The poll in this newspaper revealing that support in Northern Ireland for leaving the UK stands at a paltry 21 per cent is a salutary reminder of the facts. Were there signs of majority opposition to the Union, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley would be required by law to call a border poll. As there are none, she has confirmed that she will not be doing so. Indeed, the Union is markedly more popular in Northern Ireland than it is in Scotland.
It is a myth to say a border poll needs calling, let alone that it is in danger of being lost, least of all “because of Brexit”. The most successful Union in history endures but, unfortunately, so do many other myths about Brexit and the border, and it would be useful to deal with them, too.
First of all, there is a border: it hasn’t gone away. It is a tax, immigration, currency, political, international, excise and security border. It’s also not one of Europe’s weightier ones. Sixty-five per cent of Ulster’s trade is internal to the province, 20 per cent goes to the rest of the UK, and merely 5 per cent goes to the Republic. A miserly 1.6 per cent of the Republic’s exports go north, and only 1.6 per cent of its imports come from Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the bulk of the trade is highly regular, so it is simple to regulate. There are 13,000 border crossings annually solely for the production of Guinness. Likewise, movements in the milk trade are utterly predictable at both ends, and ideal for ease of monitoring.
Smaller traders can be dealt with flexibly, and government can improve its game. “Authorised Economic Operators” are the best way to guarantee frictionless trade. Germany has 6,000 of them, we have 600. The idea that issues cannot be solved is demonstrably untrue. Niall Cody, head of the Irish Revenue, has been clear that vintage border posts from a Tintin illustration aren’t needed – points repeated by Lars Karlsson, ex-director of the World Customs Organisation, for the EU’s report into this, and by the head of our own HMRC. There are no insurmountable technological problems, only, thus far, political ones. Not one new, untried technology is required to make this work.
Opportunities have been let go. Earlier in the Brexit talks, the Irish government asked the EU Commission to consider an agricultural free-trade area for the British Isles. Brussels refused. Dublin, too, has made mistakes. Under their previous prime minister, Enda Kenny, Irish officials cooperated with ours to find solutions. When the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, came to office, he ended such cooperation on the grounds that he didn’t want Ireland to be providing solutions to “British”problems. This was unwise.
Politicians who have had grave security responsibilities should be circumspect in what they say. Others should not take advantage of that reticence to make claims about what the border is and is not. We commend the work of the security services to combat terrorism. No one should ever seek to adduce the threat of it as a reason to do or not do anything.
Brussels and Dublin’s disregard for the Good Friday Agreement is troubling. When Michel Barnier proposed ignoring it by simply annexing Northern Ireland to the customs union, Theresa May rightly rejected this outrageous suggestion. What concerns us is that some Irish politicians claim things of the Agreement that plainly aren’t in it, while routinely ignoring what is.
The point of the Agreement was to respect the border, and leave the choice about its future solely, democratically and peacefully to the people of Northern Ireland. Ireland’s foreign minister, echoing Sinn Fein talking points such as a “special status” for Ulster (detaching it without its consent from the rest of the UK), manifestly disrespects the Agreement.
Unionists have every right to expect that what’s in the Agreement is honoured, rather than fantasies about it being cynically and recklessly exploited by Remainers.
The Prime Minister is right in wanting to deliver a Brexit that works for the entire country. It should also work for our friends in the Republic. This will be done by a deal. We want one; we hope they do, too.
Owen Paterson MP is a former Northern Ireland Secretary; Sammy Wilson is the DUP’s Brexit spokesman
May 21st, 2018: Telegraph