The Northern Ireland Border Problem, Part #2
The Northern Ireland Border Problem is a major civil crisis about to erupt, and we need to prevent that. Thankfully we can do, and this article explains how to do it.
Oftentimes to understand a contemporary problem we must understand its history. Here is an article we wrote about the political problems facing all parties over the Northern Ireland Border Problem in 2018 in light of the United Kingdom's decision to depart the European Union. Reading it is a precursor to understanding the short article we set out here.
It is also important to study the following map, which reveals that the entire island of Ireland (comprising both the British province of Northern Ireland and the separate sovereign state the Republic of Ireland) is neither a large nor heavily populated place. Nor is it awash with heavy infrastructure. It is, in fact, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The essence of the earlier article, written four years ago, was that the 1997 Good Friday Agreement creating peace in Northern Ireland and ending the prior low-level but long-lasting civil war there called 'the Troubles', rested in part on two essential international planks. One was the Common Travel Area, an international agreement between the sovereign states of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, for common border controls throughout the territory of the two islands. (The CTA remains in place).
The other was the Customs Union, an arrangement by which there are no customs or excise duties between either island or the parts thereof; and the same duties, in common with all of the European Union, apply in all movements of goods across borders between the two islands and third country member states outside the Customs Union. So if import of raw fish attracts a duty of 5 per cent to Ireland, it attracts a duty of 5 per cent to England too, as well as to Northern Ireland.
The Customs Union is an EU invention, designed to create the world's biggest free trade area with all the economic advantages to consumer goods quality and pricing that economists predict as a result thereof.
If two adjacent countries are members of the same Customs Union, the need for border controls evaporates because there are no duties to pay on goods moving between them.
But now the United Kingdom has left the European Union, how does this affect the ability of her border with the Republic of Ireland to remain free of border controls, if (as the United Kingdom has stated) she will no longer remain a member of the EU's Customs Union? Can a distinct customs union, just with the Republic of Ireland, be maintained?
The way for non-EU countries (now the United Kingdom has left the European Union) to be de facto members of the Customs Union applying most of its rules is called the European Economic Area. Examples of countries adopting this approach are Norway and Iceland. Each non-EU EEA country (and there are only three; third is Liechtenstein) is slightly different in the way she applies the rules. There is even a second way for non-EU members to be (partial) members of the Customs Union; it is called EFTA, the European Free Trade Association. Switzerland is the only strict member, and her approach involves accepting some of the so-called Customs Union 'Four Freedoms' (goods, services, persons and capital) but not others: and not enforcing these rules using the international EU and administrative and judicial branches of the system but rather leaving those mostly to honour. The EU has been remarkably flexible in her development of the Customs Union.
The British government in Westminster, since publication of the above article in 2018, has taken a swing to the right at the ballot box. Thereafter it has been prevaricating over the issue of EEA membership, trying to force the European Union into a different solution to the Northern Ireland Border problem distinct from the UK's remaining in the EEA (which is what the EU wants the UK to do). The UK's preferred solution is one which in principle the EU abhors but which in practice they are likely to accept because they do not want to find their EU member state the Republic of Ireland immersed in another violent ethnic problem with a small corner of the United Kingdom. That is how important the Northern Ireland Border Problem is.
To understand just how difficult practically it is to impose a so-called 'hard border' between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, one may study any one of a number of graphics like these:
Looking at these maps in which the border dissects fields, pub car parks, village woods and pedestrian bridges, it becomes obvious that the Northern Ireland Border Problem was always an absurd one. The reason a hard partition of the island of Ireland was never a realistic prospect as enacted by foolish and short-sighted politicians in 1921 (yes, the world had such politicians a hundred years ago in every so large a quantity as it does today) was because it is impossible to draw a hard border across territory such as this. In this regard, the island of Ireland shares a number of qualities with ex-Soviet states or parts of states, that devolved into in sovereign entities but in circumstances in which by reason of the proximity of the adjacent settlements upon the front line it would never really be possible to draw enforceable borders. Attempts to do so created such frozen conflict curiosities as Moldova / Pridnestrovia, North Ossetia / South Ossetia, Abkhazia / Batumi; and many others.
The British and the Irish learned this lesson much earlier than the Soviets, back in 1921 as Ireland headed for independence and the then Irish Free State emerged; but the British and the Irish took many decades longer to realise the precise and implacable nature of the difficulty, both sides trying instead to manage an impossible problem in various more or less draconian ways that in substantial part led to 'the Troubles', the low-level 30-year civil war that cursed Northern Ireland from the 1960's to 1997 and frequently passed over the border to the Republic. And now it is all threatening to start again.
