Even as we reach what we’re told is a climactic moment, it’s easy enough to see why the border problem is so hard to solve. It requires someone to go on the record to depart from a most cherished position.
Ireland would like the UK to remain within the single market and the customs union, or failing that, for Northern Ireland to do so.
The British government echoed by the DUP have ruled both out in favour of a free trade agreement with no tariffs with the EU and as many as they can get with the rest of the world. Yet they know they cannot hope to strike a deal as good outside the EU as within it. They have so far failed to come up with mutually acceptable terms, saying that’s why the negotiations have now to move on to the nitty-gritty of trade.
In the meantime Northern Ireland cannot in any way be treated differently from the rest of the UK. This is unrealistic if only because of the degree of interdependence in key sectors north and south and entirely sensible hopes for increasing them without harming NI-GB trade or undermining the constitutional position.
There is a circular argument here that has to be resolved.
The NI option would create some kind of economic border between NI and GB. This in itself would hardly benefit trade between GB and both parts of Ireland so it’s difficult to understand why Dublin is pressing it on its merits. It only makes sense to me as a trial run for Ireland’s best option for their ideal, which is for the whole UK to remain in the single market and the customs union, or best of all, for Brexit to go away.
These extremes are not tenable as negotiating positions for either side and they know it. But giving up on cherished positions is best done down to the wire, when resolve faces its ultimate test.
Such a moment may be today. Or maybe not. We shall only know in retrospect.
Irish sources have been concentrating on generalities like harmonising regulations and standards that reduce toxic political content.
You’d think a deal along these lines was perfectly possible, given that standards in a host of areas are harmonised already. The end result might be special customs and standards arrangements in key sectors like agribusiness and energy. These areas could expand by mutual EU/Irish and UK/Northern Irish consent- no doubt tricky to negotiate but doable by experts.
What remains to be sorted is how these would be guaranteed in the future or changed by mutual consent. This would be worked out in a transition period and would have to include adjudication mechanisms that do not give supremacy to the European Court of Justice but retain a crucial role for it. By analogy with the Human Rights Court and the Convention in Strasbourg, this too is surely feasible, although it gives the Tory right something big to swallow.
Also to be settled would be what is bilateral between the UK and Ireland and what is uniquely EU between them and would have to be replaced.The Irish tend to exaggerate the latter. The final impact on the present GFA is quite limited as far as I can see, but new arrangements for Brexit might benefit by being written into a new version of the Agreement.
It ought not to be beyond human ingenuity to come up with a workable formula today or over the next few days.
But a stumble over a general phrase could throw the whole business into the melting pot. Aside from the complexities of tariffs and regulations, the generalities of “frameworks” and “principles” take you into a whole new semantic ballgame.
Cliff Taylor explains current positions very fairly in the Irish Times.
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