David Davis’s bland assurances on an open border reveal only poverty of thinking. Where is the cunning plan?

In his flying visit to Belfast yesterday, the Brexit Secretary David Davis failed to square the circle of pledging to keep an open border and controlling immigration. He seemed to equate an open border with the common travel area which of course predates EU membership. But they are not the same thing. In the old days international non-Irish immigration barely existed. The border was also a tariff wall of varying heights from 1923 onwards.

While the DUP’s verdict on Arlene Foster’s talk with Davis was limited to a taciturn  “useful”, Mairtin O Muilleoir’s reaction on behalf from Sinn Fein was typically  assertive and uncompromising.

“It’s my resolve and conviction that we will ensure that the Irish government and the British government get together to make sure that we are not dragged out of Europe,” he said. That we remain at the heart of Europe and it is up to him (Mr Davis) to square that particular circle. But, the majority of people here voted to stay and that vote to remain should be respected.”

Logically at least this means Sinn Fein like the SNP refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the UK-wide application of the referendum vote and the unreality of turning  the Remain results in both jurisdictions  into retrospective vetoes on Brexit.  We know that Nicola Sturgeon has a potentially viable but still very tricky way out – Scottish independence. But pinning your hopes on a new drive for Irish unity on the basis of the local Remain majority is a very long shot indeed.  For now Sinn Fein’s uncompromising position puts pressure on everyone else – the British, the Irish, the EU – and deflects it from themselves.  This is in the Sinn Fein tradition of imagining a non-existent reality in the hope that it comes about. To be fair, it has often worked.  By contrast, the SDLP are pinning their hopes on legal challenge.    

 LATER Guardian commentator Martin Kettle fears the trend of emerging UK policy.

It is naive to imagine May either wants to or could deliver continued freedom of movement in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The Brexit vote was many things, but at its heart it was a revolt against migration, both real and imagined. Others may be in denial about this, but the prime minister certainly is not.

It therefore follows that Britain has not got a hope in hell of negotiating a deal that keeps the country in the single market after Brexit. Freedom of movement is not a detail, to be casually set aside. And if the UK is determined to end freedom of movement, it also follows that UK access to the single market will be very limited.

Not enough people have grasped this yet

In its determination to maintain the City of London’s global position outside the single market, the Treasury will find itself inexorably drawn down the road towards remaking the UK as an offshore, low-tax financial haven. Just at the very moment when the EU locks horns with Apple over sweetheart tax deals, so Britain may roll out the welcome mat to international corporations such as Apple, offering Britain as the new Ireland, or as a European Singapore.

It is hard to see how these options can be reconciled with Irish interests north or south. The border would inhibit free movement, free trade would at best be qualified and a rampant City of London could devastate Irish financial services and obliterate the surviving tax advantages. With EU subsidies in decline, might Ireland begin to think the thinkable and chose the UK along with a floating punt and links to the single market over an integrating Europe?   Or would the debt burden keep them hooked to the euro?

There’s no doubt that the Force is strongly with scepticism towards British thinking so far.  The reaction to Davis’s visit was scathing from Ireland’s most eminent international office holder, Peter Sutherland.


“I am absolutely mystified, not for the first time in this debate, about what is coming out of London,” he said. “We have been told by a number of Conservative Party spokespeople that Britain will leave the common customs area of the EU. If this is true, the customs union, which relates to sharing a common external tariff of the EU, will have to be maintained by all other EU countries with the UK following its withdrawal. Goods will have to be checked at borders.

“I would be very fearful that they may be heading towards a negotiation that will require a hard Border between north and south in Ireland. Dismissing this as a prospect at this stage is ridiculous.”

In the wake of the Chequers meeting Nicola Sturgeon discerns no magic bullet coming out of London that would rob her of the initiative. A new “national conversation” on independence ratchets up the pressure for independence another couple of notches. But as Nicola Bell of Edinburgh University explains in a post carried by the Centre on Constitutional Change the choice is even more daunting than in 2014.  What it boils down to is continuing UK or a hard border between Scotland and England.

.. It is unlikely that the independence vision presented in 2014 would be a viable option. Then, the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, set out a form of independence that maintained institutional, economic, cultural and inter-governmental connections with the rest of the UK. The proposed currency union received most attention, but the plan also included a common British Isles travel area, a strategic energy partnership, defence and security co-operation, a common research area and cross-border public bodies. It is unlikely that this depth of partnership would be compatible with Scottish EU membership once the rest of the UK leaves.

Scotland’s likely position within the EU would also come under scrutiny. A future Scottish Government seeking to negotiate EU membership within the context of ongoing or recent negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal could face stricter terms, for example, in relation to the single currency, the budget or compliance with fiscal rules. The weakening of the economy in the wake of Bruit, as well as the collapse of the price of oil, also makes the economic outlook even less favourable than it was in 2014.

These challenges and complexities can be expected to emerge within any independence referendum campaign, and may dampen the enthusiasm of some Remainders. It’s worth noting that those voting Remain in 2016, also disproportionately voted for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. It’s not clear from this vantage point which union is most important to them. Conversely, some demographic characteristics (excluding age) of those who voted Yes to Scottish independence in 2014, conform more closely to Leave voters than Remain voters. Their continued commitment to independence can’t be taken for granted.

And yet, Brexit does represent – in the First Minister’s words – a material change of circumstances, not just in its effect but also in the manner of the victory and the direction of travel it seems to chart for the future of British politics. The mood shift within Scotland is tangible. Brexit has given rise to a period of sober reflection where only Conservatives seem unwilling to consider all constitutional options for keeping Scotland in the EU, even if the SNP and the Greens remain the only parties to champion independence

The choice for both parts of Ireland is being presented as softer but with no real idea so far how to achieve it.   The Financial Times (£) had a go recently but even they retired hurt. For example..

Northern Ireland would have to apply EU rules so completely that it could retain its status within the customs union while the other parts of the UK leave.

“If European single market regulations, such as product market standards, apply to Northern Ireland…then there may be no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” he said.

There is only one catch: the frontier of the customs union would then shift to the province’s air and maritime borders with mainland Britain, meaning “border checks in ports and airports” for travellers seeking to cross the Irish Sea. Ms May’s practical solution looks hard to find.

The ” catch” is unacceptable to the DUP. No wonder that once again, Arlene is keeping shtum.






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