12 May 2018

Escaping the Irish straitjacket


Walter Bagehot once said that “dullness in matters of government is a good sign, and not a bad one”. If that remains true as a general rule, then Brexit is proving to be an exception.

With delayed legislation and stalled negotiations, there is, at present, a soporific level of inaction on the question of how Britain will disentangle itself from the EU and what our future relationship with the continent will look like. And, contrary to Bagehot’s claim, that is a very bad sign indeed.

A trio of interlocking Brexit stalemates – between two halves of the Cabinet, between Government and Parliament, and between the UK and the EU27 – mean that progress towards the exit has come to a halt. And as the Brexit bicycle has slowed to a stop, it has begun to wobble, with the range of possible twists in the Brexit tale wider now than ever before.

All bets are now off, with outcomes as varied as a no-deal Brexit and a path for the UK back into the EU looking less unlikely than they did only a few months ago. As George Trefgarne argued on CapX this week, such uncertainty has become a drag on economic growth.

The road to this intransigence runs through Ireland. The importance of avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is the predominant issue in the current customs impasse and has become a straitjacket that the Prime Minister shows few signs of being able to wriggle out of.

The crucial question for the Government is what that straitjacket is made from. Is it built of  irrefutable and immovable facts, or is it ultimately a political construction?

According to EU negotiators and the Irish government, the ‘Max Fac’ customs approach supported by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid is incompatible with avoiding a hard border in Ireland. They also claim that Theresa May’s preferred option, a customs partnership, goes only a small part of the way to solving the problem.

Getting Over the Line, a new report from Graham Gudgin and Ray Bassett at Policy Exchange, restates the persuasive case that this hard line is not the product of incontrovertible realities but political choices. A free trade agreement between Britain and the EU coupled with technical solutions to the border issue would, they claim, solve the problem.

In his foreword to the report, David Trimble, who (along with John Hume) won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland, does not mince his words.

“In recent months,” he writes, “senior politicians – some of whom were partners in the Peace Process – have sought to spread fear about a return to violence.” He goes on to say that “those seeking to alter the position of the democratically-elected UK Government in delivering the result of the Brexit referendum with such scare tactics cannot appreciate the strength of peace – nor the facts of how modern border can operate.”

The report explains just how feasible an Irish border without physical infrastructure really is. This goal is not the stuff of Brexiteer magical thinking that ardent Remainers like to claim. In fact, such a system has been successfully tested on the Norway-Sweden border. An EU-commissioned report by the former Director of the World Customs Organisations found plenty of ways in which technology could be used to avoid the need for erecting new infrastructure at the Irish border.

These are not claims being made by ideologues or negotiators with a point to prove. They are the views of impartial experts. And anyone who refuses to listen to them, and fully explore their suggestions for the Irish border, is being disingenuous in their concern for peace in Northern Ireland.

Sadly, a great many Remainers who have identified Ireland as their best chance of reversing or softening Brexit fall into that category. So do Michel Barnier and his team. As a result, peace in Northern Ireland has, shamefully, become a bargaining chip.

The question now is whether the Government can reframe the debate about the border. That means doing more to make clear the feasibility of practical solutions to this problem. And, above all, it means overturning the absurd notion that Barnier’s hard line is driven by what is best for the communities of Northern Ireland, and not the political objectives of Brussels.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.