Theresa May's Irish border plans are a 'pipe-dream' which could wreck peace in Northern Ireland

Charles McQuillan / GettyA bus crossing along the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
  • Theresa May’s proposals for a frictionless border in Ireland are a “pipe-dream” and would create significant friction between Northern Ireland and Ireland, former senior UK diplomat Lord David Hannay has warned.
  • Theresa May is reportedly set to cave to pressure from Cabinet Brexiteers to push for a “max-fac” customs proposal which critics say is untested and would create significant friction in Ireland.
  • Lord Hannay, a crossbench peer, said MPs could vote in favour of customs union membership to avoid a “horrendous” situation in Ireland.
  • “A lot of people, very reasonably, are really worried by the forces that have been unleashed by the referendum vote, in so far as the Irish settlement and the Good Friday Agreement is concerned,” he said.

LONDON – Theresa May’s proposals to avoid a hard Brexit border with Ireland are a “pipe-dream” which risk creating a “horrendous situation” for the peace process in Northern Ireland, a former senior UK diplomat has said.

Lord David Hannay, a crossbench peer and former UK ambassador to Europe and the UN, told Business Insider that both customs proposals being pushed Theresa May – known as “max fac” and the “customs partnership” – would not create a frictionless border in Ireland, but would instead endanger the Good Friday Agreement which has brought relative stability to the border region.

“Max fac […] is not going to produce frictionless trade,” said Lord Hannay.

“It’s going to produce trade with friction. The amount of friction is the subject of negotiation, but the clear assumption is that British producers of goods will have less access to the market than they have now.”

He said the suggestion the “customs partnership” proposal would create frictionless trade was a “pipedream.”

“You’re setting up a huge amount of friction which will be damaging to British exporters,” he said.

Theresa May is trying to solve two problems at once: Avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland while leaving the customs union in order to strike trade deals outside the EU.

To that end, she and her Brexit negotiating team have come up with two proposals. The first, the “customs partnership,” would involve the UK collecting EU tarriffs on goods passing through Britain, but it was shot down by Cabinet Brexiteers on Friday, who said it was too similar to current EU arrangements.

That means May is reportedly leaning towards the “max-fac,” or maximum facilitation, option, would rely on new technologies and trusted trader schemes to remove the need for physical customs checks. The scheme is entirely untested and critics say it would create a significant amount of friction at the border in the forms of checks, delays, and infrastructure.

A lot of people are really worried by the forces that have been unleashed by the referendum vote. They are right to be

The seemingly intractable problem of the Irish border had changed parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons “quite a lot” in favour of customs union membership, Lord Hannay suggested, with MPs set to vote on the issue thanks to a House of Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill passed last week.

While membership of the customs union would not solve the need for customs regulation, because Northern Ireland and Ireland would need to be aligned on key regulatory issues which are more closely related to the European single market, it would go some way to addressing the need for certain kinds of infrastructure at the border.

“Northern Ireland is a tragic case,” he said.

“The history of British politicians either ignoring or disregarding the consequences of their actions for Northern Ireland goes back hundreds of years.

“A lot of people, very reasonably, are really worried by the forces that have been unleashed by the referendum vote, in so far as the Irish settlement and the Good Friday Agreement is concerned.

“They are right to be. I think it is a horrendous situation that could arise if a majority in our parliament were to say, ‘To hell with the Irish problem, we’re going to go ahead, because that’s what a fairly narrow majority of people voted for in June 2016.’

“That would be the height of irresponsibility. That fact is rather beginning to dawn on people now.”

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