Writing About Brexit: the Irish Border

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 12th September 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

You cannot have a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because it would be the end of the peaceful settlement of 1998: it would cause economic hardship on the island of Ireland: Northern Ireland voted by majority to remain in the EU.

Westminster politicians and pundits appear to have great difficulty in comprehending that they cannot merely instruct the Republic of Ireland to leave the EU to resolve the problem, nor declare that as they won’t support a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic that means there isn’t a problem: or that it’s entirely the Republic of Ireland’s problem since they’re the ones making difficulty over it, and sometimes the better-informed ones also look at the status quo and mutter indignantly that after all, mostly what’s crossing that transparent border is agricultural products and animals, so why is that even an issue, why not just go on letting Irish farmers grow potatoes in one part of the island to be made into crisps in another part, or transport their cattle to be slaughtered in the nearest abbatoir without worrying about which side of the border it is?

None of that obviously resolves the problem: the EU cannot allow goods to flow unhindered from a third country into the EU via the transparent border on the island of Ireland, and they will not allow the Good Friday Agreement to be broken. Much to the baffled annoyance of Westminster politicians, they found themselves for the first time in the history of English government actually having to negotiate with the Irish government as equals – indeed, from a weaker position.

(This has been an interesting preview, since I anticipate similiar problems when the Westminster government has to negotiate with Holyrood post-independence.)

Theresa May, baffled, but wanting to get on with the important part of Brexit (for her) – evicting foreigners from the country, agreed to a deal where the whol of the UK would continue to comply with all EU regulations with regard to goods until the day someone invented the technology whereby all customs checks on goods could be carried out without any physical check at the border at all. (This effectively meant “indefinitely”, as Brexiters in Parliament noted: the backstop for the UK was intended to preserve the transparent border in Ireland without risk to the EU’s internal market, even if the UK crashed out without a deal at the end of the transition agreement.)

Theresa May summoned the Cabinet to Chequers for a dinner meeting, presented them with this deal, told them it was the very best Brexit deal the UK could get, and instructed them to defend it and vote for it.

Boris Johnson resigned shortly afterwards, declaring that he just could not support that terrible deal.

After becoming Prime Minister, last autumn, faced with an unruly Parliament which the UK Supreme Court would not allow him to just shut down to get rid of those pesky MPs, Boris Johnson announced he had a much better deal than Theresa May’s – an oven-ready, fantastic deal. This one would mean a border down the Irish Sea! That would be no problem at all, right?

On 5th November 2019, Boris Johnson wrote in praise of his own deal in the Telegraph: his article was headlined “A deal is oven-ready. Let’s get Brexit done and take this country forward”.

Boris Johnson’s “fantastic, oven-ready deal” involved any goods transported from the island of Great Britain to Northern Ireland, including obviously all shipments by supermarkets to their stores in Northern ireland, being labelled and custom-checked as if from a third country to the EU. That’s what it always required. That was why the DUP found it insupportable.

Writing in the Telegraph today, 12th September 2020, not even 11 months after he enthusiastically praised his “oven-ready deal” and commended it to the voters for the general election, Boris Johnson says:

“Unless we agree to the EU’s terms, the EU will use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea.” [No “extreme interpretation”, of course: just literally what Boris Johnson signed on behalf of the UK government in December.] “We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI.” [The businesses affected by this have been lobbying the government for months to provide trade regulations for the labelling required by the EU for third-party food exports, so that the transport of food products from GB to NI would not be stopped: the government has ignored them til now.]

“I have to say we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off; or that they would actually threaten to destroy the ecomomic and territorial integrity of the UK.”

That is, it appears, Boris Johnson’s excuse for the clauses in the Internal Market Bill that unilaterally modify the Withdrawal Agreement and break international law: he “never seriously believed” that the EU would uphold them.

In a Zoom call addressing the 250 Tory backbenchers who form the 1922 committee – if 55 of them send a letter of no-confidence to the chair, they can force a vote of no-confidence against Boris Johnson as leader of the Tory Party – Boris Johnson told them that his Internal Markets bill would ensure goods corssing the Irish Sea were not subject to “unnecessary” checks or tariffs – “unnecessary” checks and tariffs which he agreed to last December in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson said he wouldn’t have time for questions, and ended the Zoom call before his backbenchers could ask any.

Bob Neill, the Tory MP who asked the question about breaking international law, has put forward an amendment – a shy little rebellion – saying that the Prime Minister cannot use the Internal Market bill to break international law without the consent of Parliament. Apparently about 30 Tory MPs are expected to vote for this amendment, if the Tory Whips can’t convince them otherwise – Boris Johnson may only have a 50-MP majority by the end of next week.

Still enough to get his Internal Market bill passed unamended, though.

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