In tackling the border issue, the Irish Government should ignore Brussels and prioritise their national self-interest

In tackling the border issue, the Irish Government should ignore Brussels and prioritise their national self-interest

With only a little over six months left until the UK leaves the European Union, several issues remain outstanding, especially the future of the Irish border. This issue has assumed a prominence way beyond its economic importance to either Ireland or the United Kingdom.

The European Union and the UK share a common objective, namely to preserve the free and frictionless arrangements which currently exist between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The abolition of the security installations and other border manifestations is often regarded as one of the main achievements of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement which ushered in a period of 20 years of relative stability in Northern Ireland, after three decades of what is euphemistically called the Troubles.

In my new Politeia publication, Brexit – Options for the Irish border, I look at the various proposals for achieving this common objective. And while the Chequers proposals would be very much to Ireland’s advantage, the likelihood of them being accepted by the EU or the House of Commons does not seem possible at this stage.

The so-called Backstop

The Backstop is so called because it is the supposed fall-back position on the Irish border in the event of all else failing. This, on the face of it, would appear to indicate that if the UK cannot come up with a solution to this issue to Ireland and to the EU’s satisfaction, then there must be full alignment of policies in the two parts of Ireland. Essentially, this means that, post-Brexit, Northern Ireland would have to remain subject to the EU’s regime – it would be annexed economically by Brussels. It would require a customs border in the Irish Sea between two parts of the UK. This would be against a background where Northern Ireland is fully integrated into the UK’s single market and the island of Great Britain is by far its largest outside trading partner.

It has been argued that the Irish interpretation of the Backstop would run foul of international regulations in GATT. No state runs different tariff levels to international trade for different parts of their jurisdiction.

Whatever the interpretations of international regulations or the specific meaning of what was agreed in Brussels in December, it should be realised that this form of Backstop is undeliverable by Theresa May. This is not just because she needs the support of the DUP at Westminster. In reality, no British Prime Minister could agree to full internal customs barriers inside the UK. It was noteworthy that no major British political figure, pro- or anti-Brexit, has openly supported the Backstop option.

If Ireland and the EU, however, push the hard Backstop option to finality, then the British will have to go for no deal. This would mean a hard border, not just North/South but for the vast bulk of Irish exports which access the world through the UK transport system. Essentially this is not a realistic proposition.

Ireland to opt for a Norwegian-type association with the EU

However, one option which has not been seriously considered, to date, is that Ireland should itself agree to depart the EU Customs Union to preserve frictionless movement of goods and people with the UK. Since Ireland is the main beneficiary of the current arrangement, this is surprising. The Irish Government could ask the EU for a special arrangement, so it could stay in the EU but outside the EU Customs Union but maintaining, as far as possible a customs union with the UK. If this were not possible as it breaches the need to “maintain the integrity of the Union’s Legal Order”, then membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), on the lines of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein could be considered as an option

If avoiding a hard border in Ireland is so important politically, then there is an onus on the Irish Government to carefully examine all options for its avoidance. This option certainly has its attractions for all the parties concerned: Ireland, the UK and the EU.

There is no doubt that Ireland has benefitted economically and culturally from its membership of the EU. However, the attractiveness of full membership, once the UK departs, will have been reduced considerably.

The UK is still Ireland’s most important trading partner. The Welsh port of Holyhead alone took 425,000 HGVs on the Irish Sea route in 2016 and is now the second busiest ferry port in the UK, second only to Dover. Other Welsh and English ports receive large volumes of Irish goods on their way to markets around the world.

While it would be possible to establish some streamlined customs arrangements with the UK, many of these goods will ultimately pass through the English Channel ports to EU countries and be subject again to custom procedures. It would be much better to have one set of customs to deal with, rather than two.

In addition, as Ireland has prospered economically, it has moved away from being a net recipient of EU funds. The Irish net contribution this year will be around €1bn and rising, soon to top €1.3bn, similar per capita to the UK’s present contribution.  This is even before the EU proposes measures to fill the gap in the budget left by the UK’s departure. These measures are likely to adversely affect Ireland, as the EU will be seeking larger payments from the present net donors, as well as cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), an area where Ireland gets most of its receipts from the EU (around two thirds). Norway, a country in EFTA with a similar population to the Irish Republic, pays the EU approximately €400m per annum for full access to the EU’s Single Market. This figure is less than half the current Irish net contribution.

