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24 November 2017

Time is running out for Theresa May to address the Irish Brexit problem

The Brexit elite have finally moved on from science fiction – but turned to conspiracy instead.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May is preparing to make a further concession over the amount the United Kingdom is willing to pay to settle its outstanding liabilities, but the other barrier to sufficient progress – the question of the Irish border – keeps getting bigger.

In the United Kingdom, Michael Gove has won the battle to convince Theresa May that the country should seek regulatory divergence from the EU after Brexit, according to Tom Newton Dunn in the Sun. If you have regulatory divergence, you have to have checks at the border, which means you have to have a hard border to one degree or another. 

The only way you can avoid a hard border is to remain in the customs union and continue to have regulatory harmonisation – which is also the only way to get a trade deal which maintains the same level of market access to the rest of the EU as the UK currently enjoys, and vice versa. 

The problem on the UK side is that instead of engaging in the real trade-off – regulatory freedom with a hard border and less trade, or regulatory harmonisation with no border and more trade off – is that they have instead been peddling science fiction solutions about border checks by Zeppelin (unfortunately I am not joking).

The good news is that the Brexit elite have moved on from science fiction. The bad news is that they have turned to conspiracy instead. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reveals that Brexiteers believe the border issue is being inflated by the EU27 to demand concessions later on.  Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth has the view from the cabinet table, which is that Leo Varadkar is making a “dangerous gamble” with his demands that a hard border be avoided at all costs.

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Again, without wishing to be a stuck record, the border issue is a real one. As it stands, the approach to Brexit set out at May’s Lancaster House speech means that there will be border checks, either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish sea. As for Varadkar’s “dangerous gamble”, the thing is, the terms of Lancaster House mean that whatever happens, Ireland will lose out economically as it will trade less with its nearest trading partner and will trade less with Scotland, England and Wales. If the British government gets its way, this will also add to that economic shock the political repercussions of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Far from being a gamble, the political calculation for Varadkar is simple: unless the British government changes its Brexit objectives there is going to be economic damage to his country, but he can avoid the political damage to his career if he carries on the way he’s going. The ham-fisted briefing and the poor approach to winning hearts and minds outside of the United Kingdom by the British government has only made that calculation easier.

Adding to that side of the problem, his government looks set to fall over the Garda scandal. The Irish police have been involved in a series of on-and-off scandals, including revelations that they falsified the number of breathalyser tests they were conducting by carrying them out on members of the force rather than the public. But that Varadkar’s deputy, Frances Fitzgerald, may have known about the Garda’s campaign to discredit a whistleblower, means that the opposition parties are calling for her to go.

Most importantly, Fianna Fáil, who struck a confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael following the inconclusive election result, have broken ranks. That means that there could be another election in the Republic before Christmas. But any British politician or commentator or believes that a Fianna Fáil government is going to be more inclined to gently acquiesce to a state of affairs that causes political and economic damage to the Republic should read a history book, or failing that, an Irish newspaper from time to time.

What is more likely is that an election, if it comes, will further raise the political price to be paid by whoever becomes taoiseach after the next election if they are seen to meekly submit to a Brexit that creates a hard border on the island of Ireland and weakens trading links between the United Kingdom and the Republic.

Having gone from science fiction to conspiracy theory, time is running out for the British government to come up with a fact-based approach to the border.