The EU wants an early settlement on the UK-Ireland border as well as on money. Such a deal could open up a precedent for our frontiers with the rest of the 27.