A hard border is undesirable but the only thing that could work

In his weekly column Michael Pattwell looks at the options, as the UK prepares to leave the EU on March 29
A hard border is undesirable but the only thing that could work
FOCUS ON BREXIT: "Every news bulletin on radio or television, every newspaper and magazine has both reports of the latest developments and at least one feature article," says Michael Pattwell

THERE seems to be nothing much to talk about now, apart from Brexit. Every news bulletin on radio or television, every newspaper and magazine has both reports of the latest developments and at least one feature article. It seems to go on and on. The optimists among us believe that by March 29 we will know what exactly is going to happen, while the more cautious believe that neither Britain nor the E.U. will be anywhere near to having achieved a position that will facilitate Britain going its own independent way. In any event March 29 was never intended to be the date by which everything would be wrapped up. That date is merely the beginning of an almost two-year ‘transition period’ — up to the end of 2020 — during which a final relationship could be reached.

‘Brexit’ is, of course a new and made-up word but there is no need to parse it; it is easily understood. On the other hand the word ‘backstop’ — which I thought was another makey uppy word — is a word that already exists. It is defined as “a thing placed at the rear of something as a barrier or support”. It seems to have a particular relevance to baseball where it is a high fence or similar structure behind the home plate area. In general terms it is an emergency precaution or last resort and should act as the ultimate solution when things go badly wrong.

So, what exactly is the ‘backstop’ when applied to Britain exiting the E.U.? The deal concluded between Mrs. May and the E.U. includes a provision that would see Northern Ireland staying aligned to some rules of the EU single market, if another solution cannot be reached before the end of the transition period.

In practical terms it seems to mean that goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked to see if they meet EU standards because without some sort of customs control on the border those goods could easily find their way across the border into the Republic and thus into the EU as a whole. The same applies to traffic in the opposite direction. To set up checking systems would be nothing less than creating a border between the two territories. Otherwise, in effect, a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union, would be created until both the EU and UK agree that it is no longer necessary. It is also provided, I understand, that the UK would not be able to leave the backstop unilaterally — meaning the EU would need to approve the ending of the backstop. The UK would, therefore, be required to follow EU rules for an indefinite period of time whilst, due to having left the EU, having no input to the formation of those rules.

The alternative is the creation of what is called “a hard border”. This is a border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland that is strongly controlled and protected by customs and other officials, police, or soldiers, rather than one where people and goods are allowed to pass through easily with few controls.

There are concerns that a return to a hard border could reignite the political violence of The Troubles. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement removed security checkpoints from the Irish border and made it practically invisible. To reverse that now could be very provocative, especially to the Unionist community, because if the situation envisaged by the backstop was to materialise it seems most likely that a border of some sort would have to be created down the Irish sea — cutting off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The problem remains, however, that if the Irish border remains open as it is today there would still need to be checks in place for goods in and out of the rest of the UK and EU. If they cannot be checked at the land border then the only other way to do it is through the ports and airports, meaning road freight between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK , as well as between Northern Ireland and the Republic, could not take place and that, to me, is nothing short of nonsense.

A hard border in Ireland, though most undesirable, it seems to me, is the only thing that could work. A border in the Irish sea seems to be completely unworkable and added to that the fact that the British mainland and Northern Ireland are both under British jurisdiction means that Britain would be effectively policing itself, as well as policing for the EU. Could Britain be trusted to do that? There are many who think not.

Why, one may ask, do we need to have a border at all? Leaving politics aside, especially the politics of 100 years ago, it is because the UK has insisted it will leave the EU single market and customs union. As a consequence different rules and regulations will apply on the two sides of any border. In some cases the standards applied in the different jurisdictions to the production of goods will be radically different. In addition it is likely that there will be tariffs, excise duties and taxes to be enforced. Possible restrictions on the free movement of people must be considered too.

There is a suggestion that with modern technology ways and means can be found to facilitate the movement of goods between different states. That may be so but the possible difficulties will not arise from law-abiding firms and individuals. Where there are borders there are criminals — smugglers mainly — who will disregard standards and who are out to make lots of money out of price differences and the avoidance of taxes. The smuggling of goods, however, is one thing but the illegal movement of people into and out of countries may be much more serious. That means, somehow, everything in and out of the UK to and from the EU needs to go through a border check.

The fact of the matter is that the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic are completely interconnected. Huge amounts of goods and services cross the border every day without checks of any kind. It is estimated that at least 25,000 to 30,000 people travel across the border each day for work. The Republic and Northern Ireland have a Common Travel Area which predates the EU, which both sides insist will stay in place regardless. How this can be maintained without border checks is difficult to understand.

I may be completely wrong — and I hope I am — but I cannot see how, after Britain has severed her ties with the EU, a border between the British dominated area of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can be avoided. Many commentators in the news media refer to the “Irish border’. That is a complete misnomer. After Brexit it will be in reality the border between the UK and the EU — even, perhaps the rest of the world.

If and when checks are set up along our land frontier they will, of course, be partly to protect our interests but in reality they will be for the protection of the 27 countries that make up the EU. We may not be too keen on setting up those checks and barriers but the powers that be in Brussels may very well have something else to say about it. Before we, Britain and Ireland, joined the EU (EEC then) we had only ourselves to worry about. The situation is very, very different now.

Even if, by some miracle, we don’t wind up policing the border I cannot for a second see the UK not policing it on their side. Remember that one of the big arguments for leaving the EU made by the pro-Brexit campaigners in the lead up to the referendum was the control of immigration. Can anybody really believe that Britain will ignore 500km of frontier and leave it open to anybody of any nationality to freely cross? I think not.

When I left secondary school after completing my Leaving Cert my first job was as a customs officer. I spent three and a half years in various ports, airports and all of 1965 on the border between Counties Monaghan and Armagh and between counties Monaghan and Fermanagh. I know how frontiers are guarded and I know why they have to be guarded. Technology may have improved the system but greed and criminality hasn’t gone away. The possibility of making a profit by ignoring rules and regulations outweighs for many any moral and national responsibility.

(Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net)

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