Yet More Brexit Idiocy: Cabinet Thinks Begging to Stay in Customs Union Will Solve Irish Border Problem

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I should have anticipated the latest Brexit move by the ever-more-desperate Government, but it still boggles the mind.

Per the Torygraph, the Cabinet has now latched onto the idea of staying in the customs union beyond the transition period will buy the UK the time it needs to set up a techno-fantastical seamless solution on the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by, say 2023.

One of the things we’ve been saying for a while, and poor Richard North has been saying on virtually a daily basis for weeks, is the pols and pundits fixation on a “customs union” as a Brexit magic sparkle pony is utterly misguided.

Repeat after us: a customs union is only about tariffs. It has absolutely nothing to do with the other elements of being inside an “internal market,” such as needing to verify if goods meet safety standards or other requirements. So being inside a customs union by itself does zero to alleviate the need for a hard border.

On top of that, this idea, even if it did solve the expressed problem, is an administrative nightmare. Customs is already behind in getting a systems upgrade done by January of next year. As of Brexit, it will need to handle a huge number of additional goods it did not have to process before. Even a transition period will not fully solve this problem because the UK will become a “third country” with respect to all sorts of countries where the UK’s former trade relations were via EU treaties. The EU can extend its arrangements with the UK, but it can’t with respect to the UK’s dealings with, say, South Korea. And no, the UK can’t just act as if the EU treaty is in force, since most deals had quotas for certain products and the numbers won’t transition over to a wink and nod bilateral fudge. Anyone who wants to take advantage of the UK’s weak position probably will.

And expecting the customs system to make all sorts of yet to be specified changes by Brexit day….and then change again when the customs union interim deal is over? Good luck with that.

Let us turn the mike over to Richard North, who shellack the customs union insanity du jour longer form in today’s post, Brexit: not even at the starting gate:

The purpose of the current Brexit talks being conducted within the Cabinet are, we are told, mainly concerned with how the UK is to avoid a “hard” border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland….

In order to keep the goods flowing, the prime minister – we are told– is ready to tell Brussels that the UK is prepared to stay in the customs union beyond 2021.

By such means, the UK will stay aligned to the customs union, to allow the “highly complex technology needed to operate borders after Brexit” to be procured and installed, processes which are said to take until 2023 to complete.

What is absolutely staggering here – if the report is correct – is the belief that continued membership of the customs union will in any way facilitate the free movement of goods across the Irish border and thereby avoid the need to set up a “hard” border.

This appears to rest on the continued perpetration of error of confusing the “customs union” with “customs cooperation“, two entirely separate concepts which rest for their authority on distinct parts of the Treaty of the European Union (Chapters 1 & 2, respectively, of Title II).

Confirmation that this error is at the heart of this initiative would seem to rest with Telegraphclaiming that remaining in a customs union would keep the whole of the UK within the EU “customs territory” for a temporary period, avoiding Northern Ireland being under a separate regime.

This in itself is a mistake. For a start, the European Union itself is based upon a customs union. That much is written into the treaty, so the only way the UK can remain in thecustoms union is to stay in the EU. In fact, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and, in so doing, will leave the customs union.

Thus, what is actually meant is that the UK will adopt all the regulations pertaining to the customs union, but without actually being in it. But this is largely what the UK has said it intended to do through what was originally known as the Great Repeal Bill.

As to the “customs territory”, this is not defined by the customs union, per se. Rather, this is defined by Regulation (EU) No 952/2013 (Article 4) – the Union Customs Code Regulation. As a formally defined area, this embraces much more than just the customs union – it also takes in the internal market….

Thus, for the UK to remain within the customs territory, the EU would have to amend or extend the application of Regulation 952/2013 (and all the related regulations) to ensure continuity of application. But, the UK would no longer be in the EU and therefore outside its jurisdiction. One can only imagine therefore, that the provisions would be carried through in the formal Withdrawal Agreement…

The upshot of all this though is that the best we can get from the application of customs union rules, and the relevant parts of the UCC, is that we will have a tariff-free border, with no rules of origin (ROO). But that in no way ensures free movement of goods. As we know, that only comes with full participation in the Single Market, requiring regulatory alignment and much else.

So in other words, even if the UK were to get what it really needs, which is to stay in the “internal market,” it would be massively complicated to paper up in the Withdrawal Agreement. That makes it a big ask from a negotiating perspective. The UK would therefore need to give up something pretty large to get that, even if the EU were amenable.

And then of course we get to a few other issues like…being in the “internal market” means full regulatory alignment, and that entails accepting the EU administrative oversight apparatus….including submitting to the jurisdiction of the ECJ, something hard Brexiters regard as akin to sleeping with Satan.

And even this supposed solution is still a bridge to nowhere. The EU has repeatedly rejected the idea of technology legerdemain solving the need for a hard border. From everything we can see, the UK has not presented any specific ideas to show that its hocus pocus could ever be designed, let alone implemented. Short of a concrete proposal that looks sound, the Government is acting like a spoiled child who thinks if it keeps repeating the same demand and better yet, whines too, they’ll get so tired of being nagged that they’ll give in.

It looks like the Government is determined to make no progress. I don’t see how they can keep the fantasy going beyond the next European Council meeting in June, and they may have the crack up before then if the EU has the opportunity to again dash more cold water on tired old recycled ideas. In the meantime, the UK public is being done the worst possible disservice by what passes for their elites.

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  1. One A Zed

    Writing as someone who has 16 years experience of borders (enforcement & administration) & senior research degrees in computing and economic policy analysis there are no technological solutions to the Irish border, which goes through houses, and farm buildings. Ask any soldier who served in ‘bandit country’ what is likely to reoccur.

    The Irish govt saw the old border as an attempt by the UK to destabilise the Irish State though smuggling (Edwina Currie admitted that there would be an return to smuggling on State radio in the RoI) The northern Irish assembly charged the RoI with the same.

