Jonathan Powell blasts Brexit

On The View on the day the former PMs Major and Blair warned of the threat of Brexit to the Union and stability, Eamonn McCann erupted. It wasn’t “Blair,  that man steeped in the blood of Iraq that brought peace”, he thundered (I quote him freely) “but the people of Northern Ireland who don’t want to fight each other. They are the peace process.”

As a champion of the people en masse and in  the abstract, Eamonn is surely right – broadly – if a bit ungenerous towards individual human agency.  But the former prime ministers weren’t quite saying that. The headlines that Brexit “threatens the peace process” is a contraction of what they actually said.

They argued that a hard Irish border and an independence referendum in Scotland triggered by Brexit would risk “destabilising the complicated and multi-layered constitutional settlement that underpins the present stability in Northern Ireland” – a situation that.. would be a historic mistake” (Major) and.” It would throw all the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw up into the air again, and no-one could be certain where they would land.“(Blair).

Enter Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Man Friday who  brokered  his way through the myriad obstacles through to the Good Friday Agreement. He  raise the stakes quite few notches in an FT article (£).

You could not possibly have goods flowing backwards and forwards across the 499km border with Ireland unchecked, or else there would be a gaping backdoor to the EU through the province. That would mean that the 200-odd lanes and byways between north and south, which were blocked with enormous concrete slabs during the Troubles for security reasons but opened up when peace came, would have to be closed once again.

The reason the CTA works is that the UK and Ireland entered the EU on the same day and have the same immigration policies. If Britain leaves the EU, however, it faces a new situation, particularly if the rules on immigration are changed to stop EU nationals coming to settle in the UK — which is the very basis of the Brexit campaign.

In those circumstances, Ireland either would have to impose the same rules as the UK and put itself in breach of the free movement of labour within the EU, which would be illegal under the provisions of the single market, or it would have to impose border controls. So Polish plumbers would simply fly to Dublin, make their way up to Belfast and come across to England.

The only way to stop immigration as the Brexiters promise would be to reimpose a border, with all the consequences that would bring for continued peace in Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, we know that one of the outcomes of a Leave vote would be the immediate demand for a referendum on Scottish independence. We also know that an independent Scotland would apply for membership of the EU.

Once that was granted — and as a non-member the UK could not oppose it — Northern Ireland would face a truly paradoxical situation. It would be confronted by customs and immigration barriers to its south and customs and immigration barriers to its east. Northern Irish trade runs through Stranraer in Scotland, not to England, and all the traditional associations of the Ulster unionists have been with their historic homeland in Scotland, not with England. They would face the prospect of those ties being cut off, as well as the dreams and aspirations of the republicans and the nationalists directed at the south. The United Kingdom as we know it would cease to exist.

Couldn’t  they solve the immigration conundrum by making the checks at the GB border as in the bad old days of exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and requiring the production of passports as now ? The unionists would go berserk at the creation of a single Ireland  but wouldn’t it serve them right for backing Brexit?

Surely a new Free Trade treaty backed by smart digital management would keep commerce going smoothly?

It wouldn’t  be all doom and gloom for the Republic. They would take a fair slice of the UK’s foreign direct investment.

Not that I support Brexit for a moment. This is just a coping strategy.

37% of NI trade worth £3.6 billion a year is with the Republic. Tariff barriers would hardly boost it.

How did we manage the border in the 1950s and 60s before the Troubles? Unapproved roads, triptych on the windscreen, the occasional leisurely “anything to declare?” at the customs post during daylight hours and no doubt fairly systematic smuggling. Compared to today.. The swing of price advantage due to currency fluctuations, double claiming off the CAP, red diesel rackets, dumping southern toxic waste in Tyrone, former Derrylin billionaire thrown out of his former business. Apart from all the damn consumerism that has made life so much more complicated than the world in black and white days, would it be so very different?. And it might spawn a new version of Puckoon, so the outcome would at least give us a few laughs.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London