Brexit and the Irish border

Parliament has voted to accept the Brady Amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement, which replaces the ‘backstop’ solution to the Irish border question (that in theory locks us into the EU until a solution is found) with ‘alternative arrangements’ that aren’t specified in the amendment. The government has no legal requirement to comply with the amendment, and the EU has said the agreement isn’t up for further negotiation, but nonetheless the PM is heading for Brussels to renegotiate anyway. I attempted to investigate the realities of a possible solution to the problem.

The basic problem is that the Withdrawal Agreement, which says there will be a border between the UK and the EU, is completely at odds with the Good Friday Agreement, which says there will be a seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (ROI). It seems that, legally, you can’t have both, but I needed to know more, and to see if there was a solution out there somewhere.

I will warn you though that there is a lot of reading here to get the whole picture – it’s a very complex question. There is a summary at the end though if you want my conclusion.

So in order to understand the whole Irish border ‘backstop’ issue, I started with the BBC. It’s not always a good place to start, because they’re often not the most balanced of news organisations, but occasionally they do sum things up neatly, if in a rather simplified way, as they have in this case.

Q&A: The Irish border Brexit backstop

“But, after Brexit, all that could change – the two parts of Ireland could be in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could mean products being checked at the border.

The UK government does not want this to happen. The EU has also said it does not want any hardening of the border.

However, the UK’s current red lines, which include leaving the customs union and the single market, make that very difficult.”

In a search for further information, I happened upon a letter to the Irish Times.

“Sir, – Neither the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man are regarded as part of the United Kingdom, nor are they part of the European Union.

The Isle of Man is a self-governing British crown dependency, while the Channel Isles are in fact two separate political units, known as the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, which are possessions of the British crown with independent administrations. People living in both the Isle of Man and in the Channel Islands use British passports for travel purposes, arrangements which have been in place for decades.

So there are already British crown subjects living in the British Isles who are not part of the EU, but who do business directly with the EU. Surely there are templates there to help resolve the apparently intractable Northern Ireland border Brexit negotiations?

“The Bailiwick of Northern Ireland” might sound a bit strange, but if it meant no return to customs posts and a frictionless border, we should all be able to live with that. Maybe we might use a bit of imagination and look to what is already happening close to our shores to find a solution to this impasse. – Yours, etc,”

Could Northern Ireland do some kind of deal like the Isle of Man? I checked out the Isle of Man, and their trading status.

International trade and the Isle of Man requirements and standards:

External relations of the Isle of Man:

Manx law:

Basically, the Isle of Man does what the mainland UK government tells them to do, and more or less transposes UK legislation into Manx legislation. Eventually. Could Northern Ireland do similar? No. They are part of the UK, and have fought politically and militarily to remain so. It is highly unlikely that they will even contemplate being a Crown Dependency, especially while the DUP has any say in the matter.

It doesn’t have to be a hard border though – it could, in theory, be a virtual one. The EU has said as much recently, that the problem could be solved with technology. But more of that later.

In fact, HMRC has been doing much the same for many years, and has a very complex and clever way of achieving relatively pain-free imports and exports, as long as you know what you’re doing, or pay a company that does, which is inevitably a very lucrative market, and will become even more so one assumes. But as long as the right virtual boxes are ticked by those who know how, importing and exporting without really seeing an actual border, at least not for very long, is achievable.

The current system for processing trader declarations is called ‘Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight’:

“Use the CHIEF system to process declarations for goods entering and leaving the UK or EU through ports and airports, and complete customs information electronically.”

Wikipedia’s page on the same:

However, CHIEF is being replaced by CDS (Customs Declaration Service):

Now, the Good Friday Agreement, which basically guaranteed that there would be no border.

This is the GFA in (very) simple terms from the BBC.

In more detail from Wikipedia – “The British–Irish Agreement came into force on 2 December 1999 with the help of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Good Friday Agreement.” Well, that explains a lot…

Now for some Irish Republic import and export figures:

Basically, the UK is the ROI’s biggest Import countries, but the US is the biggest Export country, and of course the US is not in the EU. This doesn’t mean any sort of agreement is easy though, not by any means as I discovered, as evidenced by the infamous TTIP, which has been in negotiations for a while now.

“The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, with the aim of promoting trade and multilateral economic growth. According to Karel de Gucht, European Commissioner for Trade between 2010 and 2014 [it actually began under a different name in 2007], the TTIP is the largest bilateral trade initiative ever negotiated, not only because it involves the two largest economies in the world but also “because of its potential global reach in setting an example for future partners and agreements”

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership current status:

Signed – No

Condition – Required approval by all 28 members of the Council of the European Union, the majority of members of the European Parliament, both houses of the United States Congress, and the President of the United States (not achieved).

