Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 12 November 2017

What ignoring Ireland tells you about our governing elite

The hapless progress of the Brexit negotiations continues. I do not mean the almost childish nonsense of May’s new wheeze. Instead I’m talking about the Irish border. It seems, if you read most of the UK press, that out of the blue this new obstacle has been sprung on the UK at the last minute. Some of the press talk about surprise, while the Guardian talks about it ‘emerging’. Some have even decided to cover up their ignorance by inventing conspiracy theories. With political commentary in the UK largely reflecting the beliefs of the UK side, then this also means that this surprise extends to our negotiating team.

In reality there is nothing to be surprised about. The Irish border was one of the three issues to be dealt with in the first stage. As the UK government has consistently said they are leaving the Customs Union and Single Market (CU/SM), and have failed to convince even themselves that they can invent a new magically invisible border that can police countries that have different customs and regulatory regimes, it was only natural that an EU paper would suggest that Northern Ireland stay in the CU/SM to avoid a hard land border.

So why did the UK, and its media, seem to forget about this third issue, when even I had flagged it up as the critical issue a couple of months ago. What I think happened is that the Brexit side convinced itself that, because a hard border would only arise as a result of different trade regimes, then the border was really a trade issue and so should be in stage 2. In other words the EU had simply made a mistake in putting it in Stage 1, and would therefore quietly forget about it.

That reasoning was part wishful thinking and part delusion. Wishful thinking because, as I wrote back in September, it is a problem with no obvious solution that Brexiteers would accept. And delusion because the UK side continues to imagine that the EU is governed by Franco/German interests, and why would these countries be concerned about what happens in Ireland. What it completely failed to understand, and what the EU had understood, was the importance of the border issue to the people on both sides of it. It was an important reason why Northern Ireland voted to Remain.

But I wonder if there is something deeper behind the UK attitude. For too many people in England, the ‘troubles’ in Ireland were a quarrel in a strange country between people of whom we know little, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain. As a result, there is little comprehension of why a hard border should be such a big deal. You would think memories of bombs going off in England’s cities would change that, but I’m not sure it did, anymore than more recent terrorism has led to a better understanding among English people of tensions within Islam. In contrast, most people in Northern Ireland would move heaven and earth not to go back to those times.

Even while all this might be true, it is no excuse for the same attitudes to be held by our political leaders. John Major knew better than this, as did Tony Blair. Only the arrogant disdain for different realities displayed by Brexiteers can explain a mistake of the magnitude of ignoring the border issue. I suspect any politician that lied the way the Brexiteers lie, or lived in the alternative reality they appear to live in, would not have survived long in UK politics two decades ago, whereas now it has become a criteria for holding high office.

At the end of the day there is little difference between Brexiteers who tell people that new trade deals with countries outside the EU can make up for trade lost with the EU, and Republicans who say scrapping Obamacare will extend coverage and their tax bill reduces taxes for most people. In both countries when the ability to gain office is determined by how well you can fire up or charm a base, because a large part of the media will then assure you have a good chance of winning elections, is it any wonder the political system fails to select for competence, understanding or respect for wisdom and knowledge.

There is a simple solution to the problem of the border. It is for the UK side to commit to only negotiate new trade arrangements that would be consistent with a soft border. [1] That would mean staying in the Customs Union and parts of the Single Market, but it could leave open the possibility of negotiating over the remaining parts of the Single market and perhaps free movement. Anyone who tells you that this concession by the UK side does not respect the referendum result is once again lying: Leave won precisely because they ruled no arrangement out. Any red lines erected after the referendum carry as much weight as the Prime Minister currently has authority.

Already we have many people in the UK saying why should we adapt our policies to keep the people of Ireland happy. This is the Chamberlain type attitude that I talked about earlier. The Irish border is at least as much our creation and our concern as it is of anyone else. Maintaining peace within the UK should be any government’s top priority. The fact that it has failed to make it onto Brexiteers to do list tells you as much about their outlook and competence as you need to know.

