Who’s politicking now?

Just what is going on in Dublin?” asked the DUP’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds.

He accused the Irish government of “pure politicking” and “taking things backwards” by apparently hardening its stance on the future of the Irish border.

Here are last week’s comments from Leo Varadkar that provoked the DUP’s angry response:

It’s the United Kingdom – it’s Britain that has decided to leave, and if they want to put forward smart solutions, technological solutions for borders of the future and all of that, that’s up to them. What we are not going to do is design a border for the Brexiteers. They are the ones who want a border, it is up to them to say what it is, to say how it would work and to convince their own people, their own voters, that this is a good idea.

The new Taoiseach was hardly mincing his words. But should we really be surprised by them? If he was playing politics, is that not what politicians do?

The DUP has insisted that it will be possible to find “mutually beneficial arrangements” thanks to technology and creative thinking. But the party’s position might be more a case of wishful thinking than strategic thinking.

Before the referendum, the DUP insisted that there would be no return to a hard border because the UK and Ireland could maintain a Common Travel Area. The UK government has echoed this commitment, as has Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.

Practical solutions, however, do not simply fall from the sky. They must be carefully developed, agreed, and consistent with the other objectives of the negotiating parties.

Last week it emerged that the Home Office, the UK government department responsible for border control, has yet to consult with a single expert on the implications of Brexit on the Irish border.

A senior DUP figure has since suggested that technology could be used to control the border in the same way that toll fares are collected: “A country that uses electronic toll tag systems on 11 of its main roads can’t claim there isn’t a technological solution to a Brexit border.”

It is difficult to imagine, however, that technology can be the only answer to maintaining a soft border.

A more fundamental problem is that technological solutions almost certainly cannot compensate for two other objectives for the DUP – and the UK government – in the Brexit talks. Both have said that the UK must leave the EU’s customs union, and both have said that the UK must leave the Single Market.

If that’s the case, then some sort of border controls are inevitable. How else could the EU be sure that chlorinated chicken wasn’t entering its market?

The DUP hope that the post-Brexit border will ultimately be shaped by practical economic realities, noting that Irish exports to the UK are worth nearly €17 billion each year. Surely the Irish government will work with the UK to come up with a solution that doesn’t hamper such valuable trade?

Herein lies is a conundrum. Before the referendum, Brexit campaigners argued that the EU had changed beyond all recognition in recent decades; it was no longer simply an economic union, the Common Market that the UK originally joined, but that it had become too political.

Now, however, Brexiteers are arguing that economic considerations will win the day, allowing the EU and UK to reach a sensible deal promoting their mutual economic interests.

The Brexiteers cannot have it both ways. If they were right before the referendum that the EU is a highly political organisation (this author thinks they were), then they cannot blindly assume that politics will suddenly give way to economics in its aftermath.

Economics aside, the Irish government now has a chance to show political good will to the UK during Brexit negotiations. Can common sense prevail?

Nigel Dodds hopes so; otherwise:

It’s simply taking things backwards at a time when common sense co-operation between our two countries and between the Republic and Northern Ireland is what’s needed.

Co-operation is much easier, of course, when the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland are all part of the same political union. It would be nonsensical to suggest that co-operation cannot continue once the UK leaves the EU, but it is naïve to assume that co-operation will be as easy as before.

With Brexit the UK took a decision to leave the EU in order to “take back control.” As negotiations with the EU continue, the DUP and the UK government might discover that any meaningful sense of ‘sovereignty’ actually depends on close co-operation with EU neighbours.

You don’t simply gain control by leaving the EU, and you don’t get an invisible border just because you keep demanding it enough times. In defence of Leo Varadkar’s comments, his party’s spokesman on European Affairs shows no sign of backtracking. This evening Senator Neale Richmond said:

The DUP’s whinging doesn’t hide their political impotence. They would be far better off seeking to influence their government partners in Westminster and working to get the executive back up and running to give Northern Ireland a strong voice.

The DUP’s 10 MPs at Westminster could heap a huge amount of pressure on the UK government if the party were to abandon its opposition to the UK remaining in the EU’s customs union and Single Market.

Its MPs must ask themselves: do they really want to pursue common sense options for the Irish border, or will they continue politicking by refusing to countenance anything less than a hard Brexit?

We don’t need whingeing or politicking. We need solutions.

About Jamie Pow

Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and a PhD student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include elections, peace building, and making democracy work better. All views expressed are his own, not those of the University.


Also published on Medium.