Ministers need to visit Northern Ireland to understand the reality of Brexit

Wednesday 3rd January 2018




Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Exiting the European Union and MP for Carshalton and Wallington

Brexit is nothing if not about big numbers. There are 3.2 million European Union citizens in the UK and at least 1.2 million UK citizens in the EU whose lives could be destabilised; there is a settlement bill which could run to over £50 billion; and there are 800 to 1,000 pieces of legislation to be fast-tracked into UK law with minimum or no scrutiny.

To those, 275 must be added. That is roughly the number of crossings between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. To complete the data set, 3,000 and 24,000. The 3,000 is the number of British soldiers who used to be garrisoned in and around Forkhill, in South Armagh, at the height of the Troubles, in an area with around 24,000 residents. It is claimed Forkhill used to be the most militarised place in Western Europe.

Resolving the border question is the third of Michel Barnier’s priorities.

Evidence from my recent visit to Northern Ireland suggests it will be the toughest to deliver, far tougher than resolving EU citizens’ rights and the divorce bill.

It is true that the Common Travel Area agreement (a patchwork of standalone commitments made over many years, rather than a formal agreement), which predates EU membership, provides a framework for addressing issues such as benefits and health care. What remains elusive is a seamless, frictionless, borderless customs arrangement if the UK leaves the Customs Union.

Why does that matter? The Forkhill residents whom I met stressed the risk that any presence, even an ad-hoc, occasional one, at the border of British customs officers or police, made necessary as a result of the UK leaving the Customs Union, could reverse nearly 20 years of virtual tranquillity which followed the Good Friday Agreement. It is for that reason that the Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to try to guarantee that the transfer of EU laws into domestic law will not endanger that Agreement.

Even without any security concerns created by a mobile border presence or fixed border crossings, Forkhill residents pointed to the difficulties which they will experience if any sort of frontier is re-introduced.

Farmers could be left with fields split across, post-Brexit, properly delimited countries; graveyards might span the border with access to the graveyard via one country only; congregations that live predominantly in one country with their church in another; children who live in one country, but go to school in another; businesses that operate on both sides of the border with concerns over the VAT regime and possible tariffs; and businesses with employees in both countries.

Those are serious cross-border problems when, currently, the only way to detect that the border has been crossed is when painted lines on the road change colour from white to yellow and when milk can cross the notional border four times between milking and appearing on supermarket shelves.

Whilst some solutions have been proposed, such as the former Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Pascal Lamy, suggesting that Northern Ireland could become an “autonomous customs territory” after Brexit, mirroring EU trade and customs policy so avoiding the need for checks at the Irish border, but requiring customs enforcement on trade between NI and the rest of the UK. They are unlikely to be received warmly by the Government or the DUP.

It is almost certain that UK-EU talks on exiting the EU will not move onto trade, as the UK Government desires, until the border question is settled. The EU 27 have made it clear that that matter has to be resolved first, that Ireland will not be abandoned, and that the onus is on the UK to find a solution. So far solutions are proving Delphic.

As Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said: “On the border issue, I’m sorry but we need more clarity than we have right now. We cannot move ahead to phase two on the back of a promise that we don’t see any delivery mechanism to make a reality.”

Ministers would have a clearer grasp of the dangers posed by Brexit if they visited border communities like Forkhill, in South Armagh, which, when I visited them, felt neglected and ignored. Ministers would then understand that coining a mendacious slogan to adorn the side of a bus is a whole lot easier than devising a frictionless border for one of Europe’s busiest and potentially fractious borders.

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