If Ireland opted for an EFTA-style deal with the EU, it would relieve the UK of the need to solve the thorny issue of the Irish border, as Ireland could maintain the present customs union with the United Kingdom, thus preserving the mutually beneficial arrangements between the two islands. The downside for Ireland would be its exclusion from the decision-making process in Brussels. However, with a voting share of between 1-2% in the Council of Ministers, it is arguable whether Ireland, at present, has much of a say in EU law making.

In addition, there are attractions to the EU for agreeing Ireland’s exit to an EFTA linkage.  The usefulness of Ireland in the negotiations has now passed, with the UK agreeing to a generous financial settlement. To countries on the European mainland – Germany, France, the Netherlands etc. – it is doubtful whether the huge difficulties in finding a solution to the Irish border is worth the candle. As the EU showed in its notorious bailout for Ireland, it was more than willing to dispense with Ireland’s national interests when faced with wider EU considerations. Given the small size of the Irish economy, relative to the whole EU, it is extremely unlikely that the issue of the Irish border will be allowed scupper the wider deal.

However, given the political realities in the Irish Republic, membership of EFTA would not appear to be likely.

Technological solution

With all other options seemingly off the table, the one remaining possibility of avoiding a hard border in Ireland seems to rest on the maximum facilitation model.

This technological solution is essentially based on the British paper of last August. In addition, there are no simple off-the-shelf solutions available which can be copied from places like the US/Canadian border or Norway/Sweden. Having crossed the Canadian frontier many times, it is not a simple straightforward matter and trade and individuals can be held up for hours at times. Something similar would lead to chaos and possibly civil disorder in Ireland. It should be factored in that the greatest resistance to a hard border lies in the strongly Republican districts just north of the boundary line. It would be a nightmare trying to construct and maintain any new permanent structures.  Nobody wants a fixed line of confrontation in the middle of the peaceful Irish countryside.

The first step is to remove any question of using the border for immigration control. The UK has already indicated that it will focus its efforts, to limit the immigration of EU nationals, at the employment level. There is already very good cooperation between the immigration authorities, including sharing information on visa applications, informal liaison officers regularly at Belfast and Dublin airports etc. This could continue and be enhanced.

The next area to exempt is, as indicated by the August British paper, local traffic and agriculture. These make up to 80% of trade transactions on the Irish border. They are characterised by high volume and frequency but low-value transactions. However, exempting these will require a level of flexibility from the EU which is not evidenced to date.

However, the exemptions appear to be compliant with GATT regulations.

The economist, Dr David Collins, who is Professor of Law at City, University of London, and an acknowledged WTO specialist, has also just published a pamphlet with the think-tank, Politeia, on Brexit. Collins pointed out that in a free trade deal type, along the lines of the recent EU/Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA):

“The land border between the UK and Ireland need not have any physical infrastructure and as such should not represent a political obstacle to a UK-EU FTA. Article XVIII of the GATT and the Trade Facilitation Agreement of the WTO require that WTO members must minimize customs procedures as far as reasonably possible. Moreover, special arrangements to streamline borders (as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) such as those involving regular trader exemptions and technology, are permitted under the exemption for border traffic under Article XXIV of the GATT. “

The remaining element, which in reality means large firms with a defined number of employees or turnover, can be accommodated by a trusted trading arrangement.  

All trusted trader systems operate on a self-assessment and self-regulation basis. Responsible companies will not wish to violate the law, and this would be backed up by a system of audits and on-site inspections, much as the present VAT system operates.

In addition, there could be a further requirement that all HGV operators on the island of Ireland install a special tracking device in their vehicles so that the customs authorities could check whether any company returns tallied with the physical evidence of the tracking device.


Ireland needs to look after its own self-interest and realise that its deep connections with its neighbour, the United Kingdom, are more valuable than temporary plaudits from Brussels for being “the best boy in the classroom”.   

There is no need for the Irish border question to either derail the EU/UK Brexit discussions or determine the overall agreement. The border question has been used by elements within the Remain camp to try and block the UK’s departure from the EU. It is certainly not in the long-term interest of Ireland to be used in this cynical manner.

While there is no comparable international example that can be readily used to solve the issue, goodwill and common sense should allow for a workable solution. It could be based on major exemptions for small companies and purely local trade, as well as agricultural and food products. The remaining trade could be monitored and operated on a trusted trader system. Under these arrangements, there would be no need for any new physical infrastructure on the border.  The danger is that politics, not practicalities, will get in the way.