    This was over diesel. There are also grain issues with regard to EU farm subsidies, cattle, pigs, petroleum, apart from the introduction of foot & mouth, BSE, horse meat into the RoI though the border.

    On the people side, there are ambulance agreements, cancer treatments, even cataract agreements where RoI citizens& HM subjects interchange lists.

    So in the land where the unicorns roam and the dinosaurs play there is no cognisance of what a border means.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Just to add to this, I don’t know the precise figures, but there is no question but that the volume of trade over the border is vastly greater and more complex than it was in the days of ‘bandit country’. In particular, the food production/processing industry between north and south is entirely integrated – a very significant proportion of Northern Irish dairy, for example, is processed in the Republic, and then sent back to the UK for sale. The electricity grids too, are much more tightly interconnected. Even geology complicates things, as the main potential gas bearing shale rocks in Ireland run right under the border.

      1. JTMcPhee

        The naive might ask whether there is not “German (and possibly Korean?) solution” to all these ugly “trade” issues — or maybe in more vigorous form, an “anschluss?” presupposing that ther is any way out of the trap that human nature and history has set for any mope of good will hoping for “a better future…”

        1. Andrew Dodds

          Actually, this is why the Unionists are such fanatics.

          If we simply declared that Ireland was reunited, the unionists would be in a very hard position. Try and re-join a UK that doesn’t want them? Try and become a separate state – except that much of the land area of such a state would be populated by people sharply opposed to such a move?

          With no realistic political aim to fight for, the chance is that militant unionism would fade away over time, at least to Scottish levels. Which is why the unionists feel they have to constantly double down to stop it happening.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      I’ve given up on the Guardian frankly. At least the Telegraph admits to being a Tory rag. Is anybody ready to start prognosticating about what will actually happen if the Brexit negotiations simply go nowhere (i.e. continue at their current rate of zero)? Who does what to whom if the bell just rings, the remaining time expires and the next day dawns with no agreement in place? That seems to be the most likely outcome right now.

      1. Jeff

        The Sun will rise and set, and that’s about it.

        The UK does not produce anything useful for the rest of the world (except tax havens) so their money is useless to the rest of the world.
        UK does not produce its own food today (using -still- a lot of foreigners), and won’t be able to purchase foodstuffs from abroad – so people go hungry.
        UK does not produce (anymore) its own oil, and won’t be able to purchase it from abroad – so people will go without cars, heating, telecomms…
        UK will see a hard wall being raised between itself and RoI, and so a conflict will soon break out on the border, just waiting to spoil further across the country.
        UK will see its industrial base going idle as nobody wants its sub-assembly parts, neither its complete products as they are at best pricey and competing against others.
        UK will see its nuclear reactors halting for want of nuclear fuel (not being in Euratom anymore), and cancer treatment will halt for the same reason. Without electricity and treatment, people will start dying.
        People will not be able to leave by plane, as all planes are grounded for lack of an agreement with any 3rd country (European or other). Victoria Station will be clogged by people and all ports clogged by trucks, so everybody will be stuck in the country.

        After six months of so of total disaster, UK will be fully Libyanised, and Tories can come and harvest low-cost workers that will do any work, no questions asked, as long as it feeds the children.

          1. animalogic

            Yes, I also believe eating children is wrong. Its totally wasteful !
            The UK, with sufficient innovation could be a market leader in the medical sale of children’s organs within a decade.
            Some believe the trafficking of children is a little unsavoury. I venture no opinion, except to note that the early bird gets the worm.
            So, shoulders to grindstones, UK Industry !

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I think what is particularly concerning about the latest idiocy from London is that when it was trailed in the media a few days ago, it was said to be an imaginative solution worked up by civil servants and diplomats. In other words, its not just the usual stream of consciousness gibberish that we’ve gotten used to from Tory politicians. If this is so, it indicates either complete desperation (i.e., the civil service was instructed to ‘come up with something, anything’ to get the government out of its fix) and this is the best it could come up with, or that the civil service/diplomatic service is just as clueless as the politicians. I suspect its mostly the first option.

    Either way, its pretty clear from reports today that it is being given short shrift by the EU and Dublin. I get the impression that Dublin is now in full blown panic mode now that its pretty clear there are no more fudges left. I think we are very near the position when the EU formally and publically starts to take emergency measures to prepare for a chaotic Brexit. Ireland has been in a delicate position in that it can’t be overtly preparing for a border, but that situation is rapidly changing, I suspect that with no June agreement the Irish government will have to start emergency planning. Such a pity Carillion isn’t around to bid for the border security contract*.

    The one side issue is that in the Irish Times today its suggested (I can’t link as its behind a paywall) that the belief in Northern Ireland is that these leaks and stories are intended to sideline the DUP and prepare the ground to adopt an Irish Sea border as an emergency measure – it would be announced at the last possible moment, preferably when its too late for the DUP to bring down the government before the autumn. This is really the only option that I can see available to the British Government to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

    *this is sarcasm

    1. liam

      Without having read the paywalled Irish Times article, but having read Yves post above, a last minute turn towards the sea border was exactly what came to mind. What caught my attention the other day was the rather emphatic comment by Varadkar that there would be no border. It struck me as either overtly confident, (as in, I know something I’m not saying), or a quite bold statement leaving a hostage to fortune. Mind you, the comment I saw was a headline, and I never did explore the surrounding context.

    2. Ignacio

      No wonder why there is not talk between or about UK-Spain negotiations regarding other particular issues that are nuts compared with the Irish border.

    3. Clive

      I’ve been trying to ascertain just how viable, or not, the “Border in the Irish Sea” fall-back is (pretending, momentarily, that it isn’t chock-a-block full of political impediments).

      While it is undoubtedly true to say that it makes the intra-Ireland freight problems (and people movement problems, too, of course) go away, it is a not insignificant amount of can-kicking in so far as mainland UK-NI freight traffic is the top UK domestic freight route by sea (sorry, you have to go all the way down to “Section 6”). So you’re just squeezing the balloon back to the UK to fix it all, albeit with less air in the balloon.