By the way, if these images look a bit like contemporary Ukraine, it's because all civil wars look similar. We should remember that when we are funding them in far-off lands.
So we have a problem of an non-demarcable border liable to serve as a permeable barrier for civil conflict and in particular the transit of weapons and fighters into and out of military theatre. Every country in the world knows that this is a problem unless there is nothing anywhere near the border (e.g. various highly obscure parts of India and China).
There are four solutions to such a problem, all of which involve in some way or other harmonising and/or standardisation of legislation, taxes and legal authorities across the divide. The basic goal is to ensure that the border that cannot properly be demarcated, patrolled and defensed ceases to matter to anyone. So here are the four possible solutions we are facing.
The United Kingdom backs down and joins the EEA. Hence there are no customs borders anywhere.
The United Kingdom including Northern Ireland stay out of the Customs Union, creating a hard customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, thereby undermining the Good Friday Agreement in a fundamental respect. This is London's current negotiating position, and there have been recent elections of Catholic pro-Dublin hardliners in Belfast. But it is only a negotiating position; nobody is actually going to do this because it is impossible.
The United Kingdom stays out of the Customs Union, but Northern Ireland remains within, creating a hard customs border between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. This would infuriate Northern Irish Protestant nationalists who support the Government Majority in Westminster. Therefore this does not seem very likely either.
The EU accepts a fudge, in which there is no hard border anywhere in the British Isles even though in theory the United Kingdom has a different tariff regime from the Republic of Ireland. Duty and excise declarations are made voluntarily online / by paper, and enforced 'periodically' (which means practically never). The 'leakage' would be nominal, because the quantity of dutiable international trade transiting the Northern Ireland Border is not particularly high, particularly that whose onward destination is the United Kingdom.
Option 1 is impossible because it is not what the British people voted for in their European Union exit referendum. We must acknowledge and respect that, if democracy is not to die in her eldest cradle. It is not how this author voted; but that really doesn't matter. Democracy entails peaceful acquiescence in the will of the majority, even if you don't agree with them. Democracy is the divine altar of western peace, and long may it remain that way. The fact that nobody foresaw just how acute the Northern Ireland Border Problem would become when they were voting in a British referendum on leaving the European Union is unfortunate but not to the point now. It is a problem now, given the direction in which the United Kingdom moved herself; and we are going to have to deal with it. Option 1 involves trying to turn back time.
Option 2 is impossible for the reasons explained in the above diagrams. Absent the architectural instincts of Nicolae Ceausescu, t is simply impossible to draw a realistic hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland without the use of gross and excessive force by border officials guarding individual buildings straddling the border. These sorts of quasi-military cruelties are still less acceptable in the contemporary age than they were in the era of the Troubles.
Option 3 is impossible for the Protestant population of Northern Ireland to accept, who would refuse to rule in consociational governance with Northern Irish Catholics under such premises (see the earlier article for the explanation of how consociationalist shared democracy was an essential plank of the Good Friday Agreement); they would feel democratically disenfranchised; and they might take up arms once more as they have before, to defend their sovereign prerogatives of association with the laws and government of the United Kingdom. All to deface so beautiful a small island.
Option 4 is surely what the British government (and Irish government) is pushing for, feinting by pushing for option 2, presuming that the EU will soon crack and accept the fudge, the economic consequences of which are nugatory, particularly because the EU desperately requires the UK's political, financial and military support over Ukraine.
The very last thing the EU wants or can afford to fund is the resumption of a 30-year low-level civil war in one of its corners, with a country that has just departed the European Union on the basis that the EU is a suffocating bureaucracy incapable of getting anything done.
Option 4 is the best for everyone. The EU bureaucracy in Brussels will simply have to accept that it has been out-negotiated. After all London and Dublin, acting in informal strategic concert, can together impose option 4, themselves, maintaining the ad hoc status quo and declining on either side to man any and all borders between the two sovereign states jointly comprising the two British Isles; and there is nothing practically Brussels can do anything about it.
The Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom simply contrive jointly to ignore so-called 'EU law', a German transnational concept born out of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952; and the Germans must stand empty-handed. With Russia knocking at the doorsteps of the EU allies Germany has solemnly undertaken to protect, she stands naked and alone if she breaks bridges with the United Kingdom, Europe's principal military power and the key that unlocks US military force should that ever be necessary.
Fill your Boots, Germany, and take it like a man. The British and the Irish are going to mangle your beloved EU law, just as it is in their joint interests to do so, to fit the Northern Ireland Border problem. And if you regret that, then ask yourself whether you should ever really have created so inflexible a monolith of international customs law, with so many pieces of consequential baggage such as the four freedoms, in the first place.