Sharper words from Varadakar but no change in substance. But here’s a new idea.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Dublin government’s latest expressions of concern about Brexit are focused  on Ireland.  But why should the Irish expect  greater clarity and urgency from London on the border when London has been so  vague about everything else?  By itself, lack of clarity needn’t  be taken as a  sign of indifference. Leo Varadkar’s comments may be a mite sharper than Enda Kenny’s, but in substance there is not an iota of difference between them.

Mr Varadkar, who became prime minister in June, said on Friday: “What we’re not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they’re the ones who want a border. “It’s up to them to say what it is, say how it would work, and first of all convince their own people, their own voters that this is actually a good idea. “As far as this government is concerned there shouldn’t be an economic border. We don’t want one.”

The FT among others, reports the inevitable “clarification” of yesterday’s Times story….

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney restated on Friday that technology alone is not “the approach we can take”. The Times reported that Ireland’s preferred option after Brexit was for customs and immigration checks to be located at airports and ports, away from the land border. Such a plan would effectively draw a new border in the Irish Sea. But Mr Coveney told Irish radio that there was “no proposal that the border would be in the Irish Sea”.

..and continues along the path to a softer Brexit

Charles  Grant, director of the think-tank the Centre for European Reform, said there was a nearly 50 per cent chance that Britain remains in a customs union with the EU indefinitely — in a move that would open up the possibility of a soft Irish border. “If Labour as a bloc [at Westminster] decides that Britain should stay in a customs union, then there is no parliamentary majority for not being in a customs union.”

The authoritative  CEF recently published an overview of the Irish dimensions of Brexit by the almost aptly named Edward Burke

The Irish government will work hard to avoid an acrimonious Brexit. But Irish officials say that if Ireland is forced to take sides in a dispute between Brussels and London, then Ireland’s EU’s membership will always take precedence over bilateral relations with the UK. The EU is a much more important trading partner for Ireland. Dublin values the international trade agreements negotiated by Brussels and points out that Ireland’s membership of the single market attracts overseas investment. Speaking in February 2017, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said: “The foundation of Ireland’s prosperity and the bedrock of our modern society is our membership of the European Union”…

Between 2014 and 2020 Northern Ireland expected to draw more than €3.5 billion from the EU, including approximately €2.5 billion in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments – larger than any other comparably-sized UK region. More than 8 per cent of Northern Ireland’s GDP is dependent upon EU funded programmes.

After Brexit, EU funds will have to be replaced by funding from London, or a recession in Northern Ireland will be inevitable. The UK government has yet to indicate which EU budget programmes it will replace after 2020 (Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has guaranteed EU levels of funding for one year after 2019, the year Britain will probably leave the EU).

Theresa May’s failure to secure a majority in the June general election presents the DUP with a rare opportunity of holding meaningful power in Westminster. Some in the DUP, including leader Arlene Foster, are aware of the threat of a hard Brexit to Northern Ireland’s economy. But the DUP is unlikely to use nuanced, persuasive rhetoric to convince the Conservatives to soften Brexit – the DUP is better known for bluntness in stating its undiluted commitment to maximising British sovereignty, and its unwavering patriotism. The DUP will continue to take a back seat in Westminster when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. 

Even with common EU membership, North-South trade in goods is surprisingly low for two small jurisdictions sharing the same island. Around a quarter of the North’s goods exports go to the South, but less than 2 per cent of the Republic of Ireland’s goods exports go to Northern Ireland. An exit from the EU without a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU would further depress  cross-border trade in goods, as these would be subject to tariffs.

Of all the nations and regions of the UK, Northern Ireland has the most compelling case to establish a separate, privileged relationship with the EU in the post-Brexit era. Northern Ireland has already enjoyed a special status in the EU since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And EU citizenship will remain an automatic right for many people born in Northern Ireland after Brexit (under the Irish constitution, reaffirmed by the Good Friday Agreement, citizenship extends to anybody born on the island of Ireland as long as one parent is already an Irish citizen).

The EU has at least one near-unilateral option available to it – to maintain funding for special peace programmes in Northern Ireland regardless of future UK contributions to the EU budget. Other proposals will be more difficult to implement, such as allowing Northern Ireland continued access to EU structural and investment funds after Brexit.

Both the EU and the UK should come up with a damage limitation plan for Northern Ireland if they fail to agree quickly on a comprehensive trade agreement. One suggestion would be the creation of a specific regime for Irish and Northern Irish goods and services (including and beyond agri-food), essentially exempting them from tariffs and most customs checks if they remain on the island of Ireland. A swiftly negotiated joint EU-UK customs agreement would also ease bureaucratic pressures and costs. 

On devising such a plan, the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern  has lamented a year of wasted time for bilateral north-south and Irish-British action.

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