Brexit's red herring

Oct 01, 2018
The media’s focus on the largely theoretical issue of border controls is smothering debate on the possible loss of very practical rights.

Teaching on the Chartered Accountants Ireland Diploma in Corporate Finance course in Dublin recently, I asked a class of around 30 students for their estimates of the proportion of the eventual UK-EU deal that had already been successfully negotiated. About half the class reckoned between 0-25% of the deal had been done with nearly everyone else indicating either 25-50% or 50-75%. One solitary class member indicated his belief that more than three quarters of the deal has already been agreed.
What is the reality? In early July, Michel Barnier, the chief Brexit negotiator for the European Union, declared that 80% of the deal with the UK has been already agreed!

The biggest remaining point of difference in the Brexit talks remains the Irish border, where the public stances adopted by the parties are irreconcilable. Unless the UK is to remain inside the Single Market, which it won’t, there will have to be post-Brexit border checks between the UK and the EU. As far as the border between Ireland and Britain is concerned, those checks will have to be between Newry and Dundalk (something the EU and the Irish Government are not prepared to countenance) or between Larne and Stranraer (something the UK Government won’t contemplate). Something will have to give, but what?

Here is my suggested way out. In my view, it would be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement to erect border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, unless the people of the North voted to change Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The EU-UK border will therefore have to be between Dundalk and Newry. If that is to be the case, we then need to consider how much work would need to be done at the border regarding the movement of people and goods and the supply of services.

Having lived in Northern Ireland for the first decade of my life with all my grandparents living south of the border, I crossed the hard border that used to exist very often. To be perfectly honest, it was never that much of a practical encumbrance. If the Common Travel Area is maintained, there is no compelling argument for checking people driving across the border. Goods being supplied commercially will need to be regulated and subject to checks, and the supply of services will need to be policed where those services are delivered. That means that only goods going across the border in commercial quantities would need to be controlled at the border. I am sure that it is not beyond our authorities’ wit to come up with a smooth system to allow for that.

Why might Ireland give way on its current negotiating stance? It could be justified if, in return, the EU rights of Irish residents living in Northern Ireland were secured. Under current Brexit proposals, Northern Ireland residents with Irish citizenship plus those who identify as British but are entitled to Irish citizenship (i.e. nearly everybody living in Northern Ireland) risk losing a range of EU rights including access to the European Health Insurance Card, access to EU student fee rates, the right to vote for MEPs, plus the right to be joined by non-European Economic Area (EEA) family members. These are very important practical rights whose impending loss is getting very little media attention compared to the, largely theoretical, cost of reinstalling some limited border controls.

It would make sense for the Irish Government, under pressure from the other members of the EU seeking to finalise an increasingly agreed Brexit in order to avoid severe economic disruption, to give way gracefully on the largely symbolic question of our detailed border arrangements if it can thereby protect the practical rights of Irish people living north of the border.
Cormac Lucey FCA is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.