We often talk of the special relationship when referring to our association with the United States. But the real special relationship that has blossomed in recent years is the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Emerald Isle. The Republic of Ireland is the only country to share a land border with the United Kingdom. Our common ties of history bind many families here and in the Republic together. The Queen’s state visit a few years ago cemented this new post-Troubles.
Relations between London and Dublin have never been stronger or more prosperous.The UK’s decision to vote to leave the European Union should not be viewed in Dublin as a threat or a sign of any weakening of our enduring friendship. The UK and Ireland had a free travel arrangement, strong trade links and a mission to secure peace in Northern Ireland long before both nations joined the EU, and those ties will be maintained after we leave the EU. The present challenges facing the UK in terms of the negotiations should not be used by anyone to try and change the London-Dublin partnership.
However, it is important that the whole of the UK leaves the EU strong, united and intact. We cannot allow our country to be placed in a position where our ongoing relationship with the EU results in the integrity of the UK being harmed. Therefore, the emerging story that the Conservative government has conceded that there will be “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland outside the EU and with Ireland as a member of the EU, its single market and customs union is concerning.
The EU Referendum was a UK-wide referendum and the Brexit negotiations are ongoing. While the statement released by the UK government and the Commission is alarming for those supporting Brexit, it does provide for “regulatory alignment” only in the event that an “agreed solution” cannot be found. The UK government is pressing for an ambitious free trade deal with the European Union and it is in the best interests of the UK and the EU, including Ireland for this to be achieved. Ireland’s geography, economy, and industry is dependent on a solid relationship with the United Kingdom as its primary trading partner.
The imposition of a hard border is unnecessary and the British government does not want to impose one. Arlene Foster has said that “Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom and we will not accept any form of regulatory divergence.”
The key point is that there is absolutely no need for there to be regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland post Brexit. At present, VAT rates in Ireland and the UK are different on items such as fuel and they are logged. Outside the EU, a similar programme would simply need to be adopted on any items where there is regulatory divergence. The UK has no desire to impose tariffs on Irish goods and so customs arrangements would be minimal. It is all a bit of a storm in a teacup. There do also exist arrangements where policies are determined on an all-Ireland basis, such as animal welfare and animal care standards. Such practices could continue without hindrance after we leave the EU.
There are already examples of such arrangements in Europe. Norway, which is outside the European Union, has a frictionless border with Sweden, which is inside the European Union, and there is no reason why such a model could not be implemented on the island of Ireland. Landlocked Switzerland enjoys seamless good trade relations with the EU, without onerous border regulations.
Already, devolved leaders in Edinburgh, Cardiff Bay and London are seeking similar concessions for their own devolved governments. The primary objective of the British government should be to ensure the integrity of the UK, and on that basis, the UK should have a soft border and simply adopt current practices on customs along that soft and invisible border. If, however, the Tories do go down the route of allowing Northern Ireland to appear in practice, if not in fact as a special case, more aligned to Eire than to the UK, they could ultimately find themselves responsible for the dismantling of the UK, something the British people will never forget.
Brendan Chilton is the director of Labour Future and general secretary of Labour Leave.