Friday, 31 August 2018

What Northern Ireland thinks

Northern Ireland (NI) has become the central and defining issue for Brexit. The proposed NI backstop in the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement is likely to define and constrain the UK’s future relationship with the EU, or risk separating NI from Great Britain (GB) with a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

Sadly, the NI assembly has not been sitting for over 500 days, so NI democratic consent is missing from the whole debate over the NI backstop. Given that NI democratic consent is the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), this is tragic and potentially a danger to peace.

So we are left with opinion polling to guage NI public opinion on this matter. Polling undertaken by Queens University Belfast was forwarded to me by a Remainer / Irish nationalist. The report was highly enlightening, but perhaps not in the way the sender intended.

NI/RoI border questionnaire

Firstly, let’s take a look at the questions that were asked regarding what would be acceptable for a future NI/RoI border.

Some of these questions are seriously eyebrow raising:
  • Military personnel at customs checkpoints ?
  • Travel across NI border: Produce passports; Log travel plans in advance; Photo taken, fingerprinting at the border ? The existing Common Travel Area (CTA) arrangements will remain unchanged and there is surely no realistic prospect of such restrictions.
  • Border checks that would add 30 minutes to your journey ?  Cars are not subject to border checks in NI/RoI today despite the existing excise border & associated smuggling. The same applies to Norway & Switzerland’s border with the EU - cars are generally allowed to pass subject to occasional spot checks for excise duty.
Does anybody seriously think these scenarios are going to happen ?  This smacks of scaremongering by those conducting the survey.

NI views on border with RoI

So lets look at the responses to these questions: 

Just 15% would find ANPR/CCTV cameras along the border “almost impossible to accept”. Not quite the level of opposition often portrayed. In any case, it is widely accepted that trying to cover every one of the 300+ crossing points with cameras is impractical - so the (low) level of outright opposition is a moot point. Existing cameras on main N-S road seems not to be a problem and will obviously stay.  Adding cameras to the handful of N-S roads used by freight might help in tracking legitimate freight movements. I suspect in a few years no-one will care about a few cameras on the handful of main N-S roads carrying freight. In any case, the current thinking is to put technology inside trucks, i.e. smartphone app + GPS tracking - making the concerns RE cameras & drones redundant.

The main finding of interest is the 40% who find "checkpoints with customs officials" almost impossible to accept. No surprise that there is significant opposition to a  “hard" border. Customs processing undertaken electronically with any required consignment checks undertaken away from the border (i.e. a "soft" border) would not require manned checkpoints at the border - so would not fall foul of this opposition.

NI views on border with GB

Responses on potential outcomes for an NI-GB border are revealing.

The first question shows about a third opposed to the idea that Free Movement of EU citizens should vary between NI and GB. In practice, post-Brexit UK will likely continue to offer visa-free travel to EU citizens post-Brexit, but residency & employment rights will be subject to an independent UK regime, applying equally in  GB & NI. Regarding Irish citizens, the CTA & 1949 Ireland Act will continue to apply.

The remaining 3 questions pertain to NI being in a separate regulatory, customs or jurisdictional regime to GB:
  • More than 40% find  it “almost impossible to accept” the European Court of Justice (ECJ) having jurisdiction in NI, but not GB. This is higher than the level of opposition to "checkpoints with customs officials" on the NI/RoI border. 
  • Almost half reject a different regulatory regime for NI which leads to trade barriers with GB. 
  • Even more striking is the almost 2/3 opposition to customs duty being applied on GB-NI trade, with over 60% of catholics opposed. An Irish Sea Customs border is a complete non-starter.
These findings ought to be a killer for the EU’s proposed NI backstop. The levels of opposition to the key tenets of the backstop (ECJ, Single Market/Customs Union in goods applying to NI only) are higher (much higher in the case of an Irish Sea Customs Border) than opposition to a “hard” NI/RoI border (i.e. customs checkpoints on the border).

The report finds lower opposition to customs checks at the NI-GB border (just under 30%) compared with customs checks at the NI-RoI border (40% opposition). But there is also recognition of the importance of trade with GB (which dwarfs Trade with a RoI or the rest of the EU), notably among the Catholic & Leave communities. The NI border question encompasses economic as well as national identity questions.


While it is generally accepted that customs checkpoints on the NI/RoI border are unacceptable, it is perhaps less well understood that placing NI in a separate customs, regulatory & jurisdictional regime (as per the EU’s proposed NI backstop) is even more strongly opposed by NI public opinion.

Of course Remainers will insist that the only way to resolve these concerns is for the whole UK to stay in the Single Market & Customs Union, a.k.a. BRINO (Brexit in name only). But it should be noted that the Withdrawal Agreement commits to an NI-only backstop and provides no guarantees of a future UK-EU agreement - the implied NI-GB Border ought to make the NI backstop proposal a non-starter.

As noted in the December phase 1 progress report, the UK is committed to no “hard” border with RoI (para 43), but that cannot be at the expense of the integrity of the UK, it’s internal market or NI’s place within it (paras 44 & 45). So consistent with NI public opinion, there is a need for a “soft “ border solution, i.e. NI outside the Single Market, Customs Union & jurisdiction of the ECJ, while avoiding customs checkpoints on the border with RoI. 

A “soft” border solution should be based on cross-border co-operation and pragmatic working arrangements, brokered via N-S co-operation under the GFA (as per my recent post. A solution that covers trade in goods (agricultural & manufactured) and accounts for differing customs/tariffs regimes. My next series of posts will examine how such a “soft” border could work.

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