      As a Border in the Irish Sea “solution” would have, in effect, NI being in the EU, all the certification, customs, VAT and animal welfare and so on checks would then need to be done either in the UK outbound ports (primarily Liverpool, but not exclusively) or else at Belfast, if the EU agreed to this being granted as an exemption (you’d run the risk of goods entering the Single Market without such checks, because the EU would have to trust the UK, administering NI, to do them properly there) and, if the UK wanted its own standards, the same situation would apply in reverse to “exports” from NI back to the mainland.

      Suffice to say, no infrastructure or systems are currently in place to facilitate this. There’s only a high-level specification, certainly nothing like detailed system, people and logistics requirements.

      In short, I’m not at all convinced that the Border in the Irish Sea option isn’t much less of a Magic Sparkle Pony than any of the other Magic Sparkle Ponies we’ve been subjected to. It’s just slightly less sparkly and needs a little less magic to make it fly.

      Politically, it certainly involves a fair degree of fudge to make it work from day-1 — mostly around the EU trusting the UK to run it all properly. At this point, no doubt some would chime up, ah, well, that’s fine, NI would be subject to ECJ jurisprudence. But has anyone really thought through how that would work in practice? Especially if the UK said it would do the inspections on the UK port side (which would be unavoidable for livestock movements, you can’t keep live animals on a ship indefinitely if there’s an issue so a lot of the inspections have to be sorted out at the departure port, hence the logjam at the channel ports problem we’ve been mooting — plus you do need to make sure that what’s left a port actually arrives at its claimed destination where excise duty is involved). The ECJ would have to be able to enforce judgements and make sure these were performed in the UK mainland, not just NI.

      Frankly, if the ECJ is going to be allowed that much latitude, you might as well just go the whole way and have a BINO.

      I’ve not even touched on freedom of movement and how that would all be worked out with the Border in the Irish Sea option.

      It is feasible that it could be in place after a 2-year transition period, thus preventing a potential crash-out. But that statement is only true if the DUP votes for it in the Brexit legislation. I simply cannot see them ev-ah doing that. Opposition parties would have to bail out the Conservatives to get this through. But for every, say, Labour defector who might vote for it, there’d be a Conservative Brexit Ultra who would defy the whip and vote against.

      It might all pass by October, but you certainly would have to be brave to say it was anything like guaranteed. It’d put it at less than 20% likelihood, that’s being optimistic.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        While I would not wish to understate the difficulties, I think an Irish Sea border would be far easier administratively. First of all, the basic infrastructure is already in place, as there are existing customs facilities in Larne and Liverpool (but not at Stranraer). And contrary to what is frequently stated, the NI to Britain ferries are not treated as internal traffic, but are subject to detailed checks already. In January I drove from Dublin to Edinburgh via Larne in a rental van helping a friend move house. At Larne I was held for a detailed check that took at least 15 minutes, including physical checks and sniffer dogs. It was primarily security and drugs I suspect, but it would not take much in terms of immediate physical infrastructure to make it a customs check (the regulatory aspect would of course be problematic).

        The Irish Sea border is certainly not an easy option, but it would protect the most important two industries for northern Ireland – namely dairy and related products (as this is largely organised on an all-island basis), and the Bombadier aerospace plant, which seems doomed by Brexit. Northern Ireland of course has its own judicial and administrative structures, so its not like a whole new layer of bureaucracy would have to be created.

      2. doily

        Thanks to all here, above and below, for the much needed clear thinking and informed opinion about Brexit. I went straight to Clive’s link to the UK port statistics, section 6, where there is a map showing UK domestic shipping routes that is both intentionally and unintentionally revealing. Very useful to see the scale of the sea border problem. At least you can count the control points on two hands (compare that to a map with 200+ roads) and, as PK says, those points already have operating infra and the potential to gear up for Brexit. They seem to be up to the challenge in Dublin,

        so why not Belfast, etc., too?

        The unintentionally revealing bit is the striking image of the UK composed of a mainland and a bunch of little islands: the Isle of Man, The Orkneys, Skye, etc. . . and Northern Ireland! Readers educated in the UK might remember this map from their childhood geography lessons. I don’t want to make too much of this, but it fits very well with much of what has been said in this thread about how elites think about Ireland, when they do. An image that evokes the deep wish for Ireland to just go away, disappear into the Atlantic.

        I stumbled upon this example of what Thoughtful Unionism is offering, with a forward by former Stormont First Minister David Trimble :

        The image of David Trimble rising from his reading chair to grab a Mont Blanc pen and scribble an endorsement of invisible technology is amusing. Trimble complains about “the refusal of those who do not engage with a workable technological solution.” Here is the argument: Why should we believe the wifi border is totally feasible? Because Lars from Sweden said so (see Border 2.0). Those who disagree with Lars are just devious Irish nationalists looking for political advantage.

        The reality is that the 26 other counties above sea level on that island have become inextricably integrated with NI in recent decades. It’s not about devious nationalists, it’s about people making a living. I’ve linked this observation before: “North/South trade has doubled since 1995 and evidence suggests that about 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s goods and services exports go to the EU – with two-thirds of that heading across the Border.”

        Would like to know more about those stats. For example, how much of the trade between NI and the rest of the UK goes through Dublin? But I can’t find the kpmg guy’s sources.

    4. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, PK.

      Not to worry about Carillion.

      There’s Serco and, in my home county, Buckinghamshire, the most corrupt county in these islands, GEO Amey. GEO Amey has the school and prison transport contracts. It outsourced the former to a local cab firm. The cab firm was often staffed by paedophiles from a certain community, some of whom are in prison and others have fled whence they came.

      1. HotFlash

        Thank you Col. Smithers. I don’t suppose there could be a link to any of this? Tangential would be OK.

  3. Pavel

    Anything dependent on an IT “solution” is complete fantasy. There have been a string of colossal IT project failures in the UK over the last decade. It’s not even a question of late delivery at drastically higher cost; often the systems don’t work at all and have been essentially binned.

    There is a separate staffing problem now: IT projects are highly dependent on contractors, who are now leaving government projects in droves due to a recent tax law change:

    The vast majority of UK government IT projects are suffering delays due to freelancers quitting over the IR35 tax clampdown, according to a survey of contractors.

    Of 405 IT freelancers surveyed by Contractor Calculator, 79 per cent said the projects they have been working on were delayed as a result of contractors leaving.

    In April, the government shifted responsibility for compliance with the IR35 legislation from the individual contractor to the public body or recruitment agency. The Treasury says it hopes to raise £185m for 2017/18 by bringing public sector contractors within the scope of the legislation.

    A number of major IT “transformation” projects are under way across the public sector, many heavily reliant on contractors.

    But a recent Register analysis of the Infrastructure Projects Authority’s annual report found that one-quarter of big government IT programmes are already at risk.

    Some of these include HMRC’s £220m tax digitisation for business plans; the Home Office’s £341m Digital Services at the Border programme; and a raft of Ministry of Justice programmes, including £380m electronic monitoring.

    Dave Chaplin, of Contractor Calculator, said contractors had reported problems with HMRC’s digital tax programme, which is to be delayed after the Treasury Committee exposed “serious shortcomings”.

    He said “tonnes of people” working on the Windows upgrade in the NHS are leaving. “The Ministry of Defence has also been a particular problem because of its blanket approach to applying the IR35, something it is considering reviewing.”

    Chaplin added: “With Brexit and other challenges right around the corner, HMRC has chosen to shoot the public sector’s IT capability in both feet by sparking a contractor exodus. IT contractors are in very high demand, could not be forced into false employment, so voted with their feet.”

    –The Register: 80% of IT projects in public sector delayed due to IR35 – report

    Good luck getting that super-duper new customs IT system set up in the next 5 years!

    1. larry

      Treasury justification of IR35 is ridiculous. The Treasury doesn’t need to raise any money.

  4. Ignacio

    We no longer belong to this family but want full access for me and my friends to the fridge, Wi-Fi, lockers and appliances, keep the keys of the front door, have the same rigths as my ex-brothers, but I don’t want mammy & daddy telling me to keep it tidy. I will develop an app so that we will have frictionless communications through our cellphones. Not a perfect metaphor but seemingly in line with May’s expectations.

  5. Ignacio

    I don’t know what’s more depressing, if noticing the incompetence of politicians, or reading comment threads about brexit news in tabloids. In this case I am referring to a spanish tabloid reporting about EU citizen’s rigths loss after brexit, and how many are seemingly unaware of it. Those comments are pretty much in line with the irrationality of politicians. Irrationality is apparent at both sides of the channel.

  6. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you to Yves and the NC community.

    One comment on the North blog, from an Irish reader, caught my eye. This reader has said before that his grandfather fought in the war for independence. I can’t remember the UK MSM ever bothering to find out what drives the Irish government’s thinking.

    Here’s the comment:

    “There seems to be a foundational error amongst the brexiteers regarding Ireland. The presumption seems to be that Ireland and its government are like errant children who will fall for a mix of treats and threats.

    That Ireland, if it ever existed, does not exist.

    Look we are a smaller country and a former unwilling part of the uk. We know what these propertied Tories are like because we have dealt with them for a long time. They are chancers cheats and utterly self absorbed. ‘‘Twas ever so. It is sad that the uk seems now in thrall to them and your only alternative is the almost equally ludicrous Citizen Jeremy a half arsed caricature of a socialist.

    But here’s the thing: we are not who we were. We have worked steadily to change our country and economy. We started planning for Brexit even before your referendum. We know we will take a hit from your decision one way or the other- we will take it and move on. But we will not cast aside decades of work to salve the idiocy of people like Mogg.

    This is not being arrogant, our own country has many many faults and our politicians are flawed, but don’t try to push us into a corner. Our size does not mean our aspirations are any less valid than yours and our vision for our future is for us to decide.

    The crunch will come soon and sadly I expect a torrent of abuse, allegations and belittling towards Ireland to follow- so be it. We do not claim a monopoly on truth. We have in recent years been good neighbours and our peoples are entwined in many ways.

    But this faffing around has to stop – too much is at stake for us too.”

    I would add that this attitude, often racist as per comments from the DUP and Torygraph hacks, towards Ireland extends to the rest of the EU27 and the world. A decade ago, it manifested itself when a British general, talking about the Syraqistan Wars, said how good it felt for the British forces to be accompanying US forces and preserving that notion of superiority. The hollowed out UK forces had better hope they don’t have to fight a decent outfit on their own soon. My father served in the Falklands and says how close that outcome was, something most Brits are blissfully unaware of.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      Well said. Remember that often reactionaries (MAGA types on the US side) are simply frustrated by how change has undermined privilege and they are subconsciously hoping that by destroying the apparatus which has come with greater equity that the good old days will return. It’s a sad misunderstanding of the irreversibility of societal change. Those who plan to benefit from the ensuing disorder intentionally misrepresent the complexity (or even impossibility) of unwinding change that has occurred.

    2. Clive

      Yes indeed. My great-grandfather and very young grandfather had to leave the now-Republic because of the violence which led to the creation of the (then-) Free State. They were out of a frying pan and into a very hot fire of grinding poverty in west Wales. Escape came through dangerous Baltic trawler work and, bizarrely for my family tree a Russian wife.

      The couldn’t-care-less attitude of most Brits to the Republic and the feeling around anyone’s Irish heritage in the U.K. is sadly exactly as you say.

      Not helped, of course, by dumb, dumb, dumb loyalists/republican bickering in NI. This, for uninitiated readers, is what passes for moderate Unionism. But they really are as bad as each other.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Wow, that link really is… I was going to say ‘funny’, but maybe there are other words. Delusional anyway.

        There is by the way moves ongoing in Dublin by the government to appoint a number of genuinely moderate Unionists to the Irish Senate (a talk shop). It seems a few of the remaining sensible ones are preparing their own exit strategies. Interestingly, Sinn Fein have supported the move. One of the weirdest aspects of Brexit has been the growing relationship between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein.

        1. makedoanmend

          Yeah, historical connections are certainly taking new twists in the Republic, although historical antecedents of the Northern six counties continue apace. It still amazes me how people can so blithely ignore the sectarian conditions baked into its foundational establishment and claim today they were/are bewildered by it all.

          Which leaves me wondering. While Sinn Fein seems to be making some hay in the South*, it also seems to have gone nearly silent on the North, its main political base. Not only Mary Lou, in particular, but nearly all Sinn Fein politicians across the island have gone completely quiet on the Brexit wreck.

          I know Barnier visited Sinn Fein in Derry and I have to believe the SDLP are making whatever noises they can, but to what effect? Are Sinn Fein just playing coy and expecting Varadkar and Coveney to do the heavy lifting or is it even possible the grandees of FG and FF have asked SF to keep quiet? Or is everyone in the political equivalent of suspended animation – everyone hoping for the best but too afraid to contemplate the return of a hard border and its antecedents in the 1921 treaty between Great Britain and Ireland? Dicey times.

          *Hear dMary Lou did a very passable job during the abortion referendum debate this week on RTE.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Sinn Fein are I think deliberately keeping low key about Brexit primarily because they don’t want to make it into a Republican vs Unionist thing. I suspect they calculated that if they kept quiet Unionism was more likely to split over it, although that isn’t really happening.

            There is also the sense that they don’t really know if Brexit is in their interest or not. Their long term calculations are based on calling a border poll when the time is right – they are worried about one too early, which could be rejected. So they are very worried that Brexit is fomenting problems too early for them.

            An additional calculation now is that they are putting all their electoral focus on the Republic. There will likely be an election later this year and all polls indicate that Sinn Fein will have the balance of power. They are working very hard to prove themselves good coalition partners (they are traditionally the ‘untouchables’ of Irish politics). While they are working feverishly behind the scenes on Brexit, I don’t think they’ve decided which outcome benefits them most, so their work is mostly based on insuring they come out looking good, north and south.

            The SDLP are really dead. I’ve spoken over the last year to a few people I know who would be traditional SDLP supporters from the North and they make no bones about the fact that they now see Sinn Fein as their representatives. They may not like SF, but they recognise realities. There are only two parties in the North that matter, DUP and SF.

            Brexit is radically changing alignments north and south of the border, but I think it remains to be seen how fundamentally. There is even a tiny (very tiny) chance of Sinn Fein in a Varadkar led government, which would have been utterly unthinkable even a year ago.

            1. makedoanmend

              Yeah, everything you write makes perfect sense.

              (untouchables – incroyable!). :-)

              Probably over thinking the situation but still find it kind of strange just how quiet SF have gone, and I know too many people in the North that are just not happy right now with this Brexit …

              Not surprised about the SDLP – the modern party has nothing of the ethos or subtlety of Hume or Seamus Mallon.

              I’m going home later in the year to reconnoitre for jobs and such and I might just get lucky if an election pops up when I’m home. (Unlike others, I love the posters.)

            2. doily

              PK I think you have described the Sinn Fein strategy very well. The silence from Sinn Fein has been creepy. In fact the entire situation of not having a functioning government run by elected representatives for over a year now is creepy. North of the border, Sinn Fein have the situation sorted, having destroyed the SDLP and contained, for the time being, People Before Profit. They are happy to stay quiet and let demography run its course. It seems the later a border poll happens the better, as far as they are concerned. Theresa May may have forced them to make a bit of noise this week following her leaked spat with Rees Mogg (who revealed himself to be a complete twit in front of a Belfast BBC journalist recently ) during which she expressed her concern about the possible outcome of a border poll.

        2. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, PK.

          That continues the tradition from the Enniskillen bombing. I think one of the new senators is a farmer, Ian Marshall, from Fermanagh.

      2. Andrew Dodds

        One of the interesting thought experiments is what would happen if Ireland was unified.

        The unionists would be very annoyed, but they could hardly fight a war to re-join a UK that didn’t really want them anyway. And given the degree of economic integration, the differences might gradually drop, at least to the level of the Catholic/Protestant divide in Scotland.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Plan B for loyalists has always been an independent State in a reduced Northern Ireland (i.e. excluding areas like majority nationalist Derry and other western counties). It would certainly be unviable, but there is a hard core who would never concede the right of a Dublin government to rule them. It must be remembered that the DUP is not a traditional political party. It is essentially the political wing of a small evangelical religious group (the Free Presbyterians) along with a secret society, the Orange Order.

          Older mainstream unionists could live with a united Ireland, as many did in the Republic when it became independent, but loyalism is a deep religious and political belief. Pragmatism is not part of their ideology.

            1. Clive

              Oh, parades! Please, just don’t go there.

              Ah, alright, if you absolutely insist. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:


              Why can’t people just have a nice cup of tea and a sit down? That goes for the green lot as well as the orange lot. I don’t want to be sectarian, I’m an equal opportunities debunker of silly so-called traditions which are just an excuse to air old, old grievances. It’s like listening to Hillary Clinton’s complaining. For one hundred solid years.

              1. doily

                From the 2017 annual report of the parades commission (in Clive’s link):

                “Recent trends in parading across Northern Ireland have been largely positive. Thousands of parades took place peacefully in 2016: there was only one reported incidence of public disorder. The small minority or 3% of all parades considered by the Commission were confined to a limited number of interface areas in Belfast and the city centre, and in a small number of rural towns with longstanding unresolved disputes. This relatively stable environment reflected the restored confidence of communities, organisers and other groups following the turmoil of the flag protests of 2013. Improving community relationships since then have encouraged re-engagement about parading issues in many areas.”

