Belfast Telegraph

Brexit should be at heart of election debate, so why is the silence so deafening?

Unionists are resigned to leaving the EU, while nationalists scent the prospect of Irish unity, writes Barry White

Brexit will undoubtedly have an impact on the border with the Republic of Ireland
Brexit will undoubtedly have an impact on the border with the Republic of Ireland

There is only one issue worth discussing in this election, yet it isn't getting much attention. What kind of border do we want London to negotiate in the Brexit talks, soft, hard or special? The unionists have already thrown in the towel, apparently accepting that since it was a British referendum, Northern Ireland's 56% Remain vote is trumped by the UK's 52% pro-Brexit.

The nationalists are equally determined to resist any return to the customs regime of the past; they want a special arrangement for our special geographical and political circumstances. No border, no end to north-south connections.

The election will decide who will lead the retreat from Europe and, for all the slippage, few believe that Theresa May will not have a manageable majority, with or without unionist support. Jeremy Corbyn's record on Ireland is so dubious and uninformed, he might never be trusted.

So, the battle is on to win the maximum influence in London and Brussels, yet there is little hard evidence for the parties, or the voters, to go on, as to the future shape of the Irish border.

Almost the only fact to emerge, from a source in the Irish revenue body is that some 8% of lorries crossing the border would have to be inspected, causing delay and expense to major companies like Coca Cola, whose raw materials and finished products routinely cross the border.

So great are the unprecedented problems of Brexit that no one can predict how long present arrangements will last, or even if a final deal will receive parliamentary approval.

Yet, if the UK is leaving the EU, a tariff boundary must be set, either like the Norway-Sweden border, with some 20 customs crossings, or special status for the island of Ireland.

The latter would mean no change here, with free passage for people and goods, but a new border would have to be agreed at ports of entry to Britain.

To say this would be controversial is a gross understatement. Not only would the British have to accept different treatment for a subsidised part of their unitary state, but Brussels would have to approve such a unique arrangement.

Dublin would, but what about the 26 other EU members? Would they be sufficiently moved by fears for the Irish peace process?

Most importantly, what about the reaction of the unionists? Would they accept such a deviation, even if it was economically advantageous, or would they oppose it tooth and nail?

If Scotland were heading for independence, would that alter the arithmetic?

It is impossible to answer these questions before negotiations begin, but one certainty is that a hard border would be unacceptable to a section of the Northern Ireland population.

Enough who cross the border regularly could make it unworkable, whatever technology could be employed to lessen the inconvenience.

To illustrate the impossibility, a fisherman tells me that all he would need to become a people smuggler between Leitrim and Fermanagh would be an outboard engine for his boat.

Because of adverse unionist reaction, the British and Irish governments are unlikely to go for an all-Ireland solution now, but it would be surprising if Dublin were not considering all possibilities, in view of their dependence on trade with Britain.

While most unionists are resigned to Brexit, border and all, most nationalists will continue to press for special status, and eventually a border poll.

As Remainers say, the Leavers would never have given up if they had lost the vote, so why should they?

Such radical ideas should be at the heart of the election debate, given the effect of a renewed political and economic border across the island to the basis of the Good Friday Agreement.

While preservation of the Union is central to unionists, nationalists equally cling to the lifeline of an open border and the possibility of a united Ireland, inside Europe.

In an uncertain world, with the UK heading for a go-it-alone future and Northern Ireland's nationalist vote rising relentlessly, everyone should be keeping all their options open.

Belfast Telegraph


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