In the first of six reports on Brexit the House of Lords committee on the EU recommend that the British and Irish governments should negotiate a new bilateral agreement to minimise the impact of Brexit on British-Irish and North-South relations. This will be welcomed as the first serious attempt by British legislators to cut through the thicket of thorny problems particular to both parts of Ireland.
As the Guardian reports, the Lords EU Committee “touches lightly” on the Good Friday agreement. It refers to the “turbo-charged” friendliness that emerged between the UK and Ireland following the Good Friday agreement, characterised by the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and the reciprocal visit by the president of Ireland to Britain.
“It would be irresponsible to say this [Brexit] would scupper the peace process and lead to a return to violence,” Lord Boswell told the Guardian.
The Committee concluded that any negative impact of Brexit on the UK economy is likely to be replicated, or even magnified, for the Irish economy ( details supplied). The Committee agreed that the unique nature of UK-Irish relations requires a unique solution, and calls on the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement, incorporating the views and interests of the Northern Ireland Executive, which would then need to be agreed by the EU as part of the final Brexit negotiations, with key aspects including:
Continuation of the current open land border between the UK and Ireland
- Maintenance of the Common Travel Area, the right of free movement within it for UK and Irish citizens, and their right to reside and work in both countries.
- Retention of the right to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland.
- A customs and trade arrangement between the UK and Ireland if the UK leaves the customs union.
- Reaffirmation by both Governments of their commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and continued support for cross-border cooperation.
These recommendations challenge Theresa May’s so far highly centralised approach to Brexit policy and its “one out, all out” emphasis so far. It remains to be seen how a special deal for Ireland could be accommodated and reconciled with the five forthcoming reports on the other aspects of Brexit. Up to now it seemed that it was unrealistic to allow NI or for that matter Scotland to remain in either the customs union or the single market. The Scottish argument is slightly different- but not all that different – because Scotland shares a land border as well as an integrated market with England.
Will the government pay any attention the Lords’ report? Such reports are often received with respect and then ignored. The answer in this case probably depends on how much a special deal for Ireland commends itself in Britain, Ireland and the wider EU and how the Lords reconcile a special Irish deal wit the big picture. It won’t be easy.
Then there are the local players.
And as Denis Staunton, the London editor of the Irish Times says:
“.. the task of concluding a bilateral agreement is complicated by the political context in Northern Ireland, which has made it difficult for Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party to agree a common approach in the Northern Ireland Executive on Brexit.
The two parties were on opposing sides in the referendum and each has approached events since the referendum through the prism of their unionism or nationalism.
The Lords committee does not directly criticise the unionists’ decision to stay away from the all-island Civic Dialogue, although it praises the initiative as a useful forum.
But it is blunt about the responsibility shared by the DUP and Sinn Féin to put the interest of Northern Ireland ahead of political considerations in the months ahead.
“As the two constituent parts of the Northern Ireland Executive both parties have a duty to the communities they represent to work together and show leadership.
“They need to ensure, as Brexit negotiations begin, that Northern Ireland’s interests are effectively communicated to the UK government, the Irish Government, to the EU and to other member states,” it says.
But its main focus is the potential effect of Britain’s exit from the European union, including customs, tariffs and restrictions on the freedom of movement of the estimated 30,000 people who commute to work in schools, hospitals, offices and farms on both sides of the border
The report pours cold water on the electronic monitoring of good traffic as the magic bullet for keeping the border open
It concluded that physical or online customs checks were not only undesirable but probably unviable because of the adverse affect on the economies north and south of the border.
The report concludes that it will be impossible to maintain the open Border if Britain leaves the EU’s customs union, so an innovative solution will have to be found.
Michael Jay, a former British diplomat ( and head of the Foreign Office) who is a member of the committee, told The Irish Times that if Britain does leave the customs union, the question of what kind of Border checks would be imposed between North and South would become a very serious issue.
“People talk about the possibility of having electronic controls of one kind or another, or controls away from the Border itself, so that the Border itself doesn’t become a hard Border. But these are easy to talk about but much harder to put into effect,” he said.
The report suggests that the only ways to retain the current open Border in its entirety would be either for the UK to remain in the customs union or for the EU to agree to a bilateral UK-Irish agreement on trade and customs.
Given the EU’s exclusive competence to negotiate trade agreements with third countries, such an arrangement would be unprecedented.
“They’re going to have to work out something which has never been done before.
“So there’s going to have to be quite a lot, I suspect, of thinking outside the box, of thinking about solutions which don’t fit into the way the EU has evolved but solutions which need to be found,” said Lord Jay.
According to the FT report
. One proposal is that Irish ports and airports would become a new “front line” for British border controls, though this would be likely to face political opposition in Ireland.
The Lords report said that, after Brexit, the number of EU citizens illegally emigrating to the UK via Ireland would “would be likely to be low”.
However, it suggested that some form of additional controls could not be avoided. “The experience at other EU borders shows that, where a customs border exists, while the burden and visibility of customs checks can be minimised, they cannot be eliminated entirely.”
The government has yet to determine whether it will seek to impose restrictions on the free movement of EU citizens to live and work in the UK, the report said. The Northern Ireland Executive should be allowed to exercise devolved powers in making decisions about the free movement of EU workers within its jurisdiction. That would be a hot potato for local politicians to handle, even though the idea of a flood of applications to use the island of Ireland as a back door to GB is beign played down.