Britain’s border paper a bit too clever by half

Posted By: August 20, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, August 19, 2017 

You can have one of two views on Britain’s position paper on the Post-Brexit border. The first is that it was a very clever paper. The second is that it was a bit too clever by half. The recent behavior of the Conservative government would suggest that the second view carries greater validity.

You may think that is rather cynical. You have a point, but cynicism is usually a healthy approach when analyzing British policy, especially in relation to Ireland. Yes, that is probably even more cynical, but in reading a document like this one, we will learn more by asking not what is in it, but what it is intended to achieve.

This paper appears to have three aims. The first is to claim the moral high ground on the issue of the Border by doing the unexpected. Instead of advocating customs posts and hi-tech surveillance, it asks: “Border. What border?” That appears to be an attempt to wrong-foot nationalist opposition to the impact of Brexit on the cross-border movement of goods and people.

Nationalism’s confused position in opposing a proposed open border suggests that Britain achieved its first objective. This indicates the influence of the DUP on the paper, because it shows a greater insight into Nationalist thinking than the Conservatives would have achieved on their own.

The second intended outcome is to comfort Unionism by keeping the border where it is and not moving it to the Irish Sea. By also arguing for special exemption in customs duties for small businesses and agri-food products, it placated a significant section of the business and farming communities. That neutralized any significant Unionist opposition to the economic impact of Brexit.

The third objective is to draw the Dublin government closer to the British camp during the forthcoming negotiations with the EU. By suggesting that the Border can somehow remain open after Brexit, the paper reflected Dublin’s hopes so accurately that it could not possibly oppose the British position – at least not yet. So the latest score is Britain 3 —Ireland 0.

But what happens now? Will the British proposals work, what will the EU think of it all and where will the shiny new border leave Irish nationalism?

As it stands, the paper will not work because it fails to offer even an aspiration on how to handle three categories of cross-border movement: imports from outside Ireland and exports beyond the island, goods produced by Northern ‘big business’ (and we have no idea what that means) and, of course, people.

The EU is unlikely to support the paper as it stands because it is remarkably vague and largely aspirational. Without EU support, the proposals are dead, but Britain will still hold the moral high ground. A hard border will be the EU’s fault.

So what have Nationalists to say? The SDLP and Sinn Féin say they want no Border, but they voted for one in 1998. With a beautiful irony this week’s position paper strongly supported the Good Friday Agreement, which enshrines the Border.

So if the EU and Irish nationalists reject the proposals in this week’s paper, Britain can justifiably begin planning for a new Border. It will almost certainly be a hi-tech model for which the foundations may have been laid already. It would appear reasonable to assume that British intelligence agencies have already placed extensive surveillance equipment, both open and hidden, along the 300-mile frontier.

(Don’t ask how much it cost. MI5 recently advertised for a finance officer here on £50,000 a year and he/she does not even require a finance qualification.)

If, as the position paper argues, there will have to be ‘technology-based solutions’ to monitor goods from ‘big business’, it would appear sensible to use that same monitoring for all cross-border trade and the movement of people. If you are going to erect cameras, for some goods, it will be a small step to using them for all.

So almost 100 years after Britain imposed partition, Nationalists can accept this week’s proposals or be prepared for a new type of Border.

You can almost hear the Irish agreeing to it: “I don’t know about you, but I was getting fed up with the old Border anyway, made up of hedges, streams and bits of road. That’s no Border for a modern Ireland. A digital Border, that’s what we need, with gigabytes and things the whole way along it.”

Thanks to Her Majesty’s Government, God bless it, that is almost certainly what we will have, if we reject this week’s proposals. Maybe it was a clever paper after all.