Source: Lords propose major initiative on Ireland

lords

At times it seems that politicians in these islands are still in working their way through the five stages of post-referendum grief, with most trapped somewhere between depression and acceptance. Some surprising agencies and institutions have stepped tentatively into the leadership vacuum, and top of the list is the European Union Committee of the House of Lords. It began holding hearings before the referendum and in the autumn it took its show on the road in Ireland because as BBB has noted before, the noble lords had already taken the view that Ireland could be affected more than Britain.

The result of their deliberations is Brexit: UK-Irish Relations, which Irish Times London Editor Denis Staunton rightly described as “the most comprehensive British analysis to date of the implications for Ireland of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.”

The Lords have a proposal which at first sight may sound slightly naive: London and Dublin should begin talks on a bilateral agreement  in parallel with the UK-EU Brexit negotiations running to 2019. The agreement would seek to maintain the Common Travel Area and right to live and work on either side of the border, and more crucially, the rights of people in the north to hold Irish (and thus EU) citizenship. The practical outcome of their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and cross-border cooperation should be that cross-border schemes should continue to be eligible for EU funding.

So far so possible, just about. But they go further: if the EU leaves the customs union there should be a British-Irish customs and trade arrangement “subject to the agreement of the EU institutions and member states.” To make that easier to swallow in Brussels they have a little proposal which may cause someone to choke in Whitehall: the Northern Ireland Executive should be able to decide on free movement of EU workers within its jurisdiction.

This is actually clever, a sort of devolution of the ‘four freedoms’ with free movement of people being used to leverage tariff-free trade in goods and services.One could imagine a red pen striking that out in Brussels, yet chief negotiator Michel Barnier went to some lengths at a recent Brussels press conference to show his personal knowledge of the Good Friday Agreement and the EU’s desire to respect its terms and objectives. A far greater problem on the short term is the complete absence of any sign of a coherent strategy in London.

This report raises rather more questions than it can answer, but the fact is that everyone has talked from day one of the need to make some sort of special case for the border in Ireland. Much of that was wishful thinking: this is the first time that any qualified commentators have tried to put a shape on it. The noble lords have done a great job: it is probably one that could not have been done by MPs facing the prospect of imminent electoral elimination at the hands of a Brexit majority. Their report should be bedtime reading for every MLA and TD.

One little quibble: the report seems to accept some of the hype, which Arlene Foster seemingly subscribes to,  that suggests technology is the answer to a ‘hard border’. M50-style number plate readers may reduce or even eliminate queues of lorries at Killean or Augnacloy but these are merely annoying symptoms of the problems at an EU external border. Technology will not pay the tariffs if the UK leaves the single market and customs union.