Fewer east-west economic restrictions is more far important than an open border.

Ah, Brexit. My own thoughts have been from the start is that it represents a real and material threat to the economy of the Republic far more than any threat it poses to peace in Northern Ireland.

Guardian picture editors may love the agitprop of 1960s style Irish customs, but a good deal on trade and one that offers the UK access to the single market (albeit at a price) would send such lurid scenarios back where they belong: the cutting room of history.

The public disconnect between the UK and Irish governments may not as wide as it seems within the public rhetoric. But as we have seen from the collapse of Strand One of the Belfast, persistence in the telling of bad stories can have consequences.

And right now, there is no shortage of poor storytellers, on either side of the water.

In yesterday’s Irish Times Ronan McCrea provided a usefully sobering account of where the current mishandling of Brexit might take us all:

There is a reason that the British government has not been able to produce its own detailed proposals. Its position is fundamentally inconsistent.

The logic of the UK’s position since Theresa May set out her “red lines” in her Lancaster House speech is a hard border of some kind.

If the UK is to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice then EU law and World Trade Organisation rules mean that border checks between EU states (including Ireland) and the UK are unavoidable.

The British government has not been honest about this, but is now boxed in by its own dishonesty.

Then he notes (correctly in my own view) that…

…the British government appears to have assumed that it could get away with making reassuring noises about not wanting “a return to the borders of the past” but then brushing aside Irish protests if such a promise got in the way of their desire for a meaningful Brexit.

However much as the Irish reaction in the face of this complacent (largely, though not entirely, Tory) insouciance is perfectly understandable, Ireland’s reaction to it holds some non-trivial dangers to its own small open and private sector driven economy…

…this is not an unmitigated triumph for Irish policy.

By relying on its status as a loyal EU member Ireland has managed hold the British government to its promises in relation to a hard border in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.

But it has also meant that the chances of a hard Brexit have been increased.

Both for the Republic and for Northern Ireland, trade with Britain is more important than trade across the Irish Border.

Both economies would be greatly damaged by a deal that keeps an open economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland aligned but involves a customs and other trade barriers in the Irish Sea.

Indeed, the Irish Government is also, to an extent, boxed in. If the talks reach an impasse on the issue of the Irish Border, the chances of a hard Brexit disrupting trade between Britain and Ireland increase.

Having cited the need to protect the Belfast Agreement and recruited EU partners to hold Britain to its words on no hard border, it is hard for the Irish authorities to back off and admit that, for both Ireland and Northern Ireland it is more important economically to get a deal that allows maximum east-west trade than avoiding a border.

Then a well aimed (and much deserved) kick in the direction of Unionist Brexiteers (accurately described as a reflex of “recreational British nationalism” by Newton Emerson) within (and, I might add, without) the DUP:

The unpleasant truth is that for Brexiteers, economic damage to Northern Ireland and some undermining of the Belfast Agreement was a price worth paying to get to their promised land of a UK outside the EU.

Then, on the other hand, he notes that “…customs barriers between North and South were not among the many issues and injustices that caused the Northern Ireland conflict to erupt.” Indeed. Nor will they again.

He notes what most people in the press in Britain and the rest of Ireland seems anxious to ignore, which is the ongoing failure of powersharing in Northern Ireland. This McCrea rightly identifies is a far more substantial threat to peace.

Brexit is, and always was, a non-delusional threat to the medium to the long-term economic health of both islands in their entirety. All the more so, because, the majority in favour of Brexit was so slender even in England.

The problem is, as McCrea argues, “both the UK and Irish governments are now boxed in” by an overwhelming focus on creating a soft border to the exclusion of proper consideration of the far more lucrative East-West economic frontier might operate.


The UK government cannot now admit that, despite its protestations, it never intended to be bound by a promise to avoid a hard border.

The Irish Government, having marched its European allies to the top of the hill and made an open border between North and South a condition of the progression of talks, cannot now admit that for both Northern Ireland and the Republic, fewer east-west economic restrictions is a more important economic goal than an open border between North and South.

But as Gideon Rachman noted yesterday in the FT…

…the EU also has important choices to make. By treating Brexit as, above all, a legal process, the EU is largely ignoring the political and strategic implications of Britain leaving the EU. That is an intellectual failure that could have dangerous consequences for all sides.

Contrary to Brexiteer myth, where the political incentives exist, the EU has been very flexible. France and Germany both broke the Growth and Stability Pact with impunity (and much else besides), and Greece was given a bailout where no provision existed.

At the end of the day, the UK needs an accommodation and the EU needs it to come at enough of a price to disincentivise others from following the UK’s lead out of the door.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty