Conor McGinn, a Liverpool MP, grew up in Armagh in the bad old days of the ‘hard Border’ and doesn’t want it back.
The last number of weeks have seen Ireland and Irish issues to the fore here in Britain, particularly on the complicated issues of Brexit and what it means for Northern Ireland and relations between Britain and Ireland.
Since last year’s referendum, the questions asked by people in Northern Ireland, particularly those in border communities, are in many ways similar to those asked by my constituents in St Helens and by the Irish community in Britain; what impact will Brexit have on them, their families, their jobs and businesses and their freedom of movement.
For the Irish in Britain, there is the added issue of their residency status and rights after Britain leaves the EU, and in the North of Ireland one issue looms larger than any other – the border.
The fundamental point the UK does not seem to understand is that Ireland is, and will remain, a member of the European Union
This week saw the Government here set out its position paper on the post-Brexit arrangements it is proposing on these highly sensitive and complicated matters.
The paper talked about the desire for a ‘frictionless border’ wit the maintenance of the Common Travel Area and a “customs partnership” with Ireland, meaning continued free movement of goods and people between North and South on the island, and indeed East and West between the two islands.
The Government has said it wants Irish people to continue to live and work here, enjoying all the enhanced rights that our community has had for many decades, rights which of course are also enjoyed by British citizens resident in Ireland.
These aspirations are welcome and are undoubtedly the preferred outcomes for people living in border communities and the Irish in Britain. But the practical difficulties of implementing these arrangements are enormous, and rather than this paper putting forward any realisable solutions, the Government has in fact only multiplied the number of questions that need urgent answers.
The fundamental point that the Government does not seem to understand is that Ireland is and will remain a member of the European Union. Any deal on trade or arrangements on citizenship and immigration cannot simply be arranged bilaterally between London and Dublin. It will need to apply to all the other EU nations too.
So these new proposals have now opened up a fresh set of questions on the border that are being asked not just by people in Northern Ireland but across Britain, Ireland and Europe.
Relentless Progress towards a hard Brexit
The Government paper stresses its commitment to maintaining an open border. But their relentless progress towards a hard Brexit raises a number of practical obstacles.
At present, around 35,000 people cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic every day to work, study, visit relatives and do business. Over 200 crossing points handle 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85m cars per month.
Any immigration checks on the border whatsoever would be a practical nightmare. They would also be a collective psychological nightmare for people living in proximity to the border on both sides, erecting barriers between people – families and friends – in the North and South and potentially reopening divisions of the past.
But if you do not have checks on the Irish border or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, where does the UK carry out checks on immigration, goods and services? The Government talks about an invisible border and using technology to make it work, proposing to have barrier-free access to the EU while negotiating free trade agreements outside the EU.
The European Union cannot and would not countenance that. In that context, these ill-conceived proposals are more a reflection of a fantasy politics where the solution, not the border, is invisible.
This is the appalling Catch 22 the Government has placed itself in. Their position paper contains no evidence that they have a clue how to solve the problems they have created. And this has left the Irish in Britain in a more precarious position than first thought.
As revealed by the Irish World last November, questions have been raised about the eligibility of Irish citizens to remain resident in Britain after Brexit.
Despite the Government’s assurances that there will be no changes to the current arrangements – including to me on the floor of the House of Commons – there been significant doubts raised about whether existing legislation, including the much-quoted Ireland Act 1949, can fulfil this pledge.
Hundreds of thousands of older Irish people have lived in Britain for decades. This is their home and where they have worked, raised families and made huge contributions to their communities. This sort of uncertainty will cause them a great deal of anxiety.
This anomaly needs resolved through specific and swift legislation – separate from Brexit negotiations and processes – and I will be calling for this when Parliament returns next week. The Government is casting around for a workable solution to the problems Brexit presents on these matters. But the easiest and most obvious answer is staring them in the face.
If Britain stayed within the Customs Union, the Common Travel Area would be much easier to maintain, and customs checks of any kind would not be required. But in order to do that, the Government needs to swallow its pride and drop its commitment to a hard, destructive Brexit.
Theresa May made a huge strategic error in caving in to the Tory right-wing by ruling out a customs union or membership of the Single Market. She could have worked with EU partners who also have concerns about freedom of movement and want reform to get a good deal on good terms for Britain.
She has instead squandered goodwill in Europe and united the other 27 EU nations around a harder position against the UK. The lack of a viable answer to the pressing questions over Ireland, the border and the Irish in Britain is just the start of what I fear will be a very painful road ahead.
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