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Sunday 9 December 2018

Bordering on the ridiculous

Some British politicians have seemed clueless on the question of the Irish border, writes Kim Bielenberg

David Davis and Boris Johnson
David Davis and Boris Johnson

A man shouting through a loudhailer outside the Conservative party conference this week seemed to capture the mood of the times perfectly.

"Brexit! It's not going very well, is it?" he hollered.

One of the problems for the Tories is that they have struggled to get to grips with the practicalities of Brexit, and some of them have seemed clueless about the Irish border ever since the referendum vote.

David Davis spent two years as Brexit Secretary, and claimed he was "reasonably familiar with the Irish border over the course of 20 years or so".

And then he declared: "Those borders all operate invisibly. It doesn't matter whether you carry a euro or pound, you can buy your drinks in Belfast in euro and you can buy in Dublin with pounds."

That would have come as a surprise to the Dubliner fumbling around with euro in the Crown Liquor Saloon on Belfast's Great Victoria Street, or the visitor from the Falls Road, down in Dublin buying a round in Mulligans of Poolbeg Street.

Even more alarming is Davis's assertion that "there is a customs border" between North and South already, when none actually exists.

Boris Johnson's big idea for the Irish problem in recent days has been his proposal to build a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland, a project with an estimated cost of €15bn.

The former foreign secretary is fond of the idea of building bridges, and was accused of squandering over €40m on unfulfilled plans for a garden bridge over the River Thames when he was Mayor of London.

And Johnson said earlier of the border: "It's so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly - it's just beyond belief that we're allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We're allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly."

The Revenue Commissioners estimate that 177,000 trucks and over 200,000 vans cross the border every month.

As foreign secretary, he likened his plan for crossing the border to travelling between different boroughs of London. He suggested that goods crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be monitored electronically, just as motorists are when they move into London's congestion charge zone.

"There's no border between Camden and Westminster," said Johnson.

"But when I was Mayor of London, we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever."

Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP for Streatham, was nonplussed by the comment and remarked: "So let's get this straight: London's borough boundaries can be compared to the border between two sovereign states which was central to a conflict in which over 3,000 people died between 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement?"

The Tory MP Bernard Jenkin seemed even more bewildered than Boris when he gave his views on Leo Varadkar's stance on Brexit in a Sky News interview: "If you listen to Bertie Ahern, if you listen to Enda Kelly (sic) - these are two former Taoiseachs, prime ministers of Northern Ireland - they haven't quite played ball like the present Irish prime minister."

It is not just the Tories who come up with choice suggestions. The Labour MP Kate Hoey, who voted Leave and comes from Northern Ireland, suggested if a hard Border was put up between North and South, the Irish would have to pay for it. It was a plan worthy of Donald Trump.

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