Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has issued a warning that if Britain doesn’t come up with something soon that resolves the problem of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, he will veto talks between the UK and the EU on trade.
Speaking to journalists at the EU summit in Gothenburg, Varadkar said: “We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past. We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one [of the Brexit talks].”
He went on: “It’s 18 months since the referendum. It’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”
As if to underline the gulf that exists between the two governments on the border issue, Boris Johnson weighed in yesterday during talks in Dublin with his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney.
Speaking to reporters, the foreign secretary said that the Border question – which he admitted had reached “something of an impasse” – should be dealt with in the second phase of negotiations between the UK and the EU. In other words, it should be included as part of the broader trade talks which it is hoped (somewhat optimistically) will start in the New Year.
“Everybody understands the difficulties that the Border poses and nobody wants to see a return to a hard Border,” he added. “We must work on it and we have got to work on it together. In order to resolve those issues and get it right for our peoples, it is necessary now to move on to the second stage of the negotiations which really entail so many of the questions that are bound up the Border issue.”
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Mr Coveney was having none of that. The matter, he said, should be addressed in the first phase of the talks, as agreed last summer after the invoking by Britain of Article 50. “All parties want to move on to second phase, but we are not in a place right now that allows us to do that.”
The Irish minister was no less accommodating on the likely timetable for the eventual trade talks which Mr Johnson said he wanted wrapped up as quickly as possible.
“It is going to take a number of years to finalise the detail of that,” Coveney said. “I think the appropriate timetable is closer to four or five years than to two.”
Spats between the British and Irish governments have been few and far between in recent years. The Good Friday accords, and the subsequent St Andrew’s Agreement effectively brought the curtain down on the IRA’s “armed struggle” while setting out the framework for devolved government at Stormont. At the same time, the two countries’ joint membership of the EU meant that the Border was hidden beneath a cloak of invisibility. When the Queen visited Dublin in 2011, all was sweetness and light. A year later, in Belfast, the late Martin McGuinness, the one-time IRA commander, even stepped forward to shake Her Majesty’s hand. It was was if 800 years of oppression, rebellion and misunderstanding had finally been consigned to history.
And then along came Brexit. And then along came the collapse of the Stormont Executive. And then along came the botched British general election, resulting in a Tory government propped up by Northern Ireland’s hardline DUP. Finally, along came Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s gay, half-Indian Taoiseach, whose wish to sort out the relationship with Britain once and for all owes next to nothing to 1916, 1922 and all that and everything to his determination to preserve peace in the North and ensure the future prosperity of the Republic.
If it helps, here are a few thoughts of my own that might bear consideration in the days remaining until the next EU summit, in Brussels, in mid-December.
First, is there any reason why Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland shouldn’t be regarded as a single market, post-Brexit, in respect, solely, of intra-Irish trade? This would not be the same as NI remaining in the EU Single market or Customs Union. It would be a bespoke arrangement affecting less than a quarter of 1 per cent of EU trade. There is already a common travel area between the UK and Ireland. Why not a common trade area between North and South?
Companies doing business on both sides of the border would avoid having to pay UK or EU tariffs so long as their products and services were confined to the island of Ireland. Appropriate license fees, relating to frequency and volume of sales, would be paid to Brussels. All goods and agricultural products, clearly marked Made in Northern Ireland or Made in the Irish Republic, as well as any vehicles used, would be electronically tagged. Goods and produce from Northern Ireland destined for other EU states via the Republic’s ports would be subject to EU tariffs on arrival. The same could apply to Irish exports to the UK coming through the North, most obviously to Scotland. Trade and movements of people between NI and the UK would continue exactly as now.
The border would remain open to individuals and groups from both territories. There would be no passport checks. Private vehicles would not be stopped, but would be subject to number plate recognition, as already happens on the M50 toll road south of Dublin and as applied, more generally, by the Garda Siochana traffic division. Smuggling would be illegal, as it is now. To cut back on illicit trade, it would make sense for the PSNI in the North and the gardai in the Republic to station small numbers of specialist officers on the opposite side of the border (e.g. Newry/Dundalk) and to allow hot pursuit by both forces into the other’s national territory. UK customs officers – no more than 20 in total – could be stationed in Dublin, Rosslare and Cork, alongside their Irish counterparts, to monitor traffic, including private cars, from Europe en route to the North.
The result: everything would change and yet nearly everything would remain the same. As a bonus, Gerry Adams would be furious.
I commend my proposal to the House.