Kevin Doyle: From Boris to Arlene – five times the Irish border question has been hugely over-simplified

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Kevin Doyle: From Boris to Arlene – five times the Irish border question has been hugely over-simplified

  • The Irish border is now defining Brexit
  • But many, many politicians just don’t get it

‘Truculent’: The DUP’s Nigel Dodds, Tory MP Boris Johnson, and DUP leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference last November. Photo: PA
‘Truculent’: The DUP’s Nigel Dodds, Tory MP Boris Johnson, and DUP leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference last November. Photo: PA

IT WAS rarely if ever mentioned during the referendum debate but the Irish border is now defining Brexit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to find a way of maintaining an open border on this island that can gain the support of the House of Commons.

The latest idea being mused over in Downing Street is to change the Good Friday Agreement so that Ireland and the UK commit to never imposing a hard border. This political kite was barely in the air before being shot down.

Here are five other times the border question has been over simplified:

It’s just like the districts of London

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson once claimed that moving from Northern Ireland to the Republic was just like crossing the boundaries of London’s traffic zones. Different congestion charges exist in different parts of the city. Boris said there was “no border between Islington or Camden and Westminster” and yet traffic fees are collected. The comments were ridiculed as it was explained to the potential future leader of the Tory Party that the Irish border is 500km long and has more than 200 points at which goods and people could cross.

A ‘bonkers’ buffer zone

This was the brainchild of ex-Brexit Secretary David Davis who proposed a 10-mile buffer zone within which local traders could do business. The plan proposed operating a regime of both European and British regulations so the North could trade freely with both, without the need for checkpoints. The idea was dismissed as “bonkers” by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. They noted that moving the border 10 miles away doesn’t solve the overall problem.

Just have checks

Hardline Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Last year a video emerged in which he suggests that a return to checks “as we had during the Trouble” would be Ok. He told a public meeting the government could “keep an eye on” the border.  “Ireland would not be a free for all. It would be perfectly possible to continue with historic arrangements to ensure that there wasn’t a great loophole in the way people can get into the UK, to leave us in as bad a position as we are already in,” Mr Rees-Mogg said. “There would be our ability, as we had during the Troubles, to have people inspected. It’s not a border that everyone has to go through every day, but of course for security reasons during the Troubles, we kept a very close eye on the border, to try and stop gun-running and things like that.” The comments were met with huge criticism in Ireland, while the UK Labour Party’s Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said: “This man knows nothing of Northern Ireland.”

Pretend it’ll go away

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A growing argument in the House of Commons is that nobody will put up a border even in the event of no deal. The Irish government has said infrastructure for a hard border is not part of its contingency plans. Likewise Theresa May doesn’t not want a return to “the borders of the past”. The combination of comments from leaders on both sides of the Irish Sea has led some to argue that if the UK and Ireland both say they won’t put up a border then the whole debate is built on nothing. However, the reality is that no deal means border checks are inevitable as the EU will need to protect the single market and customs union.

A hard border never existed anyway

DUP leader Arlene Foster suggested recently that there was never a hard border. The puzzling comments were quickly rejected by almost everybody else, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who recalled crossing checkpoints as a chid. Ms Foster said: “As someone who lived through the Troubles we never had a hard border. There were 20,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and they couldn’t hermetically seal the border in Northern Ireland so it is a bit of a nonsense, frankly, to talk about a hard border.”

Online Editors

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