“Full alignment only way to stop hard border”

Posted By: April 24, 2018

John Walsh. Ireland Business Editor. The Times. London. Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Full regulatory alignment between the north and south of Ireland is the most effective way of ensuring that there is no hard border post-Brexit, Bertie Ahern has said.

The former Taoiseach said that if an agreement for the Irish border was not in place by June, it increased the chance of a watered down backstop being included in the Withdrawal Bill. Mr. Ahern was speaking at a Brexit conference in Dublin yesterday, where he shared a platform with two former taoisigh, John Bruton and Brian Cowen.

In December, London and Brussels reached an agreement on the first phase of Brexit negotiations, which included three options for the Irish border. The first is that the UK and EU negotiate a future trade deal so close to the existing relationship that there would be no need for a hard border. The second proposal is a technological solution. The third is a “backstop” that would become operational if the first two failed. It proposed that Northern Ireland stayed in the customs union as the default scenario.

The former leader of Fianna Fáil, who was Taoiseach between 1997 and 2008, said that a border infrastructure would still be needed even if Northern Ireland stayed in the customs union post-Brexit. “Customs union will not be enough as it only covers tariffs. It doesn’t cover regulatory standards. That is membership of the single market,” he said.

Mr. Ahern said that the Irish attorney general as well and UK and EU negotiators should work on how regulatory alignment between the north and south could be achieved post-Brexit, including what powers would need to be devolved to the Stormont Assembly so that it could introduce the right legislative framework.

John Bruton, the Fine Gael Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, said that the problem with focusing on regulatory alignment was that interpretation of standards would differ between courts. Because the UK has said it would not recognize the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, there was no mechanism to resolve differing interpretation of standards, which would lead to divergence in the future.

The conference, which was organized by the Institute of International and European Affairs, was held in the Mansion House in Dublin.

Last week, EU sources said a month of talks with their UK counterparts on the Irish border did not achieve any breakthrough. The prospects of a deal by June appear remote; one senior EU official told The Times. In the tradition of EU summits, last minute horse trading can result in compromises getting a deal over the line, he said.

“That’s always how it works. I don’t think they [Irish government] should find themselves having a Halloween party at two o’clock in the morning.

“I am not saying we’ll be abandoned, but the art of politics and the strength in politics is compromising. It is not a bad thing; it is not an evil thing, it’s a good thing. That’s what happens in this game. I am just saying that we should be as far down that line as we can before it ultimately comes to the late night.”

Mr. Bruton said it was unlikely that the UK would change its mind about Brexit until the logistical and legal implications of leaving the bloc became apparent. “They might change their mind if pride allows them.”

Mr. Ahern said it could be a compromise that enables the UK to stay in the customs union and single market, whereby it could form trade deals with countries that did not have an existing relationship with the EU. Mr. Cowen said that there were some “complex constitutional principles” in the Good Friday Agreement that were “as central as Magna Carta” to the UK.

The challenge faced by negotiators is finding a workable solution for the border that has a sound legal basis. “Constructive ambiguity can get you so far . . . but there comes the point where the concrete specifics have to be addressed,” Mr. Cowen said

The Fianna Fáil Taoiseach between 2008 and 2011 said recent comments by David Davis, the Brexit secretary, about Fine Gael being in the pocket of Sinn Féin, showed how the British politicians just “didn’t get it.”