No return to hard Border, pledges Brexit Secretary but Conservative Party statements do not make sense, says Peter Sutherland
Britain will not return to a ‘hard’ border with Ireland after it leaves the EU, the UK’s Brexit minister David Davis pledged after a visit to Northern Ireland last week. And he promised that Northern Ireland’s farmers – for whom £8.50 of every £10 of income comes from the EU’s single farm payment – would be met by Whitehall after the UK leaves the EU.
Mr. Davis’s assurances were met with scorn by the multi-millionaire former boss of Goldman Sachs and BP, Peter Sutherland, a former European commissioner in Brussels, who said it was simply “ridiculous”. Mr. Davis, on a carefully timed visit to Northern Ireland which included a signed opinion piece for the local evening newspaper, The Belfast Telegraph, said the UK and Ireland’s common travel area long predated either country’s membership of the EU and would continue.
“We had a common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland many years before either country was a member of the EU. “We are clear we do not want a return to a hard Border, no return to the past and no unnecessary barriers to trade.What we want to do is deliver a practical solution that will work in everyone’s interests,” said Mr. Davis.
“We are already working with the Irish government and I firmly believe this process will take our relationship forwards not backwards,” he said.
“The result of the referendum does not change the government’s priorities. Along with all political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish government, we will continue to work for peace, stability and prosperity for Northern Ireland. As the government’s manifesto set out last year, we are committed to a brighter, more secure future for the people who live here.”
He also gave a promise to Northern Ireland’s farmers: “Agriculture is a vital part of the Northern Ireland economy, and the government will match the current level of annual payments that the sector receives through the direct payment scheme until 2020, providing certainty.”
Peter Sutherland, who also visited Northern Ireland last week, was scornful: “I am absolutely mystified, not for the first time in this debate, about what is coming out of London.
“We have been told by a number of Conservative Party spokespeople that Britain will leave the common customs area of the EU.
“If this is true, the customs union, which relates to sharing a common external tariff of the EU, will have to be maintained by all other EU countries with the UK following its withdrawal. Goods will have to be checked at borders.
“I would be very fearful that they may be heading towards a negotiation that will require a hard border between north and south in Ireland. Dismissing this as a prospect at this stage is ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Tony Blair told French media Blair says it is ‘possible’ – but politically unlikely – the UK could stay in EU if public opinion changes. He told Europe 1, in fluent French, that it was “possible” that the UK could remain in the EU if public opinion shifted. This was, however, not likely at present, he said. But several factors that might shift opinions included the fall in the value of sterling, damage to the financial services industry and car manufacturing and an expected reduction in foreign investment in the UK.
Asked whether it was possible for opinion to shift enough to avoid Brexit he replied: “At the moment, today, it is not probable, but the debate continues and I believe it is possible. He rejected the insistence of the pro-Brexit camp that Remain supporters simply had to accept the result of the referendum. UK voters “have the right” to change their minds: “Who made a rule that we have to stop the debate now?” Theresa May had to adopt the “Brexit means Brexit” position for the sake of Conservative party unity “but the rest of us, we are free to have a debate” he said.
“We have done something rather bizarre with Brexit. It’s like moving house without having seen the new house. We have made an agreement to exchange, but we don’t yet know the terms of Brexit, we don’t know the costs and the consequences.
“There will come a moment when we have had the negotiations and we can see the terms we are being offered by the rest of Europe and we will be able to say that it is a good idea or perhaps that it is a bad idea with major consequences,” said Mr. Blair.