The Irish border as a Brexit bargaining chip: A rejoinder to Legatum

The Legatum Institute’s ‘Special Trade Commission’ published a paper this week on the subject of Brexit and what it terms ‘the Irish border issue’. Citizens on the island of Ireland need to take note of this for two main reasons.

First, Legatum is one of the most influential think tanks in London on the subject of Brexit at the moment – its views are likely to have traction at the highest levels. And, secondly, it perpetuates egregious views of Northern Ireland, British-Irish relations and the border that can only cause damage if they find their way into government policy.

Leveraging a partisan opportunity from a shared problem

In their endeavour to turn a problem into ‘an opportunity’ (p.3), the authors present the most miserly account of what a ‘hardening of the border’ (p.3) after Brexit would mean:

The imposition of tariffs between NI and ROI would suggest that NI and ROI are returning to the days of trade barriers, and could increase the perception of division, as well as giving rise to economic hardships. (p.4)

Dear Special Trade Commission: the imposition of tariffs isn’t a ‘suggestion’ of a return to trade barriers – it is a trade barrier. Similarly, people on the island of Ireland are not worried that a hard border would ‘increase the perception’ of division… they know that it would constitute just such a division. And the ‘economic hardships’ that would occur as an effect of this harder border are of far more social and political consequence than this throwaway remark would imply.

The second line from this paragraph is even more remarkable:

Equally, the ROI’s economic reliance on trade with the UK means it would be adversely affected if the UK and EU fail to agree a free trade agreement (FTA) after Brexit, with suitable interim measures if no trade deal has been agreed by March 2019. (p.4)

As if the welfare of Northern Ireland wasn’t enough collateral, Legatum sees fit to present the Republic of Ireland as potential leverage for a means getting a Free Trade Agreement from the EU.

Indeed, much effort is exerted by the authors towards aggrandising Great Britain in comparison to its nearest neighbour. They even go so far as to parade the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland as a negotiating strength: ‘Broadly, the pre-1973 trade pattern, with roots in the 19th century, has proved remarkably resilient’ (p.12). Never mind north/south cooperation, British-Irish trade is far more important for Ireland – and this can be a bargaining chip for the UK to play against the EU.

The underlying premise of this paper, after all, is that the Irish border presents the UK government with an ‘opportunity’ to lever a palatable future trade agreement from the EU.

This creates an opportunity to deploy the kinds of solutions in the Irish context that would also work in the UK-EU context. It also presents an opportunity in the UK-EU negotiations to seize the initiative and discuss the future trade relationship now, as we cannot discuss the issues between the ROI and NI without discussing the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (p.7)

This is despite the fact that the EU Commission has been alert to – and forcefully opposed to – this strategy. Michel Barnier has explicitly ruled out this approach on several occasions, most recently in a press conference on the EU Commission paper on Ireland/Northern Ireland, stating:

The solution for the border issue will need to be unique. It cannot preconfigure the future relationship between the EU and UK.

Yet perhaps we should not be too surprised at the turning of a blind eye towards the complexity and unique circumstances of the situation here. Legatum appear to believe the only sensitivities to be considered in relation to the Irish border are those of the UK government and the ‘unionist majority’ (p.15). Such sensitivities are given as the reason why Northern Ireland cannot remain in the European Economic Area. No such consideration is accorded to the sensitivities of the nationalist community and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, let alone to its substantial Remain majority. This is exemplified in its somewhat excitable presentation of ‘technological solutions’ to manage the post-Brexit border.

Turning ploughshares into swords

The problem presented requires solutions that can be deployed between the UK and the rest of the EU, and could become a model for other border arrangements around the world. (p.4)

Legatum presents, apparently with no trace of irony, the notion that Northern Ireland – promoted in such far-flung places as Colombia and Sri Lanka as a model of the UK’s peacebuilding prowess – could be the poster-child for high-tech ‘border solutions’ across the globe. Never mind that meaningful, mutually beneficial cooperation across the border underpin the peace process – Legatum now propose that finding the right technology to survey, manage and control cross-border movement after Brexit could put this place on the map.

Blockchain technology, automatic numberplate recognition, unmanned aerial vehicles, ‘biometric solutions’… a Santa’s list of tech wizardry is cast tantalisingly before us. But, let us divert ourselves from this dazzling prospect to pause just a moment here. What condition has Brexit propelled us to – or what levels of crude antidiplomacy have we reached – to be witnessing the proposal that the future Irish border be controlled by remotely-operated drones using facial recognition technology?

To add further insult, Legatum presents the institutions of the 1998 Agreement (or at least a Wikipedia version of the same) as being ripe for transformation from instruments of trust-building and cooperation into tools of border management and control:

The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) or other Belfast Agreement bodies should be used to monitor the border, conducting risk assessments and advising when border security should be tightened or relaxed. (p.8)

Indeed, Legatum is so keen to rescue the SEUPB from redundancy that it foresees this body (established originally to coordinate the EU’s PEACE programme) ‘dealing with trade over the Irish border’ (p.24). Can it really be the case that Legatum’s Special Trade Commission is unaware of InterTrade Ireland, the Agreement’s implementation body established to do just that?

The real opportunity

All of this nonsense risks distracting us from the fact that there is real and genuine opportunity here – not for technological solutions, but for imaginative ones. The EU has repeatedly expressed its willingness to be flexible in the case of Northern Ireland/Ireland and the border. This is a genuine opportunity to protect peace and to build on the myriad of north/south and east/west links that enrich this society and make Northern Ireland the uniquely complex place that it is. Only the most cynical and desperate would view such flexibility merely as a weakness to be crassly exploited at any price.

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