Am I on my own in becoming weary of yet another of the great and good speaking in general terms about the future of the Border? Tony Blair, addressing a European People’s Party gathering in Co Wicklow was at pains to declare his confidence in Theresa May’s sincerity over wanting a “ frictionless “border, even though by rejecting continuing membership of the single market and free movement she has made it the problem without a solution so far.
“I honestly believe, whatever my disagreements over Brexit with the present British Prime Minister and government, I think they will do everything they possibly can to make sure that the border is not a hard border and that we have the most satisfactory and open border arrangements as possible.”
Mr Blair said there was a consensus in British politics that the gains of the past few years in Northern Ireland should be retained.
Assuring European Brexit sceptics of British commitment on the point perhaps matters a little. Problem is, neither he nor Michel Barnier have any real idea how it will be possible. And despite Barnier’s good intentions about giving priority to Ireland, how can it be known until terms for trading after Brexit are decided? And that will take a couple of years at least, assuming the Brexit timetable is maintained The border doesn’t exist in an Irish bubble.
Significantly perhaps, he placed the greater onus on the EU to solve the problem, even though as the Irish side keep repeating, they didn’t create it.
The biggest challenge is going to be the biggest challenge for the European Union because after Brexit then the border becomes the border between the UK and the European Union.
However, he conceded today that disruption to the Common Travel Area (CTA) will be “inevitable”.
He said the CTA “has meant ease of going back and forth across the border, vital for work and family connection has been in place for almost 100 years. And the absence of customs controls – both countries being in the Single Market and Customs Union – have meant a huge boost to UK-Irish trade”.
The Belfast Agreement was “formulated on the assumption that both countries were part of the EU.
“This was not only for economic but also for political reasons, to take account particularly of nationalist aspirations. Some of the language will therefore require amendment because of Brexit.”
However, he said that “with goodwill, including from our European partners, this should be achievable with the minimum of difficulty.”
Asked about the prospect of a united Ireland, Mr Blair said, “I think you can see there’s going to be a big debate, as you’d expect, and there’s lots of people talking about it. But in the end it will depend on what the terms of Brexit really are.
Mr Blair warned that “A hard border between the countries would be a disaster and I am sure everyone will and must do all they can to avoid it.
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