Belfast Telegraph

Brexit appears to mean taking back control of everything but border

The Union has rarely seemed weaker or more vulnerable to British apathy than it has since Article 50 was triggered, argues Ciaran McGonagle

Amid the barrage of claims, counter-claims, mistruths and alternative facts exchanged by representatives of both sides during the EU Referendum, the assertion made by the Leave campaign that exiting the European Union would allow the United Kingdom to "take back control" has stood the test of time rather better than many others.

Inoffensive, malleable and deceptively ambiguous, the pledge served to stir the patriotic passions of Leave voters without so obviously stoking the populist flames kindled by Nigel Farage's ugly, anti-immigrant crusade.

The commitment to take back control ostensibly centred upon three distinct areas over which the UK would seek to reassert its former sovereignty upon leaving the EU: money, laws and borders.

Tacitly accepted, if not wholly endorsed, by Leavers and Remainers alike in the Conservative and Labour parties in the months since the referendum result, "taking back control" has gradually become the lingua franca of Brexit. Consequently, there has been little practical opposition to the Government's hard Brexit plan.

On borders and immigration specifically, analysis of each party's election manifesto would suggest there is little disagreement among the main parties in this area.

It is rather striking therefore that, to date, nobody within either the Government or on Opposition benches has yet been able to articulate a plausible plan for taking back control of the only land border that the UK shares with the EU: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Contrary to the Government's long-established and oft-stated ambition that a hard border in Ireland should be avoided, the lack of any credible proposal as to how this might be achieved tends to suggest a distinct lack of control.

That is not to say that control has necessarily been ceded. Having identified the three key issues of payments, citizens' rights and Northern Ireland as red lines in their negotiating guidelines, the EU's negotiators may find that the Irish border quickly becomes the most intractable issue. If so, this raises a fundamental question as to the likelihood of success of any exit agreement.

On the final payment amount, a political solution exists. An amount will be proposed, countered and then, presumably, agreed. Citizens' rights, a delicate and more difficult issue than commonly understood, also has a political solution in the sense that either side may determine at any time to act unilaterally in guaranteeing the relevant legal rights of those citizens in their respective jurisdictions. The extent to which they do so and any trade-offs or concessions made are fully within the control of political operatives on both sides.

The border issue on the other hand does not have a clear political solution. The shared objective of both sides is to avoid the imposition of a hard border. Yet this is not capable of being achieved by either party acting unilaterally, or even by the parties acting in concert. Implausible suggestions of a "frictionless" border ignore the cold reality that the creation of any softer border is dependent upon both technology and the diverging legal and regulatory frameworks governing immigration and trade on either side of the border as well as any required customs controls.

To date we have heard only calls for "creative solutions". One might interpret that to mean a solution for which no pre-existing model or precedent exists.

Indeed, there has been talk of a "special status" for Northern Ireland. But what does this mean in practice? Sinn Fein has suggested that a special deal might involve continuing political representation within EU institutions, ongoing membership of the customs union, the extension of all EU funding programmes that benefit Northern Ireland and the maintenance of EU law across a range of policy areas, many of which are not currently devolved to the Assembly.

It is difficult to see how any British Government could agree to such a deal without emboldening Scottish separatists and undermining, perhaps fatally, the legal and constitutional framework of the United Kingdom. The only conceivable political solutions would therefore appear to be either Irish reunification or, alternatively, an "Irexit".

Neither enjoy a significant level of popular support. Yet, almost imperceptibly, one can observe figures across the political spectrum foraging instinctively down these paths of least political resistance.

With respect to the latter, the most vocal proponents of an Irish exit have, predictably, been those such as Farage on the populist Right who have sought to bolster their EU disintegration agenda while, as a convenient corollary, absolving themselves of any personal responsibility for the potential disintegration of the United Kingdom precipitated by Irish reunification.

While an Ireland outside the EU would, in theory, be better placed to enter into separate arrangements with the UK to maintain the common travel area on its existing terms, thus avoiding the need for new border controls, it seems fanciful to suggest that this argument alone forms a credible basis upon which to convince a largely pro-EU Irish public that their future prosperity would be best served by following the British to the exit door.

On the other side, lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier, desperate to avoid the exit of another member state, has spoken of the importance of representing Ireland's interests in negotiations. Notably, EU leaders have also confirmed that Northern Ireland would likely rejoin the European Union automatically in the event of Irish reunification.

That this commitment and the EU's overall position on Northern Ireland hasn't prompted the same level of opprobrium from both Westminster and the British media as Spain's mischievous attempt to secure a veto over any future arrangements with respect to Gibraltar is instructive. For while Gibraltar continues to act as a symbolic reminder of Empire and past global significance in the British national psyche, such connotations with respect to Ulster have become steadily more tenuous. Indeed, the Union has rarely seemed weaker nor more vulnerable to British apathy.

One might therefore ask what concessions the UK would be willing to make in order to resolve the current impasse. Remaining members of the single market and customs union? Special status for Northern Ireland that is tantamount to EEA membership? Perhaps even a reversal of Brexit itself, given the clear adverse and disproportionate impact that it will likely have upon the people of Northern Ireland? None of these appear remotely likely.

It is arguable, therefore, that no realistic political solution to the border issue exists at all. Certainly not within the parameters under which the negotiating parties appear to be operating.

For, ultimately, politics is the art of the possible. Not about what is right or what is best, but rather what is attainable.

The path that the UK is currently embarked upon would appear to render the objective of a border-less Ireland unattainable. It may ultimately be for the people of Ireland, on both sides, to determine the alternative.

Ciaran McGonagle is a London-based financial services lawyer and commentator. He blogs at

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