Though Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character… almost as fictional as the Strategic Communication Unit’s Taoiseach Leo, but let’s not go there this week… his creator used Holmes to bring the skill of calm, logical reasoning to a wider audience.
Conan Doyle crafted intricately complex scenarios and then allowed his hero the time required to think and analyse the situation logically. He called it Holmes’s iron rule:
“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
If