Monday 19 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'The time for optimism has passed - and now we're looking at a hard Border whether we like it or not'

'No backstop means a Border'. Stock image
'No backstop means a Border'. Stock image
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

As we move towards the final 100 days before the Halloween fright-night that is the October 31 Brexit deadline, the only light at the end of the tunnel is from a train full of rabid Brexiteers.

When Brexit was first mooted it seemed a perfectly legitimate idea - most of the EU member states have some sort of secessionist movement and many of the arguments were perfectly valid.

In the last couple of years, however, those perfectly valid arguments have been replaced by visceral nationalism and a staggering degree of either contempt or sheer indifference towards their neighbours.

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The contempt has been reserved largely for the EU's political class. The indifference is directed towards us.

The casual disdain and striking lack of any interest in the Republic of Ireland has become increasingly evident in recent times.

Whether it be David Davis bizarrely claiming that: "You can buy a pint in Belfast in euro or you can buy a pint in Dublin in pounds", or Priti Patel, who even suggested the UK uses the threat of food shortages in the Republic to bring the Troublesome Mick into line, senior Tories seem to have been competing with each other to show who cares the least.

Despite trying to maintain a calm front and not say anything which would give the UK and Northern Irish hardliners any extra ammunition, we are now facing into the reality which Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Helen McEntee had been at pains to reassure us would never happen - the dreaded hard Border.

From one political angle, the repeated dismissal of that prospect made a certain sense. As we saw with some of the ever-charming Sammy Wilson's quotes last week about 'the Irish', there is no respect for Dublin in the Loyalist halls of Northern Ireland and our Government had to do its best to make sure it didn't further inflame an already smouldering situation.

While the Government made a political decision to frame any question about the Border as a distraction that was never going to happen, outside observers have been long, loud and clear in their assertions to the contrary.

Simply put, there is either a hard Border or a complete realignment of customs controls which could potentially withdraw the single market's borders to Calais and effectively leave us out in the cold.

In other words, if as presumptive prime minister Boris Johnson has warned, the UK crashes out on Halloween night, then there will be no deal, which means no backstop.

No backstop means a Border.

The reason for that is as stark as it is simple - as far as our dear friends in the UK are concerned, Brexit means Brexit - an absolutist position they defend by saying that just as you can't be a little bit pregnant, you can't have a little bit of Brexit.

The Government's refusal to even publicly countenance a return to a hard Border may have reminded Brussels that we weren't prepared to be mere chips in a game of high-stakes poker, but that also had the unintended corollary of failing to sufficiently impress the urgency of such an eventuality to Irish businesses.

Some of the numbers that have been crunched are as ugly as you might expect.

According to a report by Northern Ireland's civil service, the North stands to lose 40,000 jobs, which would be utterly ruinous for it.

The picture for us in the Republic is even more alarming. We're looking at at least 50,000 job losses and, as pointed out by Fianna Fáil, a remarkable 65,000 Irish businesses have yet to apply for the Economic Operators Registration and Identification certification, which will be mandatory for firms in the event of no-deal fall-out.

The hotel industry has already estimated that such a scenario would cost it more than €54m in the first year and would sound the death-knell for many establishments.

There had always been hope that, sooner or later, sanity would have to break out. There was a certain comfort in thinking that, regardless of how the Brexit referendum went, calm heads and cool tempers would prevail.

But we now know that there is no rabbit to be pulled out of the hat at the last minute.

Johnson seems determined to convince himself, if nobody else, that he can still bring the EU leadership back to the table to conjure a last-minute winner, despite that being repeatedly shot down by Brussels.

As has already been firmly expressed by various senior EU officials, the idea of running customs checks at other Irish ports and points of entry is simply a Hail Mary and a complete non-runner. That is bad enough. But from the EU's perspective, it simply cannot have a border-shaped puncture in its front tyre.

The whole point of the EU is an enclosed single market. Allowing this island to remain with one foot in the UK and the other in the EU would not only create regulatory chaos and be simply unworkable, but it would also undermine the very principles of the EU; principles which are far more precious to it than the fate of a small country which only has a population of 4.7 million people - a drop in the ocean to an institution with a total population of more than half-a-billion people.

Apart from the intractable issues, there is also the sense that the entire political class in the UK seems to have had a collective breakdown.

If Johnson's treatment of the now former ambassador Kim Darroch is any indication, then we're looking to a regime that will be notable for its mendacity and almost pathological cynicism. Should Johnson attempt to suspend parliament and if that forces a general election, a Labour government riven by extremism and anti-semitism hardly seems a safe alternative port in this storm.

We are left with a variety of options, each more unappetising than the last.

As things stand, the short-term succour offered by the backstop is now a non- runner. That means we either invent some previously unheralded way of running an electronic border - an idea which is now laughed at - or we install a hard Border and risk throwing 21 years of peace and relative stability overboard.

As we have seen from the age of those accused of Lyra McKee's murder, there is a new generation too young to remember the Troubles but disconcertingly keen for a resumption of violence and a return to the bad old days.

In the face of such seismic changes which are going to happen whether we like it or not, some people have even suggested the nuclear option of leaving the EU and rejoining the Commonwealth to protect the integrity of the island.

What next, someone suggest we apply to become the 51st state of the USA?

Irish Independent

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