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]

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  • MainlandUlsterman

    Great stuff from Emerson again. He has really emerged as the most astute and sensible of unionist voices.

    I also think this is a huge point about the hard border. If the EU is determined that ways can be found around it, then that will happen. The UK doesn’t want a hard border, the Republic doesn’t, not even the DUP wants one. There was only a question of there being one because the legal structures of the EU might have necessitated it. But with will, those can be adjusted. If the will is there, and it now seems to be, this issue might just be more solvable than lots of people, including myself, had thought. No thanks to Brexit of course – it’s thanks to Dublin’s good relations inside the EU. If it comes off, we in the UK will owe the Republic a pint of the black stuff or two.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, This is one of Newton’s most Byzantine yet.It was almost too much for my tiny mind. But I understand the fascination.

    The spectre of a hard Brexit has by no means disappeared, so in SF terms it’s still worth a rattle until we learn otherwise.

    The present dearth of hard evidence allows – requires even- politicians and commentators alike to build castles in the sky.

    Emerson heads straight for the ulterior motive; I prefer just now to take SF more at face value so that they can be held to account. I think they’re entitled to the basic courtesy of having arguable points taken seriously. All parties overbid. None quite reaches nirvana. Why should SF be any different?

    On their Assembly strategy whatever it is, they can hardly be held completely to blame as wreckers. Under this system it’s impossible to form an alternative government which is the usual norm after a resignation. So a party isnt allowed to quit? What sort of democracy is that?

    So if not now, when and how to they go back? The answer has to be after face savers all round and that requires executive action from the British government and movement from the DUP.too.
    What would be more useful now would be to write that script

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    The most likely solution is that the border will end up being in the Irish Sea and for all extents and purposes the island of Ireland will be treated as a single European customs zone. The British government will continue what they’ve been doing so far in pretending that Northern Ireland doesn’t exist. There’s sort of a delicious irony that the DUP have campaigned for something that will only further cross border economic unity and lead to them having to produce their passports whenever they go to the ‘mainland’.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Emerson, like May, Davis and Brokenshire is engaging in oversimplification to try and conceal the elephant in the room. The Republic is in the EU, Britain is going (eventually) to not be in the Single market or the Customs Union. Additional border procedures can only really be avoided by giving NI a special status of remaining in the Single market and the Customs Union. They have said that NI will not have special status. What these duplicitous people are doing is declaring that an absence of passport controls and old fashioned customs posts is not a “hard border” and so not a problem, but as said above these weren’t likely anyway.

    The test is a simple one, is cross border trade any more difficult than it is now? . If it is more difficult, then these people are liars, if not then there is indeed no problem. Defining what suits as not being much a problem is not honest.

    Quite a likely outcome is quite a few irritating official procedures, which are then not much enforced. This is a charter for smuggling and racketeering and legitimate business people who try and follow the rules will be undermined. Then cue the very people who supported Brexit coming on there carping about smuggling in South Armagh or whatever.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The UK is the troublemaker here and the EU cannot stop them causing trouble, unless they wish to do so.

  • George

    Even if there is no hard border and some fudge is found, there will still be a harder border than currently exists. If you want to know the consequences of that just go to the north west. Letterkenny now has a population of 20,000 compared to 5,000. Why? Because Donegal is cut off from Derry and a new centre has had to be created from scratch. The region is the most deprived area of the UK and I’d say Ireland (quiet at the back Roscommon / Leitrim).

    Also, what Brexit means is that Ireland and the UK are now travelling in completely different directions. It reminds me somewhat of when Ireland broke its link to sterling in the late 1970s and the consequences that had on the Irish economy.

    Just as the southern economy diversified and changed radically post the floating of the punt, North and South will now start moving further and further apart in the coming years. To think that this won’t impact hugely on Northern Ireland is naive.

    Emerson talks about SF wooing the centre ground, who is he kidding. Where is this mythical centre ground in Northern Ireland? Alliance has been in existence for almost 50 years and is still less than 10% even after 20 years of peace.

