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Telegraph: The Good Friday Agreement has nothing to fear from Brexit

Date: 10 04 2018

The Good Friday Agreement has nothing to fear from Brexit

It hardly seems like two decades since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed. Much of the groundwork for it – I’d say around 70 per cent – was laid by John Major, to his great credit, and more directly by my boss, Sir (later Lord) Patrick (‘Paddy’) Mayhew, who I had the honour to serve as Special Adviser to at the Northern Ireland Office 1996-97.

He was a wonderful man who strode above party politics; resolute, principled and modest enough to have no interest in taking credit for this Herculean task. He’d berate me for mentioning it now.

But this was a shared and determinedly apolitical achievement. I worked too with Michael Ancram, John Chilcott as Permanent Secretary, and with Labour’s Mo Mowlam – who was a wonderful lady, quite the antipathy to Paddy in her unapologetic and informal ways. She would always ask me if I was working too hard, and had the guts to take awkward political risks – such as going to greet Loyalist prisoners in jail to discuss their demands.

Paddy Ashdown and his team were fully supportive of the Northern Ireland parties, who were so central to the negotiations. I salute Tony Blair for having the temerity and foresight to finish the job.

I continued to help the process after I left, and recommended the ‘Haystack option’ to decommission terrorist weapons – the use of trusted neutral, generally religious, leaders to witness the terrorists destroy their own weapons – which was later adopted by the decommissioning body.

It was originated by the fact the IRA would traditionally bury old weapons in haystacks. A return to war would have been preferable to them to handing the weapons in (equalling surrender), and this had bedevilled progress in the talks. Creative solutions really do have their place.

But the GFA nearly didn’t make it past day one of the peace talks. I was standing just behind John Major and the Irish Taioseach John Bruton at Stormont’s uninspired Castle Buildings when the negotiations started. But by lunchtime, I watched Paddy on the phone to the Prime Minister, newly flown back to London, saying he’d better prepare a statement to the House in case the talks collapsed – over the issue of having an American chairman. It was David Trimble who rescued the situation. Senator George Mitchell went on to do an amazing job, requiring far more patience than that of one saint, especially with all the filibustering that went on.

Bruton’s opening speech mentioned a victim of the troubles. Unknown to him, their convicted killer happened to be in his eyeline, released after many long years in jail to help negotiate peace. Such was the high drama, the absurd yet vital nature of this exercise.

My criteria of the GFA’s success is simple: the troubles tragically killed on average 300 or more people a year. 20 years is 6000 lives saved. I have had Army friends who have had to shovel the mess up after terrible bombs, my father was lucky to escape a central London bomb, I heard the Canary Wharf bomb go off on the night I celebrated my new appointment, and I have met those on all sides who have lost loved ones.

It may not be perfect but the GFA has transformed lives and relations on the island of Ireland. I would do nothing to undermine or compromise the GFA.

So how sad and irresponsible it is now that we have a range of figures, such as Tony Blair or Hillary Clinton, prepared to compromise these fine achievements by grossly and shamefully exaggerating the difficulties surrounding what is a comparatively simple task – that of using modern and widely available technology to ensure that a hard Border is not necessary after Brexit.

Compare this task in its levels of complexity with the actual negotiations to secure the GFA. Who wants a hard border? If some parties wanted a hard border you may have more of a problem. But no one does. The UK Government will not impose one. Nor are there multitudinous and competing political, religious and historical agendas at play here. It’s just a border. Like there is already a VAT border, excise border, tax border and even a currency border.

Mr Varadkar might stand apprehensively by US/Canada Border checkpoints, but the island of Ireland does not need border controls for a combined population of 370 million, only 6.5 million. And the ‘people’ issue is already sorted: everyone agrees to continue the existing Common Travel Area. No new passport controls then – so it’s just the ‘goods’ issue.

Once again, the sum total of all Irish mainland border crossings by lorry and vans in a year is equivalent to less than 3 days on the M25, and most flows are for local and agricultural industries.

I have put forward a proposed technical solution myself based in part on the expertise of the EU’s own Adviser, former World Customs Organisation Director Lars Karlsson. But in a nutshell: the reality is that if the U.K. and EU agree a tariff free and quota-free trade deal, which is increasingly likely (what I term ‘SuperCanada’), the customs border becomes pretty academic anyway. 

Physically, most borders are in computers nowadays, backed by minor checks on traders to ensure they are trustworthy (‘trusted traders’) and by police intelligence – at present the U.K. only checks 4 per cent of goods entering and Ireland just 1 per cent, the lowest in the world bar Gambia.

On these online registrations, I advocate a three tier pre-registration process: the existing EU scheme of Authorised Economic Operators for major companies (MAEO) which is like US/Canada’s ‘FAST’ scheme, an intervening and most common Irish-only Special AEO scheme requiring less stringent checks (SpAEO), and Pre Clearance Customs checks for very small operators working like the London congestion charge done on the day or within 24 hours.

Any required checks would be done well away from the border – at existing port and airport facilities such as Dublin docks or Belfast International airport say, backed by minimal non-intrusive CCTV and Automated Number Plate Recognition systems on main feeder roads, but not around the border. That’s it.

Such a solution allows Brexit to be delivered whilst merely adding an invisible customs border and a bit of form filling and checks to set it up. There would be no need for a hard border, no need for a return to war, no breakdown of the GFA, and no need for more drama or hysterics from those whose real agenda is to trap the UK in an expensive and harmful customs union and EU red tape because they fear the competition, or seek to unite Ireland against its stated wishes.

This is no time to use the Irish people, both North and South of the Border, and the Good Friday Agreement itself as political tools to serve the European Union’s wider economic and political interests – as an attempt to wrap a ball and chain around a newly liberated UK.

That would go against the very principle of self-determination that lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. Let’s celebrate this anniversary, remember the victims, give thanks for lives saved, and start talking calmly and sensibly about such border solutions. The time for tantrums is well past.

April 10th, 2018: Telegraph