Lord Trimble, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, has hit out at claims that Brexit will put the historic peace accord in Northern Ireland at risk, while saying that the continuation of an open Irish border will only be “impossible” if the EU insists on imposing restrictions on the Republic of Ireland.
Speaking to BrexitCentral, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland says that it is “rubbish that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday Agreement”, and reveals that he was “astonished” by EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier’s claim that a hard border was “inevitable” if the UK left the EU single market and customs union.
He calls on the Republic of Ireland to focus their efforts on the EU over the border issue instead of siding with Brussels against the UK, questioning why Barnier failed to give any concrete reasons for why he thought a hard border was “inevitable”. With Brussels aware that such a situation will only arise if it forces obligations on the Republic, he suggests that the EU may be deliberately avoiding publicly discussing the details because its underlying intentions are ultimately to do just that.
He points out that the British Government has been clear that it is not going to put any infrastructure on the border, referencing proposals which have already identified ways in which tariff collection and any other border checks necessary can be done “smartly” without the need for physical infrastructure at the border itself.
This echoes the views of Jon Thompson, Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary of HMRC, who affirmed that he was confident that there wouldn’t be any requirement for physical infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland “whatever happens” when giving evidence to the Exiting the European Union Select Committee last November.
The former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party from 1995 to 2005 and recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, Lord Trimble is dismissive of claims that Brexit will bring back the days of terrorism.
Many of them are simply “coming from people who never took much interest in Northern Ireland before”, he says. “The circumstances which led to the end of violence are still there… and there is nothing to the claims that Brexit is going to undermine that.” “The Good Friday Agreement was about dealing with constitutional issues, ending terrorism and bringing peace, not economic matters,” he says, while noting that it contains “only a passing reference to the EU”.
Where the UK will retain some alignment is under various cross-border cooperation bodies created by the Agreement, such as Waterways Ireland or the Single Energy Market, but their operation is not directly related to the EU.
He also warns that the erection of tariffs between the EU and the UK could cause “considerable ill will” amongst producers such as farmers in the Republic of Ireland, who would then find themselves at a competitive disadvantage compared to Northern Ireland producers when selling into the vital UK market.
To this end, he suggests that the UK Government “should say we will not have tariffs whatever happens”, pointing to the long-term negative impacts that tariffs have on an economy. In the long run, the UK will be “better off not having tariffs, even if others do,” he says.
Lord Trimble backed a Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum and is confident that the border issues can be resolved. “It is only impossible if Brussels imposes restrictions”, he says. The Irish Government should be “making their representations to the EU instead” if they want the best possible outcome too.