                97% of parades are not a problem. More silly than sitting around drinking tea all day? Dunno. If you are lucky, you could hear one of the best pipe bands on the planet playing at one.

                1. Clive

                  I was being a little facetious about parades and I have no axe to grind with anyone enjoying performing or watching people with a talent and a great spectacle. Just as I don’t have anything against the people I went with to the open air Steps concert a few months ago. Or Steps themselves, of course.

                  When such things are used as self-conscious attempts to tweak the noses of communities who hold different political and or religious views than you hold, that’s another matter altogether. Steps, to continue with my example, never advocated support for paramilitary organisations, at least as far as I am aware. So it’s obviously not an obligatory part of putting on a musical performance in an outdoor environment.

                  1. doily

                    Obviously Clive?

                    There is obviously not the possibility of a politically neutral public performance of music, the ridiculous “Steps” very much included. That’s ethnomusicology 101, phased out of most curricula unfortunately.

                    The “I was being facetious” get-out does not wash my dishes. It is not obvious that you are being facetious, or whether you are just saying so after you have been called out. So stop it. You have inflated a 3% problem in to a stereotypical one on a public forum.

                    And it is not obvious that we should ridicule public demonstrations that include musical performance and that are self-consciously designed to tweak the noses of those who hold political positions that participants regard to be repugnant. Gay pride? Occupy? Poppy Day? The Parades Commission has to work these issues out in NI and they are doing the job.

                    And it is not obvious that we should ridicule, always and everywhere, regardless of forceful circumstances that existed in the past, the present, and will certainly exist in the future, public support for paramilitary organisations. The Peace Process was and is about understanding that people were in those circumstances, that the circumstances needed to change, and that we need find ways to move on.

                    1. Clive

                      You tried to make out the parades were just people enjoying playing music and seeing a musical performance. They are much more than that, as you’ve just explained.

                      A Steps show doesn’t get sent an approval notification with clauses about paramilitary dress or prohibiting flags of prescribed organisations. Neither do LGBT Pride or Poppy Day marches.

                      And it is interesting you mention Occupy. These were subject to violent crack downs by the state and illegally dispersed. This is because they were political demonstrations which ran contrary to state interests. That’s interesting in terms of history but shows how you’re — intentionally I believe — attempting to blur and obfuscate the difference between a political rally and a public performance. No-one brought a mariachi band to an Occupy demo. They certainly never claimed they were merely putting on a good performance and people went there to listen to show tunes.

                      If you continue to try pulling the wool over readers’ eyes with a disingenuous and selective description of what the parades are and what they mean, I’ll continue to call you out on it.

                      This will also apply to handwaiving away the residual issues with parades “97% of parades are not a problem”.

                      Green/Orange politicking goes through my family history for generations so I know all the angles worked and all the well-worn sophistry attempted by both sides. I try to play this straight down the middle on this blog where I make a comment, that includes drawing readers’ attentions to any Unionist or Republican tropes which anyone tries to sneak in under the radar.

                      Some, by no means all — only a small proportion — of parades are little more than an attempt to rub the noses of the unlike-minded community in it. Where this is the motivation for the parade organisers or participants, this is a valid subject for criticism. In their original comment, Ignacio was clearly citing this type of parade.

                      I think you and I both know precisely where these differences lie between when present in two identical-looking parades.

      3. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Clive.

        I have lived in Buckinghamshire most of my life and remember the silly, throw away remarks about Ireland / the Irish as late as the late 1990s. Having gone to Catholic junior school, which had many children of Irish and Italian origin, it was infuriating.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          I should have added to my reply to Clive some idle chatter when I first started working in the mid-1990s. A colleague, who I imagined was pure English, asked the team, two dozen strong, to raise hands if they had or knew they had a foreign ancestor. I was one of a handful of immigrants or, in my case, children of immigrants. Most of the “natives” had a foreign grandparent.

          1. Clive

            Another telling anecdote, when my Dad did an electrical contract at an SAS base, he happened to be caught short one day and need to use the gentlemen’s conveniences.

            On the urinal there was a tally in one of those “four ‘sticks’ and a ‘cross’” to make a count of five, like prisoners are supposed to do on their prison walls. The totaliser, which went up to 20 or so if I recall what my Dad told me correctly had a “heading” of “IRA Scumbags Put Out of Action for Good” or some such casual callousness.

            We’re only talking 25 years or so ago.

            Honestly, civilisation seems very thin a surface sometimes.

            The army is the dumbest of dumb money when it comes to procurement, so my Dad took them for a ride with the invoicing. Serves them right.

            1. skippy

              If I may Sir…

              A mate of mine had a GPS school chum go into SAS some years ago. Was quite chuffed about such contrivances as personal tallies in dispatching “combatants” in the ME. Yet the day that the armored vehicle he was being transported in occasioned an IED his first reaction was to exit the said vehicle in a panic.

              The old salts quickly grab him and informed him that was the entire premise of the event i.e. scare people and get them to leave cover into exiting into a kill box.

              I guess the point is how some view reality when they feel detached from it or the consequences of their actions.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      Thanks CS, while that quote may be a little grandstanding, its not wrong. One very striking impact on Irish politics of Brexit has been the visceral shock of Irish conservatives (mostly in Fine Gael) at the contempt shown to them by the likes of Mogg. They always saw the Tories as sort of kindred spirits (although it was never politically correct to say so out loud). The result is not so much a radicalisation in Ireland, more a realisation within the Irish establishment that there is simply no point in even trying to deal with London. Ireland has to look after itself with, hopefully, a few euro thrown its way by Frau Merkel. Its resulted in an odd situation where Sinn Fein are getting on quite well with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the traditional ‘nationalist’ party, is getting increasingly sidelined.

