Bow Group Health Research Fellow, Jon Stanley, on Brexit and the Irish Border

IT IS BECOMING less challenging and more tedious listening to those who bemoan Brexit for threatening a hard border on the island of Ireland. There are many reasons why this is nonsense but three of them stand out. Duty, commuting, and cross border trade barriers.

Sadly, and not unsurprisingly, it is a dog whistling minority government in Dublin that is making all the hay and for good reason. The Irish government is gambling on winning Brussels’s favour by being seen as tough on the British and have the trump card to wave whenever it suits.

It is not familiar territory for Fine Gael to be so noxious in its attitude. It has traditionally been the most supportive of UK relations and less keen to bang the drum of unification, but as Sinn Fein has grown to be a credible Fianna Fail partner then the more Irish politics as a whole leans towards a bit of Brit-bashing whenever risks to the economy arise. They have all decided now the baddy will be London and not Brussels. Fine. It's a song sheet they can all sing from. Electorally it makes sense.

Before we explore the three barriers let's make one thing clear. The establishment in Dublin has always rejected the idea that Northern Ireland is sovereign because from the time of the Easter Rising to the present day the idea of an all Ireland state has prospered despite full knowledge through elections and polling that the North (still) doesn't want this. It has treated the population as part of the Republic and focused the discussion purely on territory. This is the largest barrier to a credible Brexit for the Republic. More than the EU or London.

It was Dublin that chose to leave the UK through violence. In 1922 the Free State came into being but lasted less than 15 years before Southern Ireland (barely) passed a referendum which created the infamous Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution claiming the North. 

It is unique and intolerable within the OECD, the civilised and democratic West, that this tendency continues. If Hungary called for Maramures or southern Slovakia to join it to unite ethnic Hungarians, or tolerated paramilitary involvement it would create outrage and havoc.

It is the behaviour of Latin American bampots like Guatemala towards Belize or Venezuela towards Bolivia. It has sadly provided political cover for truly awful and low calibre leaders. It is hard to think of a single former Taoiseach that has not been fingered for corruption and or gun running. They have served their own people terribly and left them with potholed roads and since 2008 massive debts.  

What both sides of the border need is credible, high calibre leadership with integrity because the border is only an issue for as long as politicians wish it to be – to distract from their domestic woes.

So let's start with the blindingly obvious:

The first issue is about duty on fuel, fags and firewater. Both countries have high duties on all of these sinful wares but there are differences. Greater differences than say between the EU's external tariff on everything except farm produce. Nobody is closing the border over trades in these, despite them causing considerable excise losses through petty smuggling. It isn't worth spending pounds to save pennies. 

The second is commuting. One would think there were no borders in the world that are regularly crossed by commuters without schemes in place to ensure it is hassle free, like, say the United States and Canada. It turns out they do. It's called Nexus which is an enhanced security clearance programme for commuters living near that border. 

The infogram below shows the reality. The only significant cross border movement is by commuters who live literally either side of the border, mainly in South Armagh and Donegal and wholly within the historic province of Ulster. So create an UlsterDisk or UDisk for residents in all of the North and in adnexal counties in the Republic. We are talking about thousands of vehicles, not millions. The same technology that detects unpaid tax disks and stolen cars would be used to detect those with a UDisk and exempt them from any routine checks. Ironically this technology was pioneered in... Ulster during the troubles!

Finally cross border trade in lorries and vans. This isn't difficult. The European Parliament commissioned a report by experts from the Norway-Sweden border control to discuss how this could be done. The reality is the vast majority of goods have such little tariffs it would be pointless to check them, except to, say, prevent tobacco or booze smuggling (and we’ve already dismissed this). Only a tiny proportion of the Republic's trade with the UK goes to Northern Ireland and only massive tariff differentials would change this quickly.

The exception to all this is farm produce. This is where UK/Irish trade differs profoundly to trade with the rest of Europe. For most goods the Republic trades with many single market countries given firms located to the Republic enjoy very favourable tax breaks. Farm trade is split between the UK at 40 per cent and the rest of the EU and rest of the world at 30 per cent each including Irish whiskey. Farm products have high external tariffs and this would usually be an issue.

Imagine then if only the EU had an Article in its core treaty that allowed EU territories to diverge from the EU in areas where local conditions would otherwise jeopardise the territory?

Well it does.

It is called Article 349 of the Lisbon Treaty. Such territories, outermost regions, have a special relationship within the EU. Changing Ireland's status as a member state would be unprecedented but compared to Brexit it would be chicken feed. 

The EU continually reviews the arrangement and the current Juncker plan was published in October of last year, here:

The text that creates this special relationship is simple and one can see the Canaries and Azores together are not much smaller than the Republic's population. A credible Irish government not obsessed with banging the drum of history would be very wise to follow this course, it could save them considerable strife and enhance their relationship with the UK, its main trading partner and employment market.

"Taking account of the structural social and economic situation of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands, which is compounded by their remoteness, insularity, small size, difficult topography and climate, economic dependence on a few products, the permanence and combination of which severely restrain their development, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the European Parliament, shall adopt specific measures aimed, in particular, at laying down the conditions of application of the Treaties to those regions, including common policies. Where the specific measures in question are adopted by the Council in accordance with a special legislative procedure, it shall also act on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the European Parliament.

The measures referred to in the first paragraph concern in particular areas such as customs and trade policies, fiscal policy, free zones, agriculture and fisheries policies, conditions for supply of raw materials and essential consumer goods, State aids and conditions of access to structural funds and to horizontal Union programmes."

"The Council shall adopt the measures referred to in the first paragraph taking into account the special characteristics and constraints of the outermost regions without undermining the integrity and the coherence of the Union legal order, including the internal market and common policies."

Seriously Dublin, what planet are you on? Brexit is the one chance you have to change your own relationship with the EU without anything so profound as Irexit, though I'd personally support that. (Unfortunately, for various political reasons people see Irexit as returning to the UK.)

Article 349 could be the start of enhanced integration with the UK in many areas or be a stand-alone arrangement that rightly resets the reality of a post-Brexit world. Priority access to the UK market, control of its own fisheries, sectoral or full independence regarding trade policy, all of which are possible within the EU.

It's win win for the UK, for Ireland, and for most of the EU who behind closed doors are less fanatical about a superstate than Verhofstadt, et al. It just needs a Taoiseach with a backbone.

The original article can be found at -

Thursday, May 10, 2018