Perhaps the most ill-informed debate surrounding Brexit is the issue of the Northern Irish border. I was recently in Coleraine for a Forum hosted by the Washington-Ireland Programme, a fantastic initiative started at the beginning of the Peace Process, which brings together students from across the island of Ireland. During one of the discussions, a young man from Dublin raised his fear that post-Brexit he will have to present his passport at the border. This concern is not uncommon due to the abundance of misinformation that the people of Ireland have been subjected to for the last three years.
The use of the term ‘hard border’ has intentionally been used to frighten people in Northern Ireland, invoking the image of security checks that emerged during the Troubles. Even in a no-deal scenario, the Common Travel Area – a bilateral agreement which has existed since the 1920s – will continue to ensure the free movement of people between the UK and Ireland. Current co-operation on non-EU immigration enforcement will simply be extended to cover the rest of the EU.
The Irish border dispute is actually about the need to reconcile the EU’s intention to ‘protect the integrity of the Single Market’ with the UK’s desire to have an independent trade policy. Boris Johnson rightly pointed out in his letter to Donald Tusk that there are already two different monetary jurisdictions, excise regimes and tax systems on either side of the border. The Gardai and the PSNI already co-operate on issues such as illegal tobacco smuggling to protect the integrity of each other’s markets. It is perfectly possible to maintain a frictionless border on the island of Ireland, whilst having separate customs and regulatory systems.
Throughout the entire Brexit process, the UK has negotiated in good faith and made concessions to the EU side on multiple occasions. From the very outset, we conceded to the EU’s position on the staging of the talks – agreeing to settle the divorce bill before moving on to talk about trade. We signed up to abide by EU rules during the transition period and pay a financial settlement that goes far beyond our strict, legal obligations.
The government is still willing to compromise to ensure we leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way. However, it has become clear that the Irish backstop is unacceptable to the UK Parliament. Firstly, it would trap the UK in the EU’s protectionist Customs Union – prohibiting us from signing independent trade deals with the rest of the world. Secondly, it would impose EU law on the people of Northern Ireland without giving them a say over that law. Therefore, the government sees it as undemocratic. Thirdly, it goes against the spirit of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement because it lacks the consent of both sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
Despite what the Irish government and the EU Commission are saying, the UK government is putting forward credible alternatives. It is proposing an all-Ireland sanitary and phytosanitary zone, building on the all-Ireland animal health zone that already exists. Crucially for the DUP, this would include what is known as a ‘Stormont lock’ – giving the people of Northern Ireland a democratic say on new EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules through the Assembly.
It is worth pointing out that on 1st November, we will start from the position of complete regulatory alignment as current EU law is converted into UK law. Whether we leave with or without an agreement, it is the intention of the government to ensure we have a managed divergence and cross-border trade continues to flow smoothly. The UK is willing, in any scenario, to commit to establishing enhanced economic zones in border areas like Derry-Londonderry and Newry, and expedite the introduction of trusted trader schemes and electronic preclearance.
Ultimately though, the best solution for the Northern Irish border is a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with zero tariffs and mutual recognition of standards based on deemed equivalence. This would allow for the smoothest possible trade on the island of Ireland, whilst allowing the UK to take back control of its trade policy and regulatory sovereignty.
It is time for the European Union and the Irish government to stop the fear-mongering, ditch the backstop and move on to developing this future relationship.
Ryan Hoey is a Politics Student at Queen’s University Belfast. He campaigned for Leave in the EU referendum, and stood as a candidate for the Conservative and Unionist Party in the 2018 Local Elections in England.