Like many people growing up in Northern Ireland, I closed my eyes to the dirty, nasty low-grade civil war that we called ‘The Troubles’. But when John Major’s government averred itself in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration to have “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, I pricked up my ears. Events moved quickly from this point. A few years on, in 1998, Tony Blair gave unction to the historic Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Ireland amended its constitution abandoning its claim to sovereignty over the entire island; the United Kingdom recognised the right of a majority of people in Northern Ireland to determine whether it remains part of the UK or merges with Ireland. Both governments signed an international treaty, the “British Irish Agreement” of 1998, and both jurisdictions passed acts of parliament embedding the GFA in their national legislation. As a result, people living in Northern Ireland could see themselves legitimately as Irish, British, or both. I voted for, and campaigned vigorously for the GFA. It was – and continues to be – an elegant consensus containing compromises and gains for all of the previously antagonistic, warring parties. A requisite consequence was that the land frontier between Ireland and the UK lost all its hard fortification of barriers, checkpoints, gantries, chicanes, armed officers, and surveillance such that it became invisible. Whatever happens with Brexit, it needs to stay that way.
Roll on 2016 when the referendum provided an opportunity to express my profound dissatisfaction with the European Union. My view of the EU perhaps has something in common with what I imagine an Irish nationalist may have thought and felt about Britain a century before. I wasn’t guided by campaign slogans on buses; I didn’t cast my ballot in ignorance. I knew that, if Leave won, Northern Ireland’s unique status would soon come to the fore and that the quiet, invisible frontier would reveal itself to be the elephant in the Brexit room.
It’s important to say that the boundary between the two countries is a frontier not a border and Brexit or no Brexit that frontier has to remain invisible. This is an essential requirement to maintain the consensus and compromise of the GFA. When I drive from Belfast to Dublin my journey must not be intruded upon by any hint of frontier infrastructure – not even a gantry for number plate recognition cameras. A border on the other hand distinguishes jurisdictional differences in such things as VAT, excise duty, import tariffs and regulatory codes. Traditionally, the administrative and operational functions associated with a border were performed at a frontier. Unfortunately, this lazy and somewhat outdated thinking that conflates frontiers and borders seems to have pervaded the EU withdrawal negotiations. This may have contributed to the proposed backstop.
As someone who supports the GFA and identifies with the UK, the backstop is a non starter. I feel let down that neither the UK nor Ireland has attempted to assert the supremacy of the GFA against the assumed authority of the EU. After all, if the backstop comes into place, it would imbalance the careful consensus and compromise that maintains the peace settlement. The backstop diminishes my Britishness because it would place me under the practical and quite possibly permanent jurisdiction of the EU for some aspects of my life. It would differentiate me from other UK citizens in Great Britain at the behest of the EU.
So the frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland must remain invisible. Of course, the EU needs border controls; and the backstop isn’t acceptable. So what’s the solution?
One answer could be a form of ‘advance purchase’ border clearance. This proposal has been articulated well by Joseph Weiler, Jean Monnet chair of European law at NYU. His ‘frontstop’ approach, which may have been briefly mooted and dismissed by the closed-minded Brexit negotiators, is a feasible and practical means of customs clearance for goods entering the EU. It also maintains the careful balance of the GFA.
If you’ve ever flown out of Dublin destined for the United States then you’ll know what pre-clearance means. After passing through normal airport security you make your way to United States customs and border protection pre-clearance, which looks and feels like any other TSA facility inside America and is staffed by American officials. A few paces after immigration you come to US Customs where another official inspects your declaration and asks you to identify your checked luggage. At the other end of your flight you pick up your belongings from the domestic arrivals baggage carousel and walk out to the street. Your point of entry to the US will be logged on the Homeland Security database as Dublin, Ireland.
So imagine a similar concept applied to commercial volumes of traded goods entering the EU from the UK. Various EU pre-clearance border posts could be set up around Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Goods or traders deemed worthy of closer examination might have to pass through such centres before heading straight to fast track lanes for onward travel across the Channel or into Ireland. These frontstop centres would be staffed by EU officials and badged with the EU logo. This would be particularly important in Northern Ireland where, of course, flags and emblems have a special part to play in marking territory.
Yet to dismiss credible ways forward, such as this frontstop solution, without obvious consideration or technical explanation makes those negotiating Brexit look arrogant and dismissive. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, says the backstop is ‘the only operational solution’ to the Irish border issue. But this ignores the genuine concerns of Irish and British people about the frontier. Such attitudes make it increasingly difficult to maintain trust in, or hold respect for, the EU and its representatives, particularly when – as Andrew Marr pointed out on his show last week – those same people will not submit themselves to be interviewed by British journalists.
So if there is no withdrawal agreement, what then? Whatever some might say there is nothing inevitable about a hard border. The EU and Britain should go back to the drawing board and realise that the backstop problem could be solved simply: by opting for a frontstop instead.