Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein questions why the expenses scandal has been largely ignored at the party conferences:

Last week, Labour underplayed parliament's biggest crisis in a generation in a really quite astonishing way. This scandal only broke a few weeks ago. People are still resigning, for goodness' sake. But it made page 94 or whatever of the Prime Minister's speech and he was finished with it before page 95. It wasn't centre stage in Nick Clegg's speech either. What were they thinking? By the time David Cameron sits down tomorrow, the Tories need to be sure that the story is very different.

In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins advises David Cameron to focus on leadership over policy:

The Tories do not have to convince voters that they are responsible or competent. They can leave Gordon Brown to convince voters that he is not, and offer instead a leader with whom the electorate can feel comfortably at home for the next four or five years. Cameron's aura of slightly foppish inexperience is surely preferable to a procession of shadow ministers banging their tin-can policies and inviting lobbyists to attack them at every turn. Their pledges merely saddle a Tory government with the odium of U-turn and reversal. By pledging to cut Whitehall "by a third", Cameron advertises his inexperience. He never will.

The New York Times's Bob Herbert argues that Barack Obama has not responded urgently enough to the US jobs crisis:

No big ideas have emerged. No dramatically creative initiatives. While devoting enormous amounts of energy to health care, and trying now to decide what to do about Afghanistan, the president has not even conveyed the sense of urgency that the crisis in employment warrants.

In the Financial Times, the think tank head Charles Grant says that Tony Blair would make a fine EU president:

[N]otwithstanding Iraq, he has a track record as a successful politician. He brokered a peace deal for Northern Ireland, while his recent work on the Palestinian economy shows a commitment to settling the Middle East conflict. As for the EU, he invented its defence policy (with Jacques Chirac, the former French president), helped create the Lisbon agenda of economic reform, and ensured that climate change and energy security became priorities.

On the eve of a docudrama on David Cameron's days in the Bulllingdon Club, the Independent's Michael Brown warns Labour not to revert to class warfare:

Labour would . . . be ill-advised to revert to an old-style class war campaign against the Cameroons. The working class continues to shrink and, in straitened times, the aspirational middle class puts more of the blame squarely at the door of Gordon Brown's profligacy than at rich City banking friends of the Tories.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.