Ireland – The Second Government Brexit position paper

No one wants to return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Even less does anyone, bar a few fanatics, want to return to the days of “the Troubles”. This much is obvious.

Settling the issues relating to what will be the UK’s only land border with the EU has been given a high priority by the EU too. Only yesterday, in response to the first UK government position paper (on customs), the  EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier,  named the Irish question as one of three important issues on which agreement would need to be reached before serious discussions on trade-related issues could begin.

So a mere 24 hours after the position paper on customs, another has appeared which offers us some insights into the Government’s thinking on Ireland.

The paper identifies four priorities:-

  1. Upholding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement in all its parts
  2. Maintaining the Common Travel Area and associated rights
  3. Avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods
  4. Aiming to preserve North-South and East-West cooperation, including on energy.

As far as the Good Friday Agreement is concerned, the paper points out that it was an agreement between the UK and the Irish Republic rather than the EU. Among other things, it affirmed “the permanent birthright of the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status: to identify themselves and be accepted as British or Irish or both, as they may so choose; to equal treatment irrespective of their choice; and to hold both British and Irish citizenship.”  The UK Government has every intention to preserve this arrangement after Brexit.

The Common Travel Area pre-dated either the UK or the Irish Republic joining the European project. Indeed, Irish citizens have enjoyed special rights in the UK for most of the period since 1922 – a reflection of the strong, historic links between the Irish people and those in the UK. The Common Travel Area in its present form also involves the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which were never part of the EU. It allowed freedom of movement throughout the area and  allows Irish citizens to vote in the UK’s locla and Parliamentary elections.

Given that the Common Travel Area arrangements have been administered by the governments of the parties involved rather than by the EU and that the EU has been happy about this, the document maintains that there should be no reason why this situation should not continue after Brexit.

The “hard border” issue is likely to prove the most complex. In 1972, the paper informs us, there were 17 HM Customs and Excise boundary posts at the major road crossing points along the 310-mile long Northern Ireland land border and more than 200 other crossings not approved for vehicular traffic.  These have all disappeared but this is the number of potential crossing points which would need to be reinstated if a “hard border” were imposed. No wonder all sides are keen to avoid such a scenario.  Some farmers’ land straddles the border.

The paper recognises that it cannot propose a unilateral solution to the problem of maintaining the free flow of trade across the Irish border. It does, however, point to instances “where the EU has set aside the normal regulations and codes set out in EU law in order to recognise the circumstances of certain border areas.” – including the border between the Greek and Turkish sectors in Cyprus and the Croatia/Bosnia border. At the same time, the paper acknowledges that resolution of this issue “cannot be based on a precedent”. This makes sense for, after all, the EU’s aspiration is for Cyprus to be reunited with both parts of the island in the EU and likewise, Bosnia is a candidate country, even though it is unlikely to be joining the EU any time soon. By contrast, the UK is going in the opposite direction.

The paper also refers to the position paper on customs. Obviously, on the one hand the peoples of the UK and Ireland have an unique relationship, but the Irish Republic is an EU member state and part of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.  A solution for customs issues at the Irish border is inevitably going to be linked to wider customs and trade issues which will need to be addressed as part of the Brexit process, but as anyone who has visited the Irish Republic will be very aware, a substantial percentage of the products on sale in supermarkets in Irish towns and cities originate in the UK. It is therefore unsurprising that Irish officials are very concerned about the damage their economy may suffer if no trade and customs agreement is in place on Brexit. Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, expressed a wish that the UK would not actually leave the EU, or if it did, that we would remain within the EEA. Dan Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to the UK, by contrast, hoped that we would remain inside the Customs Union.

So the  progress towards the “innovative and untested” customs proposals and the possibility of a temporary customs arrangement discussed in the earlier position paper will be followed particularly closely in Dublin. Given that even if the UK government  changes tack and opts for ongoing membership of the EEA, agricultural goods would be outside this arrangement, it will take a lot of hard bargaining on both sides if all goods and services are to enjoy even relatively free access across the Irish border, whatever form that border may take. If it sticks to the proposals outlined in the position paper, there will be a number of areas where agreements on mutual recognition of conformity would have to be signed and time is short.

The North-South East-West cooperation may be a new term to many of us. North-South simply means the Belfast-Dublin axis and East-West refers to the relationship between London and Dublin. In many ways, the various fora such as the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference which have been set up under this label are the outworking of the recognition of the  close historic and geographical links between the UK and the Irish Republic. The cooperation has manifested itself in some specific sectors such as energy and the position paper emphasizes the need for the cooperation to continue after Brexit.

With this in mind, the concluding statement that a formal agreement between the EU and the UK on the Irish border issue early in the Brexit negotiations would not mean the end of any dialogue between the UK and the Irish government makes perfect sense. There will be a number of bilateral issues to resolve which do not directly involve the EU as a whole.

As with the position paper on customs, the abiding impression left by this document is that it has identified the issues which need a resolution without offering too much detail as to how they are to be resolved. Unlike the customs paper, however, where failure to reach an agreement would be far more disastrous for the UK than for the EU as a whole, when it comes to Ireland, a crashing out of the EU with no agreement would probably hit them harder than us. The Irish government is well aware of this and we cannot but hope for their sakes as well as ours that it will not be WTO rules on March 30th.