    Northern Ireland needs to play a part in radically overhauling itself because a radical overhaul is coming, whether the mythical silent centre like it or not.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    I get that some of the relevent parties have said that they do not want a hard border and that is great but Brexit is literally the great unknown. This time twelve months ago Theresa May and Boris Johnson probobly would never have thought they would be thrust into the main seats in the cabinet like they have. This time last year people were saying that Britain could leave the EU but still stay in the single market. They were saying also that the NHS would recieve a funding boost directly from leaving the EU. We know now that this was all complete nonsense, it was said because certain parties felt that those on the fence needed to hear it. Dont think for a second that this is all hunky dory. Its not. We are all in totally unchartered territory now without a map, no amount of comforting words can confidently tell what will happen. Up until recently we were told that the UK would be having parallel discussions on their exit terms and new trade agreement. That was shot down when reality dawned and we’ve heard this week that chances are that a trade deal more than likely will not be completed by 2019. When the UK government havent a clue what is happening and going to happen, you can rest assured journalists from these parts definitely wont

  • 1729torus

    A Ukraine-style deal is the only one that is compatible with the Good Friday Agreement that doesn’t insist on freedom of movement. The GFA includes three several core principles that are essential for it to work properly:

    First, that one can be Irish or British without disadvantage. That is clearly not the case if there are barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but not between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Or vice versa.

    Second, that there are strong human rights laws and constitutional limitations. No Parliamentary Sovereignty or Common Law.

    Third, Britain won’t try to leave without the population explicitly consenting to it to in a referendum, which won’t be called unless there is reasonable evidence it might pass. Unionists would get upset otherwise and be constantly fretting over speculative border polls.

    In addition, there is the question of avoiding tremendous economic disruption that would wreck NI’s economy. A DCFTA¹ provides features that can ameliorate this such as: SPS trade facilitation for agriculture, customs cooperation, and a common regulatory framework. This is closely related to the “no-barriers” principle I mentioned above.

    Finally, the GFA has provisions for “North-South” cooperation that would be difficult to implement without a DCFTA. You need free trade in energy for the all-Ireland electricity market to function for example.

    ¹Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area

  • eamoncorbett

    George , if the result of Brexit is a greater gulf between north and south then you can expect to see Stormont come under repeated pressure especially from Sinn Fein . The fractious relationship between them and the DUP could really come apart under this scenario . Brexit will be the acid test of the GFA.

  • Ray Lawlor

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

    To draw an analogy…

    Your bank manager doesn’t want you to default on your debt, you don’t want to default on your debt, the government doesn’t want you to default on your dept…

    but… alas…

    You get the idea.

    I’ve made the point many times… there’s either going to be a customs border that cuts through the island, or one that separates the islands. Take your pick.

    Lets suppose it remains across Ireland.

    Whether it is described as “hard” or “soft”, Brexit is a retrograde step for cross border… well cross border EVERYTHING. Trade, culture, travel etc.

    “Hard” or not, there is simply NOTHING good that is about to come from the next 2 years regarding our border.

  • Ray Lawlor

    George, you’ve articulated perfectly how I feel about it.

    Read my post above:

    “Whether it is described as “hard” or “soft”, Brexit is a retrograde step for cross border… well cross border EVERYTHING. Trade, culture, travel etc.

    “Hard” or not, there is simply NOTHING good that is about to come from the next 2 years regarding our border.”

    I agree too that it’s a nonesense that there are “three communities” here:

    “Northern Ireland as a community of minorities – unionist, nationalists and unaligned”

    There may well be a third community here, and it’s made up of our immigrant population – mostly from the EU and, I would guess, fervently pro-EU.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Going on the assumption that they are liars would seem to be a safe bet. They are after all tories – it’s a part of their upbringing, along with hypocrisy and unbridled self-interest.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The Ukraine-EU agreement may be big improvement for the Ukraine, but such a low level of integration is in no way acceptable as an outcome on this island. The Polish-Ukraine border, which I hae crossed, has crossings every 50 Km and is not at all like going from Fermanagh into Cavan.

  • Reader

    BonaparteOCoonassa: Going on the assumption that they are liars would seem to be a safe bet. They are after all tories – it’s a part of their upbringing, along with hypocrisy and unbridled self-interest.
    But, from the article: “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.”
    Are that lot also Tories, or some different type of liar telling the same lie?

