It has to be faced. Brexit will happen. The Irish border problem will not stop it

It’s now clear to me that we convinced Remainers must accept that Brexit is going to happen. It will not implode through the weight of its own contradictions. There is no prospect of an alternative government that will halt the process.

Yesterday felt like a real turning point.  As a result of yesterday’s agreement on the transition period the EU leaders will ratify on Thursday, the UK will remain within the single market and the customs Union beyond the Leave date of March next year to December 2020 and perhaps a bit longer if really necessary to settle the final deal. The UK will contribute £40 billion to the EU budget over many years. “Taking back control” will happen so long as taking back means voluntarily staying close to the EU.  Many of us will continue to  believe that it’s an enormous waste of time and  energy and thoroughly bad for Ireland north and south but we must make the best of it. The plot will twist and turn with increasing momentum in the coming months in a rush to the denouement when all can go wrong up to resolution at the last minute. At this point in the story we’re stumped if we know how. And that will keep us – or some of us – on the edge of our seats.

What clues are we given?

Jacob Rees Mogg is reduced to chucking fish into the Thames in support of the Scottish fishing industry. He tells us the government has roiled over and hasn’t even had its tummy tickled but he baulks at forcing a confrontation with the government. If now is not the right moment, will  the diehard Brexiteers’ chances be any better later, when either the existence of the government may be at stake or they have achieved  enough cross party support in favour of the final deal?

On the border, the UK government’s aim is what it has always been, to reach an open trading agreement with the EU that finesses most of the border problem out of existence.

The DUP are more or less silent this time at the news that “the backstop” is  included in the legal text, albeit  yet to be agreed in final form. Why wouldn’t they be?  For them the position is no different from last December. They Trust Theresa, and they keep her in power. Unlike much of the media they will have noted Brexit Secretary David Davis ‘s  words at the press conference  yesterday. And in a letter to EU Council president Donald Tusk last night, while the prime minster agreed to include in the withdrawal treaty “the operational legal text for the ‘backstop option’”  it came in  parallel with talks around a “deep” EU-UK trade deal to avoid a hard border or a specific solution for Northern Ireland. She did not alter her previous description of the agenda.

The Irish government are content that the British and EU negotiators will begin discussion on the border problem “sooner rather than later”   – even next week.  They will have their work cut out. How can the border circle be squared?

The UK gloss is that alignment applies only to matters which are already in an all -island economy. Is it possible or desirable to isolate them, to create a British-Irish zone compatible with EU rules and British ambitions?

Tony Blair’s chief facilitator of the GFA Jonathan Powell writing in the Independent believes it’s impossible

The EU draft divorce treaty makes it clear the province would effectively need to be in the single market as well as the customs union to avoid regulatory differences, particularly in the agricultural sector, which would otherwise require border checks. The arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg has, in desperation, suggested that we should demand that Ireland leave the customs union and the single market so we can resolve the problem.

Theresa May has therefore committed the worst possible sin a negotiator can commit. She has boxed herself in. Theresa May’s speech may have temporarily united the Tory party, but it has not solved the substantive problems. Indeed, her problems on Brexit may only just have begun and it may turn out that the insoluble problem of the Northern Ireland border is the issue that finally brings the entire negotiation crashing down.

And yet.. the shape and tone of the transition deal points towards a joint determination  not to make the Irish border the rock on which the whole Brexit negotiation founders.

 

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