Brian Monteith: Brexit Britain can simply not make a hard Irish border

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In a Brexit negotiation process that has exposed many fault lines in the Conservative Party, it is not often that Boris Johnson, David Mundell and Ruth Davidson find themselves arguing for the same outcome, so when it happens it should be taken seriously.

Over the weekend Mundell, the Secretary for Scotland, and Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, both let it be known that their most important red line was that any agreement between the UK and the EU must not threaten the preservation of Scotland’s place in the Union by offering an opportunity for the Nationalists to say Scotland is being excluded from a different deal for Northern Ireland.

The current soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is invisible on the ground (Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire)

The current soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is invisible on the ground (Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Were the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to agree to an arrangement such as Northern Ireland remaining inside the EU’s Single Market and the Customs Union while the rest of the UK doesn’t, the SNP would shout from the rooftops that, with a majority of the Scottish electorate voting to remain in the EU, a similar deal should be granted to Scotland.

Notwithstanding that using the same logic about avoiding a hard border in Ireland would simply shift that hard border to between Scotland and England, the denial of such a deal would then be used by the SNP as a grievance to inflate demands for a second independence referendum. With passions running high about any different treatment of the component nations of the United Kingdom, the SNP would nurse their latest grievance to try and swing doubters their way in favour of independence.

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Mundell and Davidson recognise the strategic and tactical dangers in such an argument and have, rightly, called on the Prime Minister to not throw the SNP such an unintended advantage.

Johnson, writing in his weekly newspaper column, also spotted the problem and rightly condemned the false choice between the EU dividing our country or dictating our trade laws without us having a say.

Borders are borders. Whether or not the border is a line on the ground or in the sea, there will be a place where the jurisdiction changes. That’s all it is, a change in the laws and who has the authority to enforce them. This normally takes place by someone stopping those in transit and seeking clarification that the people or goods comply with the different laws.

The perception is that this always takes place when the border is crossed, but that’s not how it happens any more – technology has changed all that.

Now people are often checked before they depart rather than when they arrive. Most people that take a flight have to prove who they are and show that they have the authority to enter the place of destination (having the required visas if necessary) at the flight gate before setting off. Nobody kicks up a fuss about this.

The same goes for the transit of goods. When Guinness leaves Dublin to go to Belfast, Glasgow or Liverpool, the necessary paperwork is completed electronically taking account of the differing duties, taxes and regulations so that it complies and any dues are paid to the correct authority.

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The beer truck is not stopped at the border. Only random checks are necessary and these are conducted anywhere on the journey by officials from any of the jurisdictions involved. There is no fuss made about this either.

The idea that there will be a need for border checkpoints holding up traffic, asking for bills of lading is a mendacious invention by the EU to keep us in its Single Market and Customs Union – or divide our country.

A physical border is not needed unless there is an occasional emergency such as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Those arguing that there cannot be a trade deal without hard borders are the same people that want to keep us in the EU.

We should call their bluff and not erect a border.