  7. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    Your opening sentence and PK’s first comment are correct, but this community is not the audience.

    The government just needs to go through the motions and blame failure on the EU27. The PR is all that matters.

    Further to what PK said about the civil service, it has not been up to the job for many years. Having worked with cabinet secretary / civil service boss Jeremy Heywood when he was at Morgan Stanley, I am not surprised.

  8. The Rev Kev

    It doesn’t matter how I look at this – militarily, financial, economic,social – there is no good outcome that I can see coming out of this. The tragedy will be for the British people. Not so much as choosing Brexit but having an ‘elite’ that has proven itself totally not up to the task of sorting things out and setting priorities. It won’t matter how much the British media try their cheer-squad imitation the loss of faith will be massive. I can only imagine what will be in the history books in a few years time as the stuff going on behind the scenes starts to get told. Anybody know when the next general election will be for the UK after Brexit kicks in? That will be one to watch.

    1. Clive

      That is actually quite profound an observation — and confirmation that you sometimes need an outsiders view to get a correct assessment.

      Brexit was always a problem. But I, in my never knowingly don’t like the sound of my own voice opinion, didn’t believe it was an insurmountable one. As I think you allude to, it wasn’t the problem.

      The problem is elite mismanagement. This, seemingly, as we in the U.K. are now finding out much to our chagrin, applies whether you live in Baghdad or Bagshot.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Clive.

        Many of us who are the children of immigrants and / or spend a lot of time abroad came to the realisation years ago. My parents arrived from Mauritius in the mid-1960s and reckon the rot set in under Thatcher. They say this is not the country they recognise from first off the plane at Stansted, via Khartoum and Cairo. Other children of immigrants say their parents say the same about Thatcherism.

      2. Pavel

        It’s elite mismanagement (and complete incompetence — so much for T May’s “strong and stable” government, ha!) coupled with a peculiarly English habit of thinking “we can just muddle our way through this and it’ll all be OK in the end”… typified by David Davis’s ham-fisted approach to negotiations with the EU (as amply documented here by Yves over the months) and Boris Johnson’s clownish attitude towards foreign diplomacy.

      3. vlade

        I agree – but TBH, this was the reason why I very very reluctantly voted remain. Not because I’d have any love lost for EU, but because what I saw of the UK politicians (on all sides), there was hardly an adult between them, and a lot of them should find their way to a various insane asylums. I never believed they could pull something as complex as a sucessfull Brexit off, and the cost would be carried by those least able to afford it.

        Or, to paraphrase – if I was to choose to be ruled by Brussels or London, I’d be the first to welcome the our Brussel overlords over the crop of the last few decades of what passed for “politician” in the UK.

        1. Clive

          Yes, and if the EU had had the courage of its convictions and said fairly clearly and unambiguously that the end game — and we’re talking 20 years or less — is direct rule from Brussels and we’ll stop all this nonsense about certain devolved matters being allowed to be dealt with by member states’ national government who currently retain competence (oh, ha ha ha ha ha, how hollow term is when applied to the U.K. government!) Remain would have got my vote. I’d have put up a Remain sign in my front lawn.

          At least then everyone would know where they stood and the failings of the EU could be easier tackled because suddenly they’d have the power and we’d insist on their taking the responsibility.

          I really don’t mind where I live and don’t give a stuff about flags and passport color or any other of the trivially which comes with petty nationalism. I just want to live in a nice place with nice people (whatever colour they are, whatever accent they speak with and whatever they do in the privacy of their own four walls) along with some semblance of the Rule of Law.

          I just wish everybody would stop dicking around, put their proposition on the table without the fudge and flannel and let everyone decide what their options really are.

          This endless phoniness of “vote for this to take back control” or “vote for this so we are still able to have a say” or “we’re the defenders of your rights”, “no, they’re lying, we’re really the defenders of your rights” is driving me to distraction.

          It must be bad when living in Monaco starts to look like an enticing prospect! But I just can’t think of any good options right now for where to spend my declining years.

          1. vlade

            NZ. It’s a backwater (apologies to my fellow Kiwis – it is not necessarily a bad thing!), and living is nice and easy (not necessarily in the material way, but more in way of life). That said, if it had the UK population, it would change, I have little doubt.

            That said, it’s not as easy to get in as it used to be..

            1. Clive

              Yes, a good option. Perhaps viable if I were 10 years younger. As you say, they’ve tightened up a fair bit and now want people who are genuinely useful. Those who can do proper jobs, like plumbing a toilet in or putting up scaffolding.

              Superannuated financial services professional time wasters such as I, not, unfortunately, so much.

              A lovely place indeed. My Uncle Don emigrated there in the 1960’s. But then he came back! Can you believe the idiocracy? Probably genetic, I fear.

            2. ChrisPacific

              That said, if it had the UK population, it would change, I have little doubt.

              One of my biggest concerns about the future is possible new mass migration waves caused by climate change and/or more US adventurism in the Middle East. Australia is dealing with this kind of thing already, and making a hash of it in their own unique way, but there is really no good solution to the problem. Jacinda is currently occupying the moral high ground and offering to take people in, but if it was a few million – and they were washing up on our shores in boats – I suspect she would feel quite differently. I don’t think New Zealand has quite realized yet that they can’t maintain a substantially different immigration policy to Australia’s in the long run without stricter immigration controls being imposed between the two countries. This is something New Zealand has very much not accepted, and we complain a lot about it whenever Australia makes moves in that direction.

              And that’s before you get to the problem of billionaire rats fleeing the sinking ship of America, if they ever decide that it’s unsalvageable. I think there are some local factors that would make it more difficult than they anticipate for them to despoil NZ in the same fashion, but there is enough of a latent neoliberal strain in government here that I wouldn’t bet against them doing it.

              The bottom line is that if the world goes to hell in a handbasket, being a backwater will be no protection. We are already impacted disproportionately by world events and trends over which we have little control, like hot money flows.

