A quick thought on the news that the UK “offer” has been agreed by Cabinet (see Robert Peston).
One thing that has been underdiscussed in all the arguing about the Irish border issue is that the core principle of the Good Friday agreement is cross-community consent. The agreement foresees that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of both communities, and the agreement itself was subject to an act of public consent in the form of a referendum. This is crucial to the whole project. Cross-community consent offers a guarantee to the Unionists that they cannot be sold out by the British, but it is more than just a Unionist veto. To say that there can be no change without cross-community consent is also to say that there can be change, if such consent were given. In taking imposed change off the table, it puts the possibility of change through consent on it.
This is sauce for the goose and for the gander. Stephen Bush on the New Statesman has repeatedly pointed out that there are precisely three options:
a) a land border
b) a sea border
c) no border
The problem with both a) and b) is that they both represent a change in the status of Northern Ireland. I suppose a real sophist might try to claim it wasn’t substantive change, but I can’t see it washing with anyone. If you are committed to the GFA, like all British and Irish political parties, you can’t really support either unless you think you can convince the Unionists to accept b) or the Nationalists to accept a). Neither is realistic. It is not just that the DUP would hate b) or Sinn Fein a) – neither option is acceptable in terms of the GFA because both involve a change in the status of NI imposed on one community or the other.
With a) and b) ruled out that leaves only c), no border. Even the much mocked DEXEU paper on drones, balloons, and such is a sort of twisted acceptance of this point. The point of a “frictionless” or “invisible” border is that it is very like no border. This leads us to a further trilemma. The DUP, and indeed the British government, has acquired three commitments:
1) the Union
2) the GFA
3) Brexit, defined to exclude the customs union
The first is existential. The second is extremely important. DUP ministers, members, and voters benefit from peace and the open border. The third was entered into verbally when Theresa May chose to up the rhetoric at the 2016 Conservative conference, and is not binding in any way. If the first cannot be given up, the second would be extremely costly to give up, and the third merely embarrassing, what do you think will give? How does your answer change now the government has agreed to pay up?
This is why I have not been particularly worried about the Irish element of Brexit, and why I think we’re staying in something.