  • Fear Éireannach

    If the British say they were not going to make NI a special case, but then do then I will welcome that, but they are still liars.

  • 1729torus

    The arrangement only started to be gradually implemented when it was finally signed in 2016. This is a 10 year affair. The UK would be starting from a better position. It’s not perfect, but it’s the next best thing to the EEA given the UK’s wish list .

    EDIT: EU-Ukraine Strategic Framework for Customs Cooperation

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    To be fair, the European Parliament and Council weren’t driving big red buses around telling people the NHS was going to be getting a £350 million per week cash injection.

    Forgive us for being a wee bit circumspect when it comes to the Tories

  • 1729torus

    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.

    Newton’s being uncharitable, those protests were intended to draw attention to the risk of a hard border, and they were successful. They let Dublin show that people actually cared.

  • NotNowJohnny

    The centre ground isn’t mythical. Whatever makes you think it is?

  • the rich get richer

    Could Ireland just adopt Britain as some sort of Overseas Protected Territory for 20 years (until we see how things turn out )

    We promise faithfully to give Britain the right to self determination after the 20 years………

    Its not to Ireland’s favour for Britain to run around like a headless bobo…………

  • Ray Lawlor

    I think the point is that over the years, Alliance and both the SDLP and the UUP have tried to claim it – with disastrous results for the latter.

    There might well be a political middle ground here, but so far it hasn’t manifested itself electorally.

    (I could throw in NI21 here to further make my point…)

  • Jeremy Cooke

    Wasn’t Alex Easton commenting recently on the number of properties with nobody on the electoral roll, some of them could be there; not interested and full of contempt for the entire political class.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Whenever I have contempt for the political class I make sure I get down early to vote to help throw the most contemptuous of them out.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I get the point. And glad we’re agreed that it’s not mythical.

  • Ray Lawlor

    It’s relevance is mythical.

  • Skibo

    What you are ignoring is that the EU are prepared to assist Ukraine to strive to join the EU without actually joining as a means of annoying Russia. There is no reason that the EU should make it easy for the UK to leave.
    It could lead to others leaving. Hardly something that the EU wants to look attractive.

  • Skibo

    It’s relevance has now become very relevant. With Unionism and Nationalism both in minority, the centre can hold the balance of power.

  • Skibo

    The solution could be as mentioned before is the have the border for customs and movement purposes at the Irish Sea. If that happens it will strengthen the bonds between the island and decrease the bonds with GB. Would this be something you would consider?

  • 1729torus

    Correct, but other considerations have to be balanced.

    The EU cannot diversify financial services immediately, and there is the question of the NI peace process and avoiding economic disruption. This arrangement gives the EU everything it wants out of Britain in the long run and shows it be a good faith actor. Brussels would likely still prefer the U.K. pay towards Galileo for example.

    The UK would be a pure rule taker, with no say at all. This would not be pleasant. Britain would become increasingly irrelevant.

  • mickfealty


  • MainlandUlsterman

    Of course not.

  • Skibo

    I am not so sure that the EU will diversify financial services. That was a ruby in the crown of the UK and the EU protects it’s financial services in all trade agreements yet uses access to their goods market as bait to get access to other countries financial services. I expect the EU to keep a clause in for financial services that will require all deals to be done from offices within the EU. That will relieve the UK of a substantial amount of GDP.
    Will the UK get over it, possibly but it will take time, possibly ten years and all that time they will be pulling any peripheral jobs back to GB.
    All that does is hit NI and other low wage regions. As Labour have warned, it will be a race to the bottom.
    Watch how the Tories limits the areas that minimum wage agreements will cover and cut back on welfare cover.

  • Skibo

    Pity you are not negotiating for the UK then! All parties say they don’t want a hard border in Ireland. I noticed Jim Nicholson included in his statement at the European Parliament that they would not accept a border within the UK either but he is the only one who called it out.

  • Ray Lawlor

    That’s not how our government works.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Actually Theresa May has said the same thing.