The problem of the border between the North of Ireland and The Republic, which the so-called “backstop” attempts to address, is not one of managing trade, or even of immigration, but the apparently intractible political one of a “United” Ireland. The paranoia of the Northern Irish Unionist community causes it to react in a Pavlovian way to anything that sounds remotely like untying the Union with the UK. The “Good Friday Agreement”, flawed though it is, is being held hostage through the means of a moribund Stormont, where the Northern Ireland executive is supposed to sit, and a UK government without a majority in the House of Commons. Both of these things are political problems that could be resolved unilaterally by the UK, by a change of government in Westminster, and/or re-opening the Good Friday Agreement. The challenge there is that, by losing her majority in the UK Houses of Parliament, Theresa May has handed the Northern Irish Unionists a stranglehold on the Good Friday Agreement, and a lot else besides. If that is correct, then it seems to me that “decoupling” the arrangements for trade and security at the Irish border might be a way forward.
We currently trade across an open border with the Irish Republic, a fellow member of the EU, with whom we happen to have a land border within the island of Ireland. EU member states can, and do, have independent trade relations with non-EU states, both with and without contiguous borders. Fortunately the UK has a benign political relationship with the Republic of Ireland, despite the 100 years of demands for a united Ireland, and paramilitary activity (even open conflict during the so-called “troubles”). If you want to see how difficult a land border, on a island, between two antagonistic neighbours might be, have a look at Cyprus – the Republic of Cyprus is an EU member, the Northern (Turkish) part is not! Turkish Cypriots are treated, by the EU, as EU citizens living outside the EU.
Why can’t the UK, when out of the EU, have a discrete trade arrangement with the Republic of Ireland that exactly replicates the present trading arrangements and regulations? On mainland Britain, we don’t have a land border with Northern Ireland. People and goods arrive in Northern Ireland in exactly the same way as they do in the Republic: by sea and air. The points of entry to the island of Ireland, both north and south of the border, are already limited. Might there be something in the form of , what used to be called, “Free Trade Zones” or “Free Ports” at our ports in Northern Ireland – to handle imports and exports? These ‘enterprise zones’ are used all over the world to facilitate trade and often attract inward investment, and create jobs, which I would think the Northern Irish government (when it has one again) would welcome. It may be hopelessly naive, and may already have been considered and rejected for good reasons, but is it worth a thought?
The issue of security at the border would be exactly as it is now: the Republic would be responsible for policing its borders from non-EU arrivals and departures (as we do now). It’s hard to imagine that the Republic of Ireland would have less stringent security on their borders than we would. People and goods arriving in the Republic from non-EU countries would be subject to the same checks as they are now when passing on to the UK. It would be up to us to decide what we want to inspect, as we do now, mostly led by “intelligence” based customs and security work. We could send goods to the Republic which, if then ‘exported’ to the rest of the EU, would have whatever tariffs had to be applied set there, or in the “free ports”, just as we will have to do if they were going direct to mainland Europe from Dover.
For more than a year, Stormont has failed to deliver devolved government in Northern Ireland. Perhaps there is a case for Westminster to take direct control again, if only for this one issue. The threat of that alone might force Sinn Feinn and the Unionist communities to wake up to their part in all this mess. Re-opening the Good Friday Agreement would be difficult, and as part of resolving the Brexit impasse would take time – necessitating an extension to the Article 50 process (which seems increasingly likely anyway).