Brexit schmexit, as last Sunday’s Observer put it. Sentiments that my old Jewish granny would have echoed, adding perhaps that as long as we get a deal already who cares?
As this interminable, sorry saga drags on, I thought there was nothing to add which hasn’t been said by many others. But the recent spate of remarks from Irish ministers and self-styled pundits has moved me to throw my three-pennyworth into the pot once again. The final spark was an interview I heard on Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday last week [30th January], which pitted a Dutch Customs official against a certain Professor Edgar Morgenroth of Dublin City University’s “Brexit Institute”. Never heard of it? Neither had I, not of DCU nor its Brexit Institute.
The contrast between the two interviewees could not have been greater. To paraphrase the Dutch spokesman, it was a case of, sure, if the UK leaves without a deal we can manage cross-border trade pretty much under existing arrangements. We don’t need to inspect goods at the port of entry, we have facilities inland. It’s all possible and our plans are in place. He emphasised that it was a commercial matter with a commercial solution, and that technology was a side issue, if not irrelevant. It was a typically pragmatic Dutch response. The riposte from the good professor bordered on the vicious. He rubbished this approach as in any way solving the Irish border question. In particular he cited that such a strategy would not address the problem of smuggling, and that employing technology could not obviate the need for a hard border in the case of no deal.
There are 310-odd miles of border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and, under existing arrangements, differing national VAT regimes. Most crossings are in the form of unmonitored minor roads. Is it not just possible, even probable, that a certain amount of illicit cross-border trade might already be taking place? And is there not provision under WTO rules for the temporary relaxation of import tariffs between trading partners – temporary in fact lasting several years, while long-term arrangements are agreed? Indeed, some of us might take the not unreasonable view that a little good will from the parties concerned might turn a mountain into a molehill.
We’ll come back to the subject of good will, or the lack of it, later.
Why, you might ask, a Brexit Institute in Ireland? It puzzled me, so I decided to dig a little. It was founded in 2017. A probe of the Institute’s website reveals that it consists of three faculty members, supported by a cast of “associates” who work for other departments of the DCU or have permanent jobs at universities elsewhere. Its Director must be a busy guy, since he is also a Full Professor of European Law at the University’s School of Law and Government. It ostensibly has a Steering Committee, although the website is unable to list any members: its composition “will soon be announced”. Its website also hosts Working Papers, some of which I was able to download and browse. The quality was variable – and I’ve read and written more than a few academic papers in my time – and some were long on assertions but short on supporting evidence. One message was consistently clear, however: Brexit is a thoroughly bad thing for the whole of Ireland, north and south, and not too great for mainland Britain either.
I also took a look at the host organisation. DCU was founded in 1975, but apparently did not enrol any students until five years later. In its present-day form it’s an amalgamation of various pre-existing higher/further education institutions, much like some of the former polys that converted to university status in Britain. Its website proclaims that “DCU is recognised nationally and internationally as a centre of academic excellence with over 16,000 students” which is a bit of a stretch, since it is ranked number 598 in The Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings [for comparison the venerable Trinity College Dublin, by common consent the best university in the Republic, is ranked 117th]. It also announces that it “has forged a reputation as Ireland’s University of Enterprise, through its strong, active links with academic, research and industry partners both at home and overseas.” It has certainly forged strong links with the European Union. If you’ve an hour to spare, see https://www.dcu.ie/research/eu-projects.shtml for the long list of EU-funded projects across multiple departments. Wouldn’t want to be biting the hand that feeds you, would you now?
I leave it to you to decide whose opinion you put your trust in: the Dutchman working at the frontline, or the Brexit Institute.
This episode raises two larger questions. The first is the quality of BBC journalism. The Toady programme, sorry, Today programme, is the most popular of any daily UK radio news broadcast. Millions of listeners implicitly trust that the “expert” commentators invited to express their views have suitable credentials. If someone from Sinn Féin, for example, or the SNP is brought onto the air we know what to expect, and it won’t be a neutral position. Fair enough. But “Brexit Institute” conveys an impression of impartial authority which is, to say the least, open to question. The channel’s research staff – and, heaven knows, the BBC spends our money employing enough of them – need to carry out proper due diligence in advance of issuing invitations. In August last year independent industry research reported that Today had lost some 800,000 listeners, and it’s going to shed a sight more if it continues in this vein.
The second issue is that this is representative of a deeply disturbing deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations. Concluding the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement was the Blair government’s single greatest achievement and in two decades has transformed dealings between the north and the south, and the UK and the Republic. On my visits over the years to the south, both for pleasure and business, I’ve experienced nothing but great hospitality and a warm welcome, and I’ve huge respect for the staff of Enterprise Ireland I’ve had contact with. Following the Brexit referendum result, Ireland’s then Taoiseach [Prime Minister ] Enda Kenny signalled his readiness to work collaboratively with the UK government. His replacement, Leo Varadkar, has taken a very different line. Unhelpful is a polite way of putting it. Brussels stooge would be a less charitable interpretation of his repeated doom-mongering and finger-pointing.
Yes, I understand frustration at the inept way that Brexit has been handled under May – it’s a sentiment shared by many of us this side of the Irish Sea. I also understand that, like May, he leads a minority administration and there’s a certain need to play to a domestic audience. But beyond a point Varadkar’s intransigence is going to a) harden British attitudes [you can see this already in the mainstream British press] and b) make life unnecessarily difficult for his own citizens. When Brexit is at last done and dusted, Britain and Ireland will have to go on co-existing as neighbours and trading partners. Keep poisoning the well, and it will be toxic for generations.
Last weekend was the start of the greatest annual sporting tournament on earth. Round one was a cracker. To enjoy it, it didn’t really matter which team you supported. It’s just one glorious spectacle: the anthems, the crowds singing, the camaraderie, the skill and the courage on the field. Rugby union is one sport where the whole of Ireland play as a single national side: the captain Rory Best hails from Ulster, and no one thinks twice about it. The teams fight like tigers on the pitch: it’s a contact sport, after all, and passions get roused. But the overall spirit is of amiable, good-natured rivalry. And afterwards.. well, afterwards the fans celebrate or commiserate and players’ minds start to turn to next weekend’s club games. There’s a chance that at least one of the guys on the opposing side will be a teammate. You wouldn’t want to do too much damage.
There’s a lot that Varadkar, Coveney and co. could learn from the Six Nations.