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The border question can be solved, but only once Britain understands what the Irish want

Brexit presents a host of potential problems that Ireland never asked for and could really do without.

One of a number of reasons why I voted Remain in the EU referendum was concern for the uneasy equilibrium that has existed in Northern Irish politics since the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Some of those fears have been realised, played out in the ongoing impasse over the Irish border.

This is proving to be the trickiest issue in the first phase of Brexit talks. It cannot, in point of fact, be truly settled until the final post-Brexit trading arrangements between the UK and the EU are set in place. Yet, as complex as the border is, it is neither an existential threat to the Irish peace process nor inherently insurmountable. Much of the bloviating – encouraged by a culture of excessive leaking, familiar to those of us who lived through the peace process – has been detached from consideration of the hard facts and state interests involved.

From the Irish government’s perspective, Brexit presents a whole host of potential problems that Ireland never asked for and could really do without. Over the past few months, it has played hardball on the border with a tenacity that has surprised many in London. Since his appointment in June this year, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been firmly aligned with the negotiating position of the EU27 in the Brexit talks.

He was apparently rewarded for this by the European Council President, Donald Tusk, who on a recent visit to Dublin promised the Taoiseach a veto on any arrangement proposed by the British. “A veto is something that you use when you’re isolated,” was Varadkar’s reply. “We have 26 countries behind us. We have European solidarity.”

The Irish react with genuine horror to the suggestion that they have anything but the purest of motives compared to the boorish, blundering and bumptious Brexiteers. They are certainly not, contra the claims of the DUP, playing the game of Irish unity. But the balance of forces in Irish domestic politics is not unimportant.

Varadkar is experiencing mounting difficulties in his Fine Gael-led coalition government that are arguably as serious as those currently facing Theresa May. They include an internal party rival in the form of an ambitious foreign minister, Simon Coveney, perched on his shoulder.

Another factor is the challenge to the coalition from Sinn Fein, who have accused the Taoiseach of backsliding. Should any deal fall below their (unreachable) standards, they will demand that their government uses its EU veto. This, in part, explains why the Irish government were so eager to spin a pretty mundane text of agreement with the British as a symbolic victory of principle. And so the wild horses of the DUP – only loosely tethered by Theresa May – took fright and bolted out of the stable. They stand in the field looking frisky and alarmed but they haven’t yet run for the hills.

Beyond this, it is not in the Irish national interest to keep pushing an anti-British line into the second phase of negotiations. Already, a number of savvy centrist Dublin political commentators, such as Dan O’Brien of the Sunday Independent, are worried that their government has taken a gamble. It has even been suggested that Ireland has allowed itself to be “weaponised” by EU negotiators. Some fear that if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal then the Irish agri-food sector – dependent on British consumer markets – will be severely damaged, with dramatic job losses.

Longer term, there are also concerns that Ireland will not be able to resist, ad infinitum, pressure from the European Commission (inspired by Emmanuel Macron) to drop the sweetheart tax deals with multi-nationals that have been at the heart of recent Irish economic policy. And for all the talk of European solidarity, it was the British who offered much more generous terms than the rest of the EU during the external bailout of the Irish economy in 2010.

The border negotiations seem to have broken down over a form of words. This was the distance reported between “no regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland”, as leaked to the Irish press, and the “continued regulatory alignment” in limited sectors governed by the Good Friday Agreement. Something went badly wrong in the choreography. But this should not disguise the fact that there has been a significant degree of convergence between the two sides over the course of the talks.

The Irish originally set out by suggesting that Northern Ireland should remain within the single market and customs union, implying a border “in the sea” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The proposed deal stops far short of that. It also remains the case that nobody, including the DUP, wants to see a hard border on the island of Ireland. In the course of talks, a number of creative technical solutions have been proposed with the intention of making whatever border there is as frictionless as possible. Still, the precise details will depend on the nature of the UK’s long-term trading relationship with Europe. Even today, it is worth noting, the existing border is hardly flawless, with two different currencies, ongoing problems with fuel smuggling and a high terror threat.

This is no masterclass in negotiating from the British. Just as the deal appeared to crystalise, poor management of the DUP saw the government fumble the ball. Beyond that, however, the Irish do not want to sacrifice themselves on the altar of European solidarity, with negotiations poised to move on to matters that touch on their existential economic interests.

The show will most likely get back on the road once the huffing and puffing dies down, and pragmatism over the economics reasserts itself. Even Ian Paisley once conceded that while his people were British, their cows were still Irish.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.