The Tories' cheap promises on the Irish border could lose them IndyRef2

If a second referendum happens, Theresa May must choose between threatening Scotland or reassuring Ulster.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Seamless and frictionless”. “No return to the borders of the past”. When it comes to the Irish border – the EU27’s future land frontier with Brexit Britain – the government does a good line in platitudes. But could these assurances have hamstrung its campaign to keep Scotland in the union if it holds another independence vote?

Vague though its repeated commitments to finding a relatively painless solution to the Irish border question may be, they have, for now at least, created the impression that the government can and will do something to avert the disaster of a hard border.

In truth, things haven’t been especially difficult thus far. Despite frequent warnings of its inevitability from political heavyweights on both sides of the Irish Sea, popular and political appetite for a hard border is non-existent.

It helps that as far as the Irish border is concerned, everyone has something to lose. Punitive border arrangements of the type most frequently mooted – customs checkpoints and manned crossings (with queues of up to 27 hours) - would likely derail the Republic’s painfully-won economic recovery. Meanwhile Theresa May’s outriders in the DUP noisily insist a hard border won’t happen – and with good reason.

The party’s enthusiastic endorsement of Brexit puts it at odds with most of the Northern Irish electorate, 56 per cent of whom voted to remain. Resentment over its Brexit stance in part explains the strong performance of Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance at last month’s assembly elections. For a party already hobbled by the perception of arrogance, any change to the border as is could prove politically ruinous – not least because of the increased chances of a reunification poll.

Moreover, recent interventions such as that of Ireland’s British ambassador Daniel Mulhall last month point to a growing consensus that the border issue is so fraught and potential solutions so impractical – given its 200 crossing points and the 177,000 lorries and 1.85 million cars that use them monthly – that the EU will allow some sort of fudge that preserves the status quo (another boon for Sturgeon).

The government’s words have therefore been cheap – with Brexit years away, it could make its border pledges without heed for practicality and the people that matter would.

Nicola Sturgeon may well have changed all that. Addressing journalists after she announced her intention to hold a second independence referendum between next autumn and the spring of 2019, she cited the Irish border – or, rather, its imperceptibility – and the Republic’s common travel area with the UK when asked whether leaving with the union would, as Scottish secretary David Mundell has said, mean border controls.

She is right to say so.  Despite differences in tone, the substance of ministers’ statements on post-Brexit borders with Scotland and Ireland is essentially the same. When Mundell says it would be impossible for England “not to have border arrangements” with an independent Scotland, the government effectively concedes, as the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told me last month, that its “seamless and frictionless” border in Ireland will at the very least involve some imposition of controls.

One can just about see how such manouevring might prove expedient in the immediate term. But this weasely attempt to contrive a dissonance between two identical positions ratchets the government's difficulty setting far beyond its competence. Its banal assurances on Northern Ireland have effectively written Sturgeon’s attack lines for her: as long as May reassures unionists and the Irish government that a physical border won’t return, no longer can she invoke the spectre of a physical trade barrier cutting Scotland off from its biggest market.

This nonchalance – a word that defines this government’s approach to Northern Ireland better than any other - and lack of foresight could yet take a vital edge off one of the strongest remaining cases against Scottish independence: economic security. And with Irish unity dominating political conversation across the island – Sinn Fein has called for a border poll in the wake of Sturgeon’s announcement and both Enda Kenny's Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are talking up the prospect of reunification – May cannot afford to go hard on the border if she really cares about maintaining Ulster’s place in the union.

If Sturgeon does get her way and a second referendum happens, then the government’s approach to the question of the border will reveal where its unionist priorities really lie. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.