A border down the Irish Sea is a straw man

The Times of London lead “Irish want sea border after Brexit”  is probably plugging a line from Dublin harder than it deserves, in claiming that the Irish government under  new leadership is calling for  an economic border down the Irish Sea as the only viable alternative to an unacceptable  hardening of the  land border.

Sir Jeffrey immediately shot down that kite on behalf of the DUP on the Today programme, (although BBC NI’s habitually sleepy news website has yet to catch up). That in its way would appear to be definitive for at least the two years of the Conservative-DUP pact.

The story has surfaced along with signs of impatience in Brussels at alleged British  underpreparedness in the opening rounds of the negotiations. But as Brexit Secretary David Davis has pointed out: how can the issue of the Irish border be settled when trade talks have yet to begin, as required by the  EU’s own agenda which the British have now apparently accepted?

The looser British approach with Barnier is beginning  to look as much as a negotiating tactic as a sign of cabinet divisions, a view reinforced by the Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s  Today progamme interview today  (yes, Sir Jeffrey had an airtime competitor) when he answered  nearly every question  by saying that was a matter for negotiations which have barely begun.The tactic may be designed to reveal that the EU’s step by step approach is overly mechanistic and ignores the interdependence of many themes. While he holds to the line that the UK will leave the single market and the custom union by 2019 it will be succeeded  at least temporarily by something very like them.

Hammond appears to be in the driving seat. He looked forward to a transition period of up to five years which although he didn’t refer to it, would give more time to settle the border question.

The FT reports Hammond’s position as follows:

Mr Hammond said he wants a “standstill” transition leaving companies with full access to the single market and customs union, followed by a further “implementation phase” while a new, UK-specific trade accord is put in place. The chancellor believes it would be a waste of time and political capital trying to persuade the EU to adopt a new legal framework for an interim agreement, according to government officials and business people who have discussed the idea with him in recent days.

The push by Mr Hammond follows a softer line on immigration outlined by Amber Rudd, home secretary, this week and signals growing confidence among backers of a “soft Brexit” that they are gaining the upper hand over hardliners. Mr Hammond and Brexit secretary David Davis are edging towards a transition deal on terms broadly laid down by Brussels.

One British official said the government would seek a “swift, broad and simple” deal. The EU says the only transition model offering single market access it would accept would see Britain stripped of voting rights and influence in Brussels but obliged to accept European Court rulings, free movement rules and budget contributions. In a dramatic shift in cabinet thinking on the issue, Eurosceptic ministers including Michael Gove and Liam Fox have indicated they are prepared to accept such conditions for a time-limited period in the interests of a business-friendly exit.

This  ought to be good news for Dublin. What the Times story doesn’t mention  is that it’s as much up to the EU as the Brits to ensure that a “frictionless” border works.

From the Times story

The British government had proposed using technology such as surveillance cameras to allow continued free trade between the north and south of the island. Dublin called on British ministers to come up with new ideas that guaranteed absolute freedom of movement of goods and people across Ireland, irrespective of any wider Brexit deal.

The Irish government’s preferred option is for customs and immigration checks to be located away from the land border and at ports and airports instead — effectively drawing a new border in the Irish sea.

The move would antagonise the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the Conservative government and is at loggerheads with Sinn Fein over a power-sharing deal in Belfast. The DUP would object to any implication that Northern Ireland was not being treated as part of the UK. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, told his European counterparts that the republic “cannot and will not” accept the return of a hard border after Brexit and specifically took aim at the idea of solving the problem using technology. A Whitehall source said: “There is a new taoiseach and a new foreign minister and they’re stamping their authority. We’re being as positive as we can but it’s true to say that their attitude has hardened.”

The issue of the 310-mile Irish border has been thrown into sharp relief by Mrs May’s commitment to leave the customs union after Brexit, as it would become a potential smuggling route. Neither government wants a situation that would be reminiscent of the checkpoints that operated during the Troubles. In February The Times reported that Irish officials were working on technical solutions including the use of surveillance cameras.

In a significant departure from that position, Mr Coveney told a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers: “What we do not want to pretend is that we can solve the problems of the border on the island of Ireland through technical solutions like cameras and pre-registration and so on. That is not going to work.”

 

 

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