Estimates vary, but the British Army puts the length of the Irish border at 303 miles.
That’s roughly four times the length between its end-points measured in a straight line. The border is wiggly. At one point it doubles back on itself in a noose that draws part of the Republic into a narrow-necked peninsula. It follows lanes and abandons them for fields; it tracks the line of a shed and then plunges into a bog. For many miles it traverses water. It is invisible: you need a good map and good boots if you want to follow it.
There are more than 200 official-marked crossing points. Garrett Carr walked and canoed the length of it last year (The Rule of the Land, Faber 2017), and marked on his map the unofficial crossing–points he found: a stile, a home-made wooden bridge, a plank across a stream. He found 77.
On the ground, all the crossings are unmarked. Only the speed limits change, from kilometres to miles or vice versa. The signs, the checkpoints, the customs posts, they were all dismantled following the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Nobody wants them back. The border meant men in masks; random terror; death.
That was during the Troubles. In its early years, the border offered a living to smugglers and harmless amusement to everyone else. Goods were cheaper in the north but tax had to be paid if they were taken south. “In those days,” says Carr, “smuggling was mainly about butter, tea leaves and the occasional cow.” He tells of a more ambitious project involving a hundred donkeys each carrying a hundred pounds of flour (eight shillings a sack cheaper in the north), and a great many Irishmen armed with sticks. Naturally they were ambushed by Customs. The battle went on all night and there was a terrible mess in the morning.
A favoured item for smuggling was shoes. This explains a sentence that baffled me in H V Morton’s In Search of Ireland (1930), in which Morton meets a group of bus passengers who have left their shoes under a hedge in Donegal.
After the Troubles started, smuggling changed. “Sacks of flour are transformed into crates of guns,” Carr writes, “or wraps of Semtex, or a young man with his wrists tied together.”
Nowadays it’s diesel, cheaper in the south because, even within the single market, countries can set their own fuel tax. However, it’s farm diesel, which has the highest differential, and farm diesel is dyed, and in Northern Ireland and the Republic it is dyed different colours. So the dye has to be removed, and this is done with bleach and cat litter, which results in the appearance of five–foot plastic cubes full of blackened cat litter leaking awfulness in remote laybys.
Does David Davis have any idea what he is getting into?
The British Government has just published its position paper on the Irish border. It is 30 pages long and presents, like all its Brexit papers, apparent clarity covering deep confusion. On the necessity of keeping the border invisible, because any visible change would imperil the Peace Agreement, the Government is adamant. Nor can it ditch the Common Travel Area, which has been in force since 1925, allows free movement between Ireland and Britain for citizens of those countries, with reciprocal rights of residence, and is also a foundation stone of the peace:
“The UK can provide a clear assurance that the Common Travel Area can continue to operate in the current form… without compromising in any way Ireland’s ability to honour its obligations as an EU member state…”
So the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system “will not impact on the ability to enter the UK from the CTA free from routine border controls.” But what about non-Irish EU citizens who have made their way to Ireland?
This is crucial and the reply is astonishing: “Controlling access to the labour market and social security have long formed an integral part of the UK’s immigration system… This range of control mechanisms means that the UK is confident it will be able to: maintain existing movement to the UK from within the CTA without requiring border controls; respect Ireland’s ongoing free movement obligations; and put in place a new UK immigration system and controls for EU citizens” (page 11).
The Government apparently thinks it can prevent unwanted migration simply by checks on employers and social security.
As it moves from immigration to customs the paper has a bad attack of nerves:
“Establishing clear principles now will help shape potential technical solutions, and, as the Irish Government has said, recognises [sic] that this issue requires a political and not just a technical solution…” (etc.)
It pulls itself together enough to enumerate nine essential points to be addressed. Number seven is how best to respect the integrity of customs unions on both sides of the border. The solution, says the paper, “will need to go beyond any previous precedent.”
That applies, it turns out, to every problem leaving the EU customs union presents.
Reference is made to the Government’s Future customs arrangement paper, recently published, which Michel Barnier said would not be considered until the “divorce” was settled. Some of the “facilitations” set out in that paper would be essential to the “highly streamlined customs arrangement” being proposed, says the border document. In other words, “You’ve got to read that bloody paper on customs whether you want to or not.”
