Europhiles may be insisting that Brexit will bring with it a hard border across Ireland, but they are wrong
Former Irish Premier Bertie Ahern says a physical border in Ireland is simply not going to happen, Labour’s trade spokesman Barry Gardiner believes there will be no return to the Irish Troubles, Hillary Clinton is the latest member of the international elite to stick their oar into the Brexit debate
“THERE is not going to be a hard, physical border across Ireland,” said the former Irish leader, Bertie Ahern, on Monday.
He is right. Border posts are unnecessary and unwanted. Britain has said it won’t put them up under any circumstances. So what is all the fuss about?
Ever since the vote to leave the EU, Europhiles in Ireland, in Britain and on the Continent have been shrilly insisting that Brexit will create a hard border.
The only way to avoid one, they say, is for Northern Ireland — or, better, the UK as a whole — to stay inside the EU’s customs union, giving Brussels control over its external trade.
This week, as we marked the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, the critics turned nasty.
They accused Eurosceptics not just of being wrong, but of somehow jeopardising the peace.
The Belfast Agreement is no longer remembered as a necessarily imperfect compromise designed to get former terrorists around a table together. It has taken on a semi-religious status, to the extent that supporters get angry if you don’t call it the Good Friday Agreement.
When it emerged that Labour’s trade spokesman, Barry Gardiner, had said the importance of the agreement was being “played up”, he was accused of risking a return to bombs.
Stop and consider, for a moment, how offensive that is. My guess is that Barry Gardiner is right to say that Northern Ireland has moved definitively beyond the Troubles.
Yes, some former paramilitaries have turned to racketeering and organised crime. But the sectarian conflict that blighted people’s lives is almost certainly gone for ever.
Let’s suppose, though, that I am wrong, and that Barry Gardiner is wrong.
Let’s suppose that there really is a threat of renewed terrorism. Where might such a threat come from? From the mild-mannered Labour frontbencher?
From the DUP, whose leaders have been on the receiving end of violence more than most of us care to imagine? From elected British ministers implementing a democratic referendum?
Underneath all the pious clichés we are hearing from Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton and the rest is a truly outrageous implication.
They are suggesting that any threat to peace in Northern Ireland comes not from loyalist or republican gangsters, but from mainstream politicians. They should be ashamed of themselves.
So what about the idea that a hard border will be needed if the UK takes back control of its trade policy?
There is, obviously, a border now, and we can expect it to remain for as long as majorities on either side of it want to live in separate countries.
But there is no need for the intrusive infrastructure — the checkpoints and queues — that people are worried about.
As things stand, the Republic of Ireland and the UK have different tax rates (on petrol duty, for example) and different regulations on things such as fireworks.
Those differences don’t require booths and border officials. Neither will a difference in tariff rates. Companies could simply file a customs declaration in the way that they currently file a tax declaration.
This point has been made repeatedly by the head of HMRC, Jon Thompson, who says there is no need for a hard border “whatever happens”. His Irish counterpart has said the same thing.
So why are the people who normally tell us to listen to experts so determined not to listen to them on this issue? Why are those who like to lecture us about modernity so resistant to the idea of applying current technology?
Why the fury when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made the perfectly reasonable point, drawing on his experience as Mayor of London, that number plate recognition cameras make checkpoints redundant?
David Trimble can see no connection between a no-deal Brexit and a hard border in Ireland
Theresa May will not stand for giving Brussels control of Britain’s external trade
Boris Johnson made the point that number-plate recognition cameras make checkpoints unnecessary
Because, for some Europhiles, this isn’t about the practicalities of the Irish border. It’s about their unwillingness to accept the Brexit vote.
They hope that if Dublin holds out against any pragmatic, technology-based solution, London might wearily accept remaining in the customs union.
In fact, there is no way that Prime Minister Theresa May will accept the worst-of-all-worlds scenario of giving Brussels 100 per cent control of our external trade with zero per cent input.
Britain would leave without a trade deal rather than accept such an outcome.
Even in these circumstances, there would be no need for a hard border, nor any threat to the Belfast Agreement. As David Trimble, perhaps the foremost author of that settlement, says, such a linkage is “rubbish”.
There would be other costs, though: Trade would be harder, especially the agricultural trade that matters to Irish farmers.
That is the risk being deliberately run by those seeking to use the border issue to undermine Brexit.