Original signatories- European Union, United States

Languages- English, French, and German

Now of course, The Donald rears his bequaffed head. From the New York Times: “Negotiations were halted by President Donald Trump, who then initiated a trade conflict with the EU. Trump and the EU declared a truce of sorts in July 2018, resuming talks that appeared similar to TTIP.”

This is a very very in-depth document about the TTIP, should you desire some major details, from the Berlin Forum on Global Politics:

But back to the Republic of Ireland – this is a lot of facts and figures about their world trading standing:

However, they also have a version, or versions, of CHIEF/CDS, for dealings with non-EU countries:

But if you want seamless trade, you really need a seriously heavyweight company to do it for you. This is one of many such facilitators, Langdon Systems, and their Brexit advice. I use them purely as an example. But then, as they would inevitably benefit from the disruption, one has to assume such companies will be scaring businesses into signing up with them, and one can’t infer that it will indeed be as bad as they say. Although it might….

Langdon Systems on Brexit –

“The UK will officially leave the EU on Friday 29th March 2019. Although a period of transition is being negotiated – postponing our exit until 31st December 2020 – all its effects won’t become clear for some time. However, it is critical that businesses start to prepare now. We do know Brexit will have a major impact on your customs and trade compliance.”

These are the European Union free trade agreements at the moment, all 35 of them, including Switzerland and Norway, who are to various extents still a part of the Customs Union, but have no vote on EU matters, much the same situation as we would be in if the ‘backstop’ was implemented as is.

And this is the US and its free trade agreements – all 20 of them, yes, count them, 20.

Now we get to the World Trade Organisation that is being bandied about so much, and a complete list of agreements (to date), 310 of them, some of which have taken a very long time to make. Contrary to the Hard Brexiteers claims, we won’t suddenly have WTO agreements in place the day after Brexit.

But for an example of what we have to look forward to, we ultimately come back to the TTIP – it started life in 2007 as the Transatlantic Economic Council, and by 2018 it still hasn’t become an actual agreement. So the most powerful nation on the planet has been negotiating with the EU for eleven years, and still doesn’t have an agreement. However, remember the US is still Ireland’s biggest trading partner – so unratified trade deals aren’t necessarily a block to trade.

But even so, as far as trade deals go, if the US can’t get one together with the EU, what chance do we stand?

But despite all this gloom about the fabled trade agreements that will just spring up the moment we leave the EU, which will patently not happen, there is hope for the ROI/NI border, and it is exactly what the EU said should happen – software can in theory make the border, if not invisible, then at least not a completely hard border. They called it Smart Border 2.0.

It’s not simple by any means though. In the end, this Independent article probably sums it up best, albeit without mentioning the likes of CDS etc.

“Now, does all this add up to a “hard border”? The definition of “hard” is, perhaps, open to argument. But what is clear is that the “Smart Border 2.0” proposals do involve physical infrastructure and border guards. This regime would be very different from the completely open border that resulted from the Good Friday Agreement. That can only be retained if the UK concludes a wide-ranging customs union agreement with the EU.”

Wired also has good analysis, which concludes that technology could solve the problem, but that a specific system doesn’t yet exist.


The ‘simple’ reality is that we can’t have Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement. Which means that the only way forwards, if Brexit is to be achieved, is for the Good Friday Agreement to be amended to allow a soft, but not seamless border. That will undoubtedly need a new vote on both sides of the border, and there isn’t time to organise that before March 29th, the date Brexit starts. If the Good Friday Agreement is to be amended, then Brexit will have to be delayed.

However, if there does have to be a border of some kind, it’s not going to be like the dark days of the ‘troubles’ – the machine gun towers won’t suddenly reappear, nor will the IRA, although the so-called New IRA (NIRA), as they are called by the media, are around 150 strong, and well-armed. Only the intelligence services know whether they would grow as a threat if the Good Friday Agreement was amended.

But generally, peace in Ireland, surely, has come too far to go back now. However, the UK government’s promise to keep a completely seamless border is going to have to be broken if they want to implement Brexit. Small farmers won’t be able to take their livestock across the border with impunity, and businesses will be affected – but not nearly as much as if there’s no deal.

But if we can get the UK’s software to talk to the ROI’s, then there is a possibility of a border with minimal everyday interference from the authorities. But it’s a very, very big if.

If that’s the route we go down, it’s going to take a while, many, many years in fact, but at least along the way it will employ a heck of a lot of IT guys to work out whether it can be done – and cost a lot of money. And in the mean time, assuming the EU doesn’t budge, and there’s no reason to expect it to, the UK remains in the EU, but with no say on its running.

So despite it being a possible solution to the deadlock, it’s still the worst of all possible outcomes.

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