The EU as much as the British, should not use the Irish border as a a pawn in the Brexit negotiations, and must move on

Fintan O’Toole has been treating us to splendid summer of seminal articles that give the lie to the idea of a silly season. Today he offers the thought that in an echo of the old Churchill phrase, the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone are unravelling Brexit. While the image draws us in, it is also slightly forced. I’ve just returned from a break in Fermanagh which included a visit down the Marble Arch Caves.  The system, if not the section open to tourists, stretches across the border. Here the “parishes “ are handled superbly in a splendid example of cross border cooperation.

In the article the border parishes and steeples are of course a metaphor for the role of the Irish border in the Brexit negotiations. This time, the problem has been internationalised. Neither Britain nor Ireland should be content to leave it at that.

For the massed ranks of UK government’s critics, the EU commission is being cast as an implacable behemoth, the British as a mere supplicant. But the British are reckoning that the balance of strength is a good deal more even than that. The British paper on the border may indeed be more vision than strategy, but is there any need to doubt they are genuine about opposing border checks? For me the British argument is more than plausible, that the Irish border question cannot be settled independent of the future trading relationship with the EU. They want a free trading relationship which would cancel out most border problems. If somehow you were settle the border on so far unknown EU terms at this stage you would create the precedent for  terms of trade for the entire negotiations.

So who is it really who are playing the border as a pawn?

Should the Irish government heed O’Toole’s advice and support the British opposition against the British government in calling for a transition period in  which the UK remains within the single market and the customs union?

While this has  obvious short term appeal, it comes up against two major problems.  It assumes the EU would buy it, never mind the British government: and it says nothing about the final solution beyond pointing up the seductive implication of calling Brexit off.

No, the immediate challenge for Varadkar is not whether he should side with British Labour. What is far more important is the  line he takes as one of EU 27 on the judgement that ”sufficient progress” has been made on the border to move on to trade issues as the British are pressing for.

Over the next month, the border topic may end up being  buried by a greater wrangle about the divorce payment. But if not, Irish diplomacy within the EU should concentrate on persuading the bigger partners to avoid making the Irish border the stumbling block against moving the negotiations forward. Secondly, the Irish and British should seek the EU’s blessing to come together to devise practical solutions to feed into the negotiations, preferably with or if necessary without, northern input. This is no time to stand on protocol.

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

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