We will see whether cheekiness works. The “highly streamlined arrangement” is one of two alternative options put forward and would be partly based on new technology. There would be continued waivers of entry/exit declarations for goods moved between the EU and UK, and exemption from customs checks for smaller traders. These comprise up to 80% of the businesses that trade across the border. There would also be identification of “trusted traders” on either side of the border who not do not qualify for cross-border exemption. Declaration requirements would be reduced for them. Why they would be trusted is not explained.
That’s Option 1. Option 2 is a completely new arrangement in which everything stays the same. Goods moving between the UK and EU would be treated as they now are for customs purposes. “There would be need for a robust enforcement mechanism that ensured goods that had not complied with EU trade policy stayed in the UK.” (Chlorinated chickens piling up at Holyhead? See below.)
“This could involve, for instance, a tracking mechanism, where imports to the UK were tracked until they reached an end user, or a repayment mechanism, where imports to the UK paid whichever was the higher of the UK’s or EU’s tariff rates and traders claimed a refund for the difference between the two rates when the goods were sold to an end user in the country charging lower tariffs.
“…Traders…would need to be able to track goods or pass the ability to claim a repayment along their supply chain in order to benefit from tariff differences between the UK and EU for rest of the world goods… This partnership would need to cover all goods…” (page 17. My italics.)
Chlorinated chickens pop up under “Sanitary and phytosanitary measures for agri-food,” (SPS). This unappetising heading will also presumably cover GM crops. At present, the whole island of Ireland is treated as one for epidemiological purposes. That will change. “While the UK will have greater flexibility in relationship to designing our own approach to SPS checks” [i.e., we are going to let this rubbish in], “the Irish side of the land border will continue to be subject to EU regulations” [i.e., it’s the EU’s fault].
“One option… could be regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures, where the UK and EU agree to achieve the same outcome and high standards… This approach would include “dispute resolution mechanisms” [the ECJ?], and “could ensure there would be no requirement for any SPS or related checks…”
“It is also important to note,” chirrups the document, “that the UK is in a unique position; the Repeal Bill means that the UK is starting from a point of full regulatory alignment on day one after leaving the EU.”
Then what the hell is the point of leaving?
This question, which must never be asked, sits at the centre of the Government’s paper on the Irish border like the black hole at the centre of the galaxy, silently drawing all things unto it. The paper circles around it, moving from one micro-solution to another, churning out “seamless and frictionless” “and “new, deep and special” (page 15) as inevitable by-products.
What the Government desperately needs is what it already has. The customs union. But it has to leave the customs union in order to make the fabulous global trade deals it is always talking about.
It has to make the trade deals because it is leaving the single market and the world’s largest trading bloc. It needs the single market for a long list of reasons (security and nuclear safety are two), but it has to leave the single market because that allows freedom of movement from the EU and it believes Leave voters voted on the basis of controlling immigration. (Even if they didn’t it doesn’t matter, because Theresa May is fixated on immigration and because if she didn’t leave both the single market and the customs union the Daily Mail would tear her throat out.)
So it has to leave the customs union but it can’t. It would lose too much. The incessant reiteration of “seamless and frictionless” says so. But it has been told it won’t get seamless and frictionless outside the single market and the customs union, and it must know it won’t if it has half a brain, because from the EU’s point of view there’s no earthly reason why it should and a very powerful reason why it shouldn’t. And it has until October to resolve this dilemma and October is five weeks away.
In desperation, it is trying everything, including asking for more time at both ends of the process, and weaving thickets of tracking mechanisms, exemptions and abilities to pass on refunds that will make it look as if it’s implementing EU requirements when it isn’t, or that it isn’t when it is, in order to delay the moment when it has to say whether it’s in or out.
None of these inventions will work anyway, because technology fails and people cheat. And if the Government thinks it can prevent smuggling across an Irish border, it does not – I say this with great affection for the Irish people – know much about the Irish. It should read Garrett Carr’s book.
When Alexander the Great was shown a knot that could not be untied, he cut it with his sword.