Opinion: A 'hi-tech' border would still be a hard border by another means

Stock picture
Stock picture
Gerry Adams addresses the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in the RDS, Dublin.
John Downing

John Downing

Gerry Adams' decision to finally stand down as Sinn Féin leader comes just as EU-UK Brexit talks gather pace three weeks away from a vital summit on the issue. The border between Ireland north and south has become a major focus.

An important part of the focus is on the serious risk of a renewed border in this country when it becomes the only United Kingdom-European Union land border once the UK has left in March 2019. For all the horror and violence from the IRA, and continued talk by Mr Adams and Sinn Féin about border polls and ending partition, there is one simple truth too often ignored.

It is that the EU did more to eradicate the Border than any other entity since the foundation of this State in 1922. The ending of all customs controls in January 1993 happily removed that crop of shabby booths all along the border between Ireland north and south.

Soon after the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, the EU began pumping in special peace grants. The total of Brussels' aid to support a still fragile peace now stands at about €25bn. Sometimes I think those two points are not appreciated enough or widely enough known.

These days to listen to Sinn Féin, you would think they invented the EU. There is no reference to the reality that, in nine referendums on EU issues since 1972, the party consistently advocated a No-vote. That included the referendum on joining the then-EEC in May 1972, and another referendum on the EU Single Market in May 1987.

In simple terms, if Sinn Féin got its way, Ireland would never have joined the EU, much less the single market. There is every chance in those circumstances that we would still have those scruffy customs booths along the border, and we'd still be engaged in Mickey Mouse nonsense like smuggling butter and pigs instead of the sophisticated agri-food operations we now have on both sides of the border counties.

In fact, for the first half of Ireland's EU membership, Sinn Féin's stance on the issue was rather close to that of Margaret Thatcher and the Europhobic Conservatives in Britain. The only difference was that Thatcher, unlike Sinn Féin, favoured enhanced trade via the single market. But that is where bad nationalism gets people - not very far at all.

But the big problem we now face is that Brexit risks returning the border. It is depressing that the limited talk we have heard from London, and their Democratic Unionist Party allies in Belfast, is in reality talk of a border by another means.

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The return of those shabby customs posts is not envisaged. Instead, technology would be deployed to the optimum level as would things like "an honour system" for traders to minimise customs controls. But the reality of all that is a border by another means. There's a clue in the title "high-tech border".

There are clear signals that the EU would live with some kind of "island of Ireland" approach. But that brings us into very tricky territory for unionists in Belfast and London.

It would mean "moving the border" and making checks in the Northern Ireland ports and airports and on the other side of the water in Britain. And that of itself could damage chances of a deal on the bigger economic prize, trade between the two islands of Britain which is very precious to Irish farming.

So, these Brexit talks will get far worse before there is any hope of improvement. Irish agribusiness's real hope is some kind of EU-UK trade association deal. But that's a long way off.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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