Theresa May’s big speech in Florence last week was intended to do two things: to quell the growing divisions in Conservative ranks over Brexit and to restart the stalled talks with the European Union.
As far as the first objective goes, even a generous marker would struggle to give the speech a passing grade. What about the second? To move on to the “future relationship” phase of the talks, there must first be sufficient progress on three areas: the status of the three million citizens from the EU27 living in the United Kingdom, the matter of the United Kingdom’s existing financial liabilities to the rest of the bloc, and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
On financial liabilities, May conceded that the United Kingdom will have to settle its accounts. As far as the rights of citizens go, the rhetoric was good but was undercut by the actual actions being taken by the Home Office right now. So, progress, at least.
What about the Irish border? Here, the speech had nothing at all to say. The difficulty is that for all the British government likes to talk up the potential of “innovation” and “creativity”, if you have a different customs regime – which under the government’s plans, Britain will have when we leave the European Union – then you have to have customs checks at your border.
That means that there will have to be a hard border somewhere on the island of Ireland. Either that will mean cameras and checks on the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, or customs checks at ports on goods and some kind of special status for Northern Ireland.
The latter approach makes sense for the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic, but effectively creates a united Ireland by the back door, something that is unacceptable for many unionists, most importantly the ten unionist MPs propping up the Conservative majority.
Which reflects on the real reason why Theresa May had nothing to say on the question of the Irish border: because there are no answers that won’t be economically damaging, politically destabilising or imperil her own position in parliament.