              1. vlade

                Yes, I agree. But TBH, NZ had a problem with Chinese immigration via student visas (not to mention a burgeoning birth industry, but that was clamped on I believe) even before I left more than a decade ago, although talking to my friends it’s mostly really a ticket to Australia.

                On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d worry too much about boat people, given it’s >1k miles from Australia, and much further from any other conceivable destination, with fairly rough seas.

                  1. vlade

                    They did, all the way from Hawaii (with stops, obviously) – but then Pacific Islanders were exceptional navigators and seafarers.

                    In today’s terms though, why risk another 1k miles journey over very rough seas when you have Oz closer by? Torres Strait is about 100k wide, Timor is a few hundred k away etc. etc. – in generally much better seas than between Oz and NZ. You could partially island hop via Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia (here’s a target! you’d make it to the EU!), but it’s still about the same from New Caledonia to north tip of NZ as from Oz to NZ.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The incompetence has been widely noticed. As a colleague of mine said to me in wonder when we were talking about some of the Tories behaviour: ‘I can’t believe that they actually make our politicians look accomplished and competent! Its the first time I’ve been proud of our government!’.

      1. larry

        It would be funny if Mick MacConnell would write a song about this — how the Irish pols are not as bad as you think they are because the English Tories are so much worse. Sadly, I am not a song writer so I can’t do justice to what MacConnell might come up with. He could reprise the tune of his Ballad of Lidl and Aldi, one of the most gently funny songs I have ever heard.

        I understand the perspective of CS’s parents. I feel the same way. I came to the UK in 1972. If memory serves, it was a gentler, slower place and quite tolerant. My partner who is from York says that my memory is accurate. That is what she remembers her childhood in York and what Sheffield in her late teens and early twenties was like. I have been saying for some time that I thought the English elite had lost the plot, but I would never have predicted the likes of Ree sMogg (a la North). Certainly not in the sort of position he currently occupies. I don’t understand how anyone could think that he would be able to ever run anything as complex as the national economic system where his views appear to be incompatible with the way the system actually works.

    3. animalogic

      Brexit does seem a tragedy in the making. It reminds me of periods of collective insanity such as the witch craft mania of the middle ages, the McCathy, reds under the bed faze, the 12 years of German-Hitler madness…& the current self induced myopia regarding the steady collapse of our environment.
      I hope UK citizens don’t wake up to ruin on anywhere like the scale of Germany 1945 (assuming there’s something to wake up to….)

  9. RBHoughton

    The last time we were completely closed out of European trade was the Continental System, a Napoleonic response to our Orders in Council and the solution we devised then was smuggling. What goes around comes around. Land Sales in the Channel Islands should improve.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Actually, Ireland played a key role in avoiding the restrictions back then. Despite fighting France and Spain for much of the 18th Century the British never lost their love of good Bordeaux wines and Brandy. Most of the trade went via Ireland. It would be traded through the ports in the south-east of Ireland, brought up by river and canal to Dublin, and exported to Britain. Beef and grain went the other way. The trade was run by catholic families who would send an older son to train for the priesthood in Paris, and a younger son to marry into a vineyard. This is why so many Bordeaux winemakers still have SE Irish surnames (e.g. Chateau Lynch Bages, Barton & Guestier, Hennessey). This is why the Battle of Waterloo was as much a catastrophe for Ireland as France – it undermined a hugely important trade in food. Maybe if the Duke of Wellington had known winning the battle would destroy the value of his family lands in Ireland he wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about winning.

    1. beachcomber

      Just running some thoughts up the flagpole…

      There are any number of existing political entities (I live in one of them) “attached to” or “associated with” the EU in multifarious different ways each tailored to the political needs of the respective parties. It strikes me that (setting aside for now the combustible Irish internal political ramifications, for the sake of argument) there ought to be scope to tailor-make yet another one, starting from scratch.

      Accompanying an Irish Sea EU/UK border an autonomous NI entity redesignated as a Crown Dependency à la Channel Islands or Isle of Man might perhaps be given birth, governed from Stormont (as now, only more so). It could be within the EU customs union (as are the Channel Islands) or both the CU and the EU’s VAT area (as is the Isle of Man) according to choice.

      If I’ve understood right such an entity would not fall within the post-Brexit jurisdiction of the ECJ but I stand to be corrected.

      NI would then be on the other side of a customs-border from mainland UK, but so are the CI and IoM now. Goods shipped in either direction across that border would technically be exports and therefore be shipped VAT-free, having to be cleared through the receiving-country’s Customs upon payment of VAT (charged at the receiving-country’s rate) and applicable duties and tariffs, if any. (All such procedures are perfectly susceptible to being done electronically – but not overnight!)

      Its citizens would still be British nationals which would mean that upon Britain’s exit from the EU they would cease to be entitled to work or reside within the EU (including the ROI, unless some reciprocal opt-out from that *in respect of ROI only* were negotiable, grounded in the unique historical/cultural affinities). The other three of the EU’s four freedoms would cease to apply upon exit.

      Noting Richard North’s compelling exposure of the idea that this could obviate the need for border-checks (for a whole range of purposes other than just customs duties) as fantasy – for which I can’t see any quick fix at all – it might nevertheless preserve enough of NI’s self-identification with mainland UK to enable the DUP (however grudgingly) and the Tory hard-liners to go along with it as a least bad outcome. Nevertheless it would be a bitter pill for them to swallow, for emotional and symbolic reasons. Whether the ROI government could swallow it too would be a separate question, needing to be tested.

  10. doily

    For the archive I would like to record that my response to the sloppy piece of strawmanning posted above on May 19, 2018 4:21 am (which also has no repy button underneath it) went into moderation approximately 30 hours ago and disappeared without explanation. I understand from reading the rules that shit like this happens and I should just dust myself off and get back in the game. Not likely.

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