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An impossible border? June 16, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.



I’m never very fond of Fintan O’Toole, but I do think he has an incontrovertible point here in relation to the sudden focus on Northern Ireland in Britain. 

The internet exploded in the early hours of Saturday morning with anxious Brits frantically googling “Where is Northern Ireland?”, “What does DUP stand for?” and “Do they still believe in witchcraft over there?”

And it serves them right. Watching the Brexit campaigns last year, it was as if no one had heard of the Belfast Agreement. Ireland might as well have been Albania for all it seemed to matter. When the trade union leader Frances O’Grady raised it, the poor woman was obviously losing the plot – everyone quickly got back to serious questions like how to have one’s cake and eat it.

Given how indifferent those championing Brexit were in relation to the status of the North – and some of those championing Remain, though in fairness in general that side made much more of the issue, it is ironic how hardly a year later it has come front and centre in relation to sustaining a Tory government.

I fear O’Toole is right in this analysis…

Ireland means finding a way to honour the Belfast Agreement and prevent the recreation of a hard Border. It is not doable – with the DUP dictating terms on the British side of the table, it is an impossibility.


The DUP’s bottom line has the virtue of clarity. Nigel Dodds spelled it out: the DUP will block any attempt to avoid a hard Border by giving Northern Ireland a “special status” within the EU. But to think that a hard Border can be avoided without a special status for Northern Ireland one must, to misquote the Queen in Through the Looking Glass, be prepared to believe three impossible things before breakfast.

But his further points are even more compelling. He rules out the idea of a soft border if NI leaves the single market and customs union. He thinks it is a non-starter. I think he is correct.

But he also dismisses a hard border noting that in the entirety of the Troubles it was impossible to impose on this island and that if that was the case ‘it is certainly not going to be achieved with polite customs officers’. Further he argues that no Irish government would acquiesce to such a border, and the EU cannot impose one either. There is a point there. If it was impossible in the latter part of the 20th century the idea of it being possible in the early 21st seems remote. I hope he’s right.

But here’s a further point and I think it is one that has to be given much greater consideration:

The third impossibility is that the Belfast Agreement be torn up. The biggest problem with the DUP’s insistence that Northern Ireland must not have special status is that it already does. The Belfast Agreement gives everyone in Northern Ireland an absolute right to Irish – and thus to EU – citizenship. This is a special status. And the EU has followed this logic by offering Northern Ireland a special Brexit. Unlike the rest of the UK, it has a return ticket – it can re-enter the EU unconditionally if it chooses to join with the Republic.

That is very true. The GFA/BA is indeed the point where special status commenced.

But if these things are impossible where does that leave matters as we hurtle into the future? Some sort of a fudge with a DUP that for all its Brexit rhetoric is likely going to find the actual ramifications of same utterly unpalatable as they would operate on this island? Or could they slowly or rapidly come to accept one of the implications of the muted ‘special status’ and allow for a functional customs and trade border around the island. Or is it possible that William Hague’s suggestion this very month of EEA membership for the UK for two years post-Brexit might be both extended in terms of duration and extended de facto to NI?

So many questions. So few answers.


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