[1] Whether the UK will be forced to take this position I do not know. I stand by what I wrote recently that there will almost certainly be a deal, one element of which will be a transition where we stay in the EU/SM. Indeed I understated my case there. First, there can be no such thing as no deal. As Davis has explained, there are things that have to be sorted to keep planes flying and the like. He has described this as “some sort of basic deal without the bits we really want”. What that remark shows is that the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ line is simply a bluff and he knows it. The bad deal is no deal. And finally there is parliament. I know it has been pathetic until now, but that does not mean it would sign off on the worst possible kind of Brexit. But what the border issue will most likely show is that it is unlikely we will get to a deal involving transition without cabinet resignations.


  1. Many negotiators at that you should build trust and momentum, by tackling easy points first, which also builds a shared bank of something to lose.
    Did the EU make a mistake by including the hardest issue, the Irish border, as one of its early red lines?
    Did that make any agreement difficult if not impossible?
    And minimise any real momentum building towards a solution?
    I can see why Ireland wanted the issue up front, because it appears insoluble under the UK red lines, leaving EEA/CU.
    Both sides should have seen immediately that the two sets of red lines left no common ground in the middle for agreement.
    The professional negotiators would certainly have seen the problem.
    And they would have told their political masters.
    But how can either side move to compromise?

    1. Respect for the people living the border in NI and for the GFA is something the UK is obliged to have anyway, so the EU asking for it should not in any way delay negotiations if the UK had a responsible government.

  2. SW-L’s main argument against a hard border is the inconvenience for those living near the border. I suggest the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Britain as a whole take precedence over the relatively small number of people living near the border.

    The Irish Republic has an absolute right to try to become the next state of the USA. If it succeeded, that could harden the border a bit. Those living near the border would have no right to have their wishes take precedence over the wishes of the Irish people as a whole.

    I’m also doubtful about what seems to SW-L’s argument to the effect that the border was hardish during the troubles, ergo a hardening of the border would mean more troubles. Does the presence of customs officers at Dover increase the chances of the Napoleonic wars re-erupting? I.e. I don’t see why a harder border increases the chances of Catholics and Protestants quarrelling.

    1. I am not sure what SW-L's reason for the border being a problem is. If it really is about inconvenience for local residents of the border area then it's silly to give them a veto over Brexit, and they didn't have a veto over independence or partition.

      If it's about "mainting peace within the UK" meaning, dissident republicans using it as a grievance and attacking border posts, he shouldn't believe that just because people in the press speculated about it. The Provisional IRA can't come back over Brexit, and the dissidents are weak and unpopular. They've killed a handful of policemen, soldiers and prison officers in the last 20 years, less than 10 people, SW-L can get a reality check at And while I wouldn't want a customs official to die either, why doesn't anyone think this will happen and why it's that important? They attempt attacks on the security forces all the time which usually fail. Border posts aren't aren't going to give them many recruits.

      I say this as someone who lives in Northern Ireland and has every reason to be worried about the *economic* damage Brexit will do when it happens, which are mostly about the impact on the UK as a whole. Trade with the south is a secondary issue since our trade with the Republic is a fraction of what it is across the Irish Sea to Simon.

      I resent "peace" being dragged into the issue of EU membership in this way. It's bad for relations in NI, and thus for peace, to promote speculation that terrorism will happen because of Brexit. As I think I'm the only Northern Irishman in these comments and thus affected, I'd appreciate it if SW-L would reply.

    2. Peace came about in NI as a result of an agreement that it would be governed on behalf of both communities and not just one. Dissidents have made no impact because the PSNI enjoy public support, if the British renege on the peace settlement than there will be no public support and attacks will not fail. The attitude that "we can renege on the deal because the troubles won't come back" is both extremely cynical and dangerous.

    3. That the what the British Empire is about, the rights of those in England taking precedence over the mere Irish. Some of use hoped those days were behind us.

    4. Typical English ignorance "right to become the next state of the US", indeed, the US had Trump, the English and Welsh Brexit, the Irish want no part in such disgrace, though we will surely have to suffer some (more than a 2% spike in unemployment is expected for one).

      If there is to be a hard border it will have been imposed by the English and Welsh (and the manipulation of) upon the Irish, it is both fundamentally undemocratic and yet another assault on Irish soveriegnty by our former and current colonial occupier, if you can't comprehend why such a thing would be intolerable... well perhaps there is a place waiting for you on the Brexit negotiation team.