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John Petley

John Petley

John Petley is Operations Manager for Campaign for an Independent Britain

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  1. Adam HileyReply

    Northern Ireland is no business of the EU and will this useless and dithering Government wake up withdraw from the EU now or resign

  2. Ken WhittakerReply

    Two questions:
    1. Why are Irish citizens allowed to vote in British elections?
    2. Would a hard border be such a bad thing? Inconvenient yes, but if it’s necessary then live with it.

  3. StevenReply

    Exactly, Ken, why are Irish citizens allowed to vote in our elections? They fought a very bloody uprising against being a part of the United Kingdom and became supposedly an independent country in the early 1920’s yet they still have rights here which should be only available to the citizens of THIS STATE! NO OTHER REAL country in the world would allow that to my knowledge.

    Yes, if we need to have a ‘hard’ border to have the REAL so-called ‘hard’/’clean’ Brexit we voted for then so be it!

  4. StevenReply

    Adam, yes, this government has been constantly dithering for over a year now and it is getting increasingly tiresome. They are doing it so much it makes you wonder if they REALLY do wish to withdraw us from the EU or ‘kick the can down the road’ so much the probable next Labour government cancels it.

    • Adam HileyReply

      this Country needs to get rid of the 3 main parties the French only last Year rid themselves of their establishment parties the Republican and Socialist parties though I care little for Emmanuel Macron the French still rid themselves of the 2 old parties

  5. Ian HolmesReply

    Adam, the old parties in France are just biding their time, as they lick their self-inflicted wounds. They know Macron is a busted flush, and are just waiting for the predicted union mayhem to kick in. Macron has promised to bring France into the 21st century with employment law, and the unions will not stand for that. Cue, much burning of tyres, roadblocks at ferry ports (they love to drag us into their internal conflicts) and livestock being paraded down the Champs Elysees, as Macron’s power base crumbles, and the old establishment licks their lips in anticipation of a return to power and the old ways.
    We can try to rid ourselves of our own disastrous pro-eu 3 main parties, but they ARE our establishment, their tentacles run deep throughout all government posts, and any little upstart party, such as Ukip, will be swiftly dealt with aided and abetted by the disgraceful BBC, which as we all know receives funding directly from the British taxpayer, and its other benefactor, the unelected eu!
    Our government of all parties had tried successfully for over 40-years to trash this country and enslave it ever deeper into the one state of the eu, and I see no change at all, even though they agreed that we are leaving.
    My belief is that Mrs May is sidestepping the minefield of regulations we have to dismantle, and is hoping and praying that Davis makes a spectacular and half hearted (he’s well know for his laxity in depth of political reasoning) total balls-up of negotiations, to the point where the remainers have regained all their strength and force a 2nd referendum onto the statute books, which they and the eu will pour millions of euros into from their growing war chest of cash to ‘buy’ the result.

  6. Phil JonesReply

    Ian, your comments on May’s dithering and possible 2nd referendum are no doubt right on. That’s obviously the game. The delays on Brexit, the deliberate screwing up of the GE by including fox hunting, dementia tax, kids’ lunches, etc. The ‘old EU game’ of ‘think again’, but in a longer time frame than the usual one that was played in Ireland with the Lisbon Treaty.

    What is needed is committed Brexiteers writing to their MPs and to the PM to express their anger at all of the delay and to tell this Government that the Conservative Party will be unelectable for a generation if they keep playing their games and don’t get on with returning the UK to a country from the present EU province. I’ve written maybe 30 or 35 letters to May and Davis over the last year, cajoling them into getting a move on. If they got even a thousand letters a week with the same sentiments you’d see some swifter action than now. Barnier and Co. are obviously playing along — with the ‘stall, stall, stall’ that you’d expect. I just wish that more people would put pen to paper and pay for a stamp.

    When I voted last June I fully had in mind some sort of economic adjustment period (what the liberal left called then and is still calling the ‘cliff edge’). That was built in. Very happy to go through that to return the UK to being a country. Why now is May suddenly listening to those like Hammond who are on about the ‘cliff edge’ when it was already factored in to our thinking? We shouldn’t have to be listening to Project Fear all over again. Big Business didn’t vote on 23 June 2016; human beings voted. Why now is Big Business calling the shots?! If enough letters were pouring into Westminster demanding that May & Co. get on with things as quickly as possible without heavy weight being given to what Big Business thinks, we’d see some real action.

    In regard to May, I’m not sure she’s strong enough to see things through even if she had the commitment. I’d like either David Davis or Jacob Rees-Mogg to take over if she goes. I’ve seen JRM commenting on Brexit and he understands the issues and is committed to the delivery of Brexit as quickly as possible — even if it means walking away from the ‘stall, stall, stall’. JRM and DD are running head to head on succeeding May, and if she goes I’d be happy with either of the other two taking over.

    • StevenReply

      Jacob Rees-Mogg is the man for me! Yes, he is very posh, an ‘Old Etonian’ but isn’t ashamed of either fact and doesn’t pretend to be ‘ordinary’ like pro-European fraud David Cameron did. He is very pro-Brexit and would get on with the job sharpish if he was PM. May is a congenital ditherer. The Tories should get rid of her after the party conference and put either JRM in the job or Mr. Davis.

  7. John Petley
    John PetleyReply

    For a good summary of the issues likely to be faced in the resolving the Irish border question, this helpful video is easy to explain. it uses the Sweden/Norway border by means of comparison.

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