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Northern Ireland beyond Brexit: the unanswered questions are troubling

Lack of detail in government's White Paper about province's future breeds only doubt and confusion, writes Ciaran McGonagle

On Thursday, the government published its Brexit White Paper, setting out 12 high-level principles intended to provide a framework for the UK's negotiations with the remaining 27 Member States of the European Union.

In areas from sovereignty to trade, the paper provides an overview of the current status quo across these 12 areas, making occasional and sporadic proposals and vague, occasionally meaningless, commitments on certain of the overarching principles that will guide the government's negotiators as they seek to conclude a deal to secure what the paper describes as a "stronger, fairer, more Global Britain".

It is difficult to recall an official, government-issued publication more lacking in substance or authoritative detail than this White Paper. Clearly prepared in haste following repeated demands from opposition MPs for its publication, the lack of specificity provides very little new information beyond that already gleaned from the Prime Minister's woolly public statements on Brexit to date.

The detail, somewhat of a relative term in this case, is instructive. In some ways, the paper will make uncomfortable reading for the DUP. Having campaigned to leave the European Union last June, the paper makes some surprising admissions which tend to undermine the basis upon which the Leave campaign was fought. Take, for example, the prominent calls by Leave campaigners to "take back control" of the United Kingdom's laws from the European Union and to reassert parliamentary sovereignty.

The paper suggests that this, in fact, was a specious and misleading argument, stating that "whilst Parliament has always remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that". A tacit admission of the lack of substance in one of the key pillars of the Leave campaign, in which the DUP played a prominent role.

Likewise on immigration, the paper speaks in terms of perception rather than reasoned and robust conclusions anchored in fact-based, empirical research and analysis. The cognitive dissonance required in acknowledging the benefits of immigration, particularly in the delivery of public services, while bemoaning the "rise in public concern about pressure on public services" caused by immigration is remarkable and, again, makes difficult reading for those parties who campaigned to leave.

On Northern Ireland, the White Paper, predictably, has very little to say. With two and a half pages dedicated to "Protecting our strong and historic ties with Ireland and maintaining the Common Travel Area", the section dedicated to the specific issues faced by Northern Ireland is by far the least substantive section in the entire paper.

Within these two pages, we are provided with a brief, illustrative explanation of the existing economic ties between the UK and Ireland, and an acknowledgement that Irish citizens are afforded a special status within the United Kingdom by virtue of the Ireland Act 1949. Curiously, the paper implies that such rights vested in Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland only by virtue of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Finally, the government offers a commitment that it will work with all interested parties to develop a "practical solution" that recognizes the unique economic, social and political context of the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, promising that "an explicit objective of the government's work is to ensure that full account is taken for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".

If the reader will forgive a brief digression, a cursory glance at the dictionary confirms that stating something "explicitly" might be construed as stating something "clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt".

On the subject of Northern Ireland's post-Brexit future, nothing in this paper is clear. There is no detail. Confusion and doubt abounds.

The practical solution posited by the government is necessarily subject to the caveat that the integrity of the UK's immigration system must be protected, as guaranteed within this very section. The suggestion that this is easily achievable while maintaining the Common Travel Area (CTA) in its current form is, as a practical matter, difficult to reconcile with the facts.

As the government is fully aware, that the Common Travel Area existed prior to both the UK and Ireland becoming members of the European Union, offers little comfort. Neither the UK nor Ireland has ever been a member of a supra-national bloc guaranteeing freedom of movement beyond their respective borders without the other.

The preservation of an open land border between the UK and a Member State of the European Union would be in direct contravention of, and would tend to fatally undermine, the PM's demand that a post-Brexit UK have full control over inward migration.

It ignores Ireland's own policies on immigration which might dictate stronger controls on the Irish side of the border. In short, it is either purposively ignorant or misleading to suggest that the existing CTA framework can be easily maintained in these circumstances.

Interestingly, this entire argument contrasts with remarks the Prime Minister made immediately prior to the Referendum in June, when, as Home Secretary, May claimed it would be "inconceivable" to imagine that there will not be any changes on border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland, if the UK were to pull out of the EU.

This disparity betrays the logical incoherence of the government's position on Northern Ireland, deliberately and cynically obfuscated behind carefully chosen, aspirational yet ultimately meaningless words.

We are also expected to welcome the promise of no return to the borders of the past. But let's be clear. Granted there is a clear conceptual distinction between an Army border imposed primarily as a security measure to prevent smuggling and gun running and a customs border or passport control. From a practical perspective, however, there is little tangible difference. Cars and freight vehicles crossing the border will likely be required to stop and provide identification documents. So we end up with, if not a border of the past, then a border of the future, the latter as pernicious and discomforting for the people of Northern Ireland as the former.

Overall, the lack of tangible detail in the paper is discomforting. On financial services for example, which employs 32,000 people in Northern Ireland, the government pledges only to aim for the "freest possible trade in financial services". A fine sentiment, but one unlikely to persuade business executives to expedite investment in the region.

Yet the lack of detail serves a purpose. The government has long-insisted that providing prescriptive detail on its aims and objectives would threaten to undermine the negotiation. The executive, the Prime Minister insists, must be empowered to take whatever actions it deems necessary to give effect to her dream of a "better Britain". We should be cautious. As a former Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, once remarked: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

Ciaran McGonagle works at Deutsche Bank in London

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