      It should also be noted that the current Irish Taoiseach was the first to wear a poppy and is about as far as you can get from a 'dissident republican' as you can get in the Dáil so it is clear a hard border is just as intolerable to him as to the rest of the country.

      Odds are dissident republicans and loyalists alike will be delighted with a hard border, the disproportionate economic impact, fewer jobs more drugs, the scope for smuggling, the renewed tensions, increased conflict all underscored by a far stronger case for a united Ireland that'll embolden republican confidence and loyalist paranoia, precisely the environment they thrive in, "back in business boys".

    5. "I suggest the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Britain" and
      "I don’t see why a harder border increases the chances of Catholics and Protestants quarrelling"?

      What cynical arrogance. 57% of the vote in Northern Ireland was to Remain or is that just an inconvenient fact?

      As someone living in Northern Ireland ('anonymous' is not the only voice here) the very idea that some magical technological solution will just arrive without detailed discussion and agreement is deeply dangerous.

      One of the reasons the EU made this issue part of the opening negotiation is that it is of fundamental importance to the future of the relationship between UK & EU, is embedded in the Good Friday Agreement that has brought peace, and forces the UK to actually make a decision of what way to go with regard to the Single Market and Customs Union. It was a masterstroke. If it can't be worked out at this stage, it is very unlikely to be worked out down the line as Brexiteers try to insist.

  3. Davis doesn't want NI in the customs union because he won't tolerate an internal UK "hard border". The answers is simple. Davis believes we can somehow create an invisible border in Ireland. Why not use his innovative, creative technology solution across the Irish Sea to create a frictionless, invisible border there? Problem solved and in his own terms.

    1. Because the Republic would have to suffer that "frictionless" border to trade with the EU and with the continent. Otherwise non-EU goods can get into the Republic over the border from NI, and on to the rest of the EU. See here.
      "Since Ireland would be de facto outside the customs union, all trade between Ireland and the EU26 would necessarily be subject to costly border and customs formalities, so as to rule out trade deflection. The basis for our prosperity, costless access to the Single Market, would be destroyed."

  4. Cabinet resignations would probably also see a leadership challenge, both of which could be seen in the next few weeks.

    Will May stand?

    Who will the Redwoods select as challenger(s)?

  5. Something which does puzzle me is how narrow the Remain victory was in NI. Compare this to Gibraltar which voted overwhelmingly for Remain. Or even Scotland which has none of the real world pressures NI has.

    1. Dig a little deeper and you will find that the CNR community (Catholic/Nationalist/Republican) voted very strongly for the EU and the PUL community voted to Leave. Well educated and middle class voters on both sides voted remain, the stark difference was with less educated working class voters who voted remain in very large percentages leave and remain respectively.

      The CNR community in general lives closer to the border and have seen a considerable improvement as many agribusinesses work on a cross border basis. They see the open border as very valuable. They like the EU as it dilutes their sense of isolation from the Republic and helps in their aspiration for a United Ireland.

      The working class PUL community tend to live further from the border and it is less of an issue and in any way believe the DUP when they say it will not be an issue. They are very susceptible to flag waving and jingoistic British nationalist rhetoric. Even if they don't believe the DUP on this issue they see an open border as a threat which increases their sense of isolation from the UK. On a darker level never underestimate the power of begrudgery in NI. They hate the fact that the Republic has been along with London and the SE the most economically successful part of these islands and blame the EU.

    2. Because the Protestant-Catholic split is about fifty-fifty now

  6. Davis twice on the live show Murnaghan on Sky TV a few weeks after the vote called the border in Ireland an internal UK border. That just shows he hadn't mentally processed the Irish republic as a separate sovereign entity and full member state of the EU. It would seem over a year later he still struggles with Ireland's separateness from the UK. John Bruton's assessment of Brexit as an unfriendly act amongst nations is truly a generous understatement when Davis's dismissive attitude of Ireland's sovereignty and EU membership is noted.

    1. Do you accept that likewise the UK is sovereign and is an EU member? And that when Brexit takes effect the UK will be sovereign and a non-EU member? In which case you should accept border controls without complaint.

  7. Hi Simon
    my own analysis is here, we try to engage people and many thanks, your blog is very much appreciated. As a Dubliner who is now a UK Emeritus Professor I have time to look at various blogs. My recent contribution is here:

    One comment from Paul Hunt (an Iris Economist) was "This is a magnificent post, but I fear it will be of little interest to most readers in Britain. Indeed you have noted that most people in England would prefer if NI were to just go away."

  8. What would happen if Ireland were to threaten to join Schengen? As they would have no land borders with the rest of the EU, surely any journey from the EU26 to Ireland (by plane or ferry) would require photo ID to be shown, so being little different to the current situation? Wouldn't this, and the impossibility of controlling immigration, cause the UK government to reconsider its position?

  9. Simon,

    Framing the EU's attitude to the border is its role as a guarantor of the GFA. That allows residents of Northern Ireland to be Irish citizens (hence EU citizens), British citizens or both. Trade is crucial to the border issue, but it is not the determining element of the EU's negotiating stance, which is organised around the political settlement.


    1. The EU is not a guarantor of the GFA and has no role in it whatsoever. NI people would still be able to get Irish and therefore EU citizenship. If by political settlement you mean the GFA, again EU membership has no connection to it.

      One can speculate that dissident republicans would attack border posts. That's it. It may be in the interest of the Republic and the EU to talk up the problem of the border to put more pressure on the UK to get as much as possible from the UK in negotiations. However, the UK already had a very weak hand to begin with anyway, due to the Article 50 deadline looking.

    2. Don't you have place any value whatsoever on those who have been colonised by Britain, given a border they didn't want, with whom Britain made an agreement to moderate that situation and where Britain is now reneging on that? Does morality play no part whatsoever in British politics?

    3. "Does morality play no part whatsoever in British politics?"

      No I don't think it's a major consideration. As a Brit I think it should, but I think in general it's a long way down the list of priorities.

    4. The GFA was drafted and written on the assumption that both Ireland and the UK were EU member states and that the Common Travel Area will continue.

      It's also assumes the continuation of European Court and access to the European Convention on Human Rights, even undertaking to include it into Northern Ireland law.

      Also both the UK and Ireland are currently members of the EU with only the UK opting to leave. Ireland, as one of the EU27, has opted to have the EU represent its interests in direct negotiations with the UK.

      So to imply the EU has no role in the border arrangement is totally nonsensical.

    5. Anonymous of the 16th, Northern Ireland is much richer as part of the UK because we pay less in tax than we receive in spending, the difference comes from Britain. Our living standards would be much lower in a united Ireland, or the southerners would have to pay several thousand per person per year. Colonisation was 400 years ago, and NI is not a colony. If you didn't let DUP MPs have a vote in the Commons, then we'd be a colony.

      Britain is not reneging on anything. EU membership is not part of the GFA, and I'm very sorry that liberal British commentators and southern Irish ones have tried to link the two.

      The GFA was between the parties in NI (except the DUP), Britain was not party to it but agreed to implement it. The GFA does not mention the following, so there is no reneging:

      -- UK having to be an EU member;
      -- Free movement of people across the border;
      -- Trade;
      -- Customs checks or border posts;
      -- A right to EU citizenship (but there is a right to Republic of Ireland citizenship)

      Thanks for your interest in our affairs, but just like Brexiters should not speak from ignorance or make things up, neither should Remainers.

  10. My local correspondent says border farmers are missing the smuggling revenue! Really not sure a largely customs stop is that big a deal. Paying off NI politicians is now well established too.

    It's an important issue but not insoluble.

  11. Ralph Musgrave12 November 2017 at 04:23
    "SW-L’s main argument against a hard border is the inconvenience for those living near the border...."

    I suggest that if the border arrangements don't work for the people who live proximate to it then you would have to conclude that those arrangements don't work and are not fit for purpose.

    "I suggest the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Britain as a whole take precedence over the relatively small number of people living near the border."

    Well, Ralph I disagree. If you think it's acceptable to build a 'cordon sanitaire' to protect you at the expense of the lives of people who are at the frontier you have a rather narrow view of what should be considered acceptable.

  12. Assuming that Ralph is serious in wanting to understand the problems then here is an excellent article by Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times


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