If no one wants a hard border, who on earth is going to give us one?

Hard to know which of Newton Emerson’s Thursday columns to blog each week, but I think the one in the Irish News carries a couple of important points that some have been (deliberately?) blinding themselves to.

First, he points out that there is no party integral to these talks who wants a hard border of the sort being hyped at the moment:

At the end of last week, the prospect of a hard border in Ireland suddenly receded, with the European Parliament and Council both declaring it unacceptable and making a solution a pre-condition for UK trade talks.

Problems remain with kludging this into EU law. However, everyone who could require a hard border is now committed to preventing it and Brussels has kludged its way around worse.

Now that’s not to claim that everything’s going to be hunky dory. Leaving the customs union brings a bunch of problems that have yet to be tackled, as Gary Gibbons notes at the end of this blog this morning:

One UK government source told me that the Irish government is effectively trying to get EU leaders “to turn a blind eye” to a porous border in the greater interests of peace and prosperity, “just as they turn a blind eye to all sorts of things across the 28.”

“Dublin thinks it’s a matter of will and trade-offs,” the UK government source said. The source acknowledged, as many residents of Derry and the nearby towns of Donegal suspect, that “on goods, no-one has a solution yet.”

Yet we’re still getting instead of substance we’re drowning in the ‘agit-prop politics gone mad’ approach.

Newton again:

This is an early setback for Sinn Féin’s Brexit-based strategy of throwing Northern Ireland into political limbo.

Republicans have not helped themselves with daft fancy dress parades that have made 1950s-style customs posts the test of Brexit’s failure. Such posts were never going to return and whatever modern infrastructure does now appear will look harmless by comparison.

Checks are likely to be tougher across the Irish Sea – and hopefully Sinn Féin can find a less confrontational way to exploit that when it arrives.

Oh, and Bertie Ahern popped up in Seanad Éireann today to put matters further into perspective. Trade is a genuine policy thicket, but there is an awful lot Ireland and the UK can negotiate bilaterally on:

Mr Ahern emphasised that Ireland has “every right to bilaterally negotiate, not the trade issues, we accept that the EU, but several of the other issues to be able to negotiate with the British”.

He added: “For the life of me I don’t understand or accept the argument that we’re precluded from those issues.”

“I know Guy Verhofstadt, Michel Barnier and Jean Claude Juncker, I’ve dealt with these guys for 20 years, they don’t have a different view”.

He said the Belfast Agreement “gives us every right to deal with issues that we believe are of concern to us in relation to the island of Ireland in particular in relation to our colleagues and to be able to deal with it through the Good Friday Agreement”.

For good measure he also took a swipe at Sinn Fein for mixing up Brexit with the whole matter of a border poll and political unification:

Mr Ahern said “the very last thing I want out of Brexit is a border poll”.

“The only time we should have a border poll in my view and I will argue this for the rest of my life is when we’re in a situation that the nationalists and republicans and a sizeable amount of unionists/loyalists are in favour on the basis of consent.”

For his part, Newton took a well-aimed blow at both Sinn Fein and the DUP for (often jointly) using their incumbency to play shallow tactical tricks on their weaker political rivals:

…last month’s election, confirmed Northern Ireland as a community of minorities – unionist, nationalists and unaligned.

This three-way split has been predicted and analysed for years. There were hopes it would motivate unionists and nationalists to woo the unaligned, making constitutional change a project of persuasion, played out in the centre ground – more along the model of SNP campaigning than zero-sum identity politics.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson seemed to recognise this with keynote conference speeches in 2011 and 2012, appealing for a society of “all of us, not them and us”. A month after his second speech, however, the flag protests exposed how the DUP was really dealing with Alliance at Belfast City Hall.

The DUP’s outreach was in any case tactical pragmatism, not big-picture idealism – the aim was to outflank Alliance, rather than work with it.

And on Sinn Fein’s too transparently (which is the real problem) cynical manoeuvring over Brexit, he puts his finger on the button:

With Gerry Adams openly hailing EU departure as an opportunity not to be wasted, his party has gone straight for a gambit of collapsing devolution to see what it can pick out of the rubble.

I am sure many in Sinn Féin do not see it that way and genuinely believe they are siding with the unaligned on issues like same-sex marriage, an Irish language act and Brexit itself.

But bringing down Stormont negates all of that. My colleague Brian Feeney calls Alliance ‘the NIO front party’.

This Troubles-era jibe should be updated to include Alliance and Greens, fronting the public sector, the third sector, the business community and the middle-class professions in general. Bringing down devolution is a hostile act against these classic centrist constituencies, and could only succeed in Sinn Féin’s terms if pushed for maximum unpleasantness – a scorched centre-earth policy.

How bad would Brexit and Stormont stasis have to be before unaligned voters, the majority of whom are from a unionist background, were calling for a united Ireland? Why is it not still possible to work devolution and sell Irish unity in positive terms? [Emphasis added]