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30 September 2019

Plans for customs posts near the Irish border are bad news for a Brexit deal

If a deal is coming, humble pie must be served and eaten. This week has made it clear there aren't yet any willing volunteers.

By Patrick Maguire

First, the good news: the UK government has finally presented Brussels with concrete proposals for a replacement for the Irish backstop, RTÉ’s Tony Connelly has reported.

The bad news? Those plans, presented to the European Commission by British officials in recent technical talks earlier this month, include new customs posts between five and 10 miles from either side of the Irish border.

As far as Dublin and Brussels are concerned, that amounts to a direct contravention of the definition of a hard border agreed by both sides in December 2017: no new physical infrastructure, checks or controls. To Leo Varadkar, it doesn’t matter whether that infrastructure or those checks are on the border or a ten-minute drive away – it’s still a hard border. 

In short, any plan along these lines is simply not going to fly, and Irish politicians have wasted no time in saying so this evening. They believe it amounts to a revival of the border of old, even if there are no checks at the border itself.

It’s just as well that these proposals for new “customs clearance centres” aren’t yet British government policy in an official sense. They were raised via “non-papers”, which are used to fly kites rather than make firm commitments. But that this particular kite is being flown, even at the eleventh hour, tells us several things, none of which augur particularly well for the chances of a deal.

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At one level it reflects Boris Johnson’s utter ambivalence when it comes to the border in general, and the prospect of it hardening in particular. The Prime Minister has long been relaxed about new infrastructure and checks, and before his ascension to No 10 was in the habit of saying so publicly. For this reason as much as any other, his government was always certain to reject the terms that Theresa May always heeded.

There is a more fundamental lesson to be learned too. Much has been written – in hope as much as expectation – about the thawing of the DUP’s opposition to new regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. If those checks can take place at Irish Sea ports rather than on the border, then most of the problem goes away. But not all of it. The customs issue must be resolved too. 

There are, broadly speaking, three potential ways of doing so. The first would see Northern Ireland remain in the EU’s customs territory, while the UK left. Arlene Foster and her MPs have set their faces like flint against this solution – the basis of the original backstop – and aren’t for turning. Neither is the British government – at least for now.

The second would see Northern Ireland leave the EU’s customs territory on the same terms as the rest of the UK. Relevant regulatory checks would take place at Irish Sea ports, rather than on the border. There would be no customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic at all, at least until a technological solution was hammered out at an indeterminate point in the nearish future. The argument in favour of this sort of model goes a little like this: smuggling happens already, what’s a little more between friends?

Finally, the third – and the one being dismissed this evening – would see Northern Ireland leave the EU’s customs territory on the same terms as the rest of the UK, with new North-South customs checks taking place on the island itself – at or near the border. 

Each solution is in its own way politically infeasible, try as some DUP politicians intermittently might to normalise the idea of limited physical infrastructure by highlighting the fact that it exists in a few places already. And that the most toxic of the three is still being advanced by British negotiators even at this late stage offers a blunt testimony to Johnson’s inability to escape the choice that ultimately did for his predecessor: a border of some kind in the Irish Sea, a hard border on the island of Ireland, or a Brexit that involves no divergence. Simply wanting it more will not absolve any British prime minister of having to make that politically impossible call. 

Then there is the leak itself. The technical talks process was supposed to be confidential. That the non-paper that presents the British effort in the least favourable light has been briefed extensively to the Irish state broadcaster does not suggest they are going swimmingly. Indeed, it suggests that they might effectively be over already. Nor, for that matter, does anything Foster has said about a customs solution – or rather her complete opposition to just about any that Dublin might accept – in her appearances on the Tory conference fringe this week. If a deal is coming, humble pie must be served and eaten. If this week has made anything clear, it’s that there aren’t yet any willing volunteers. And these plans suggest it isn’t going to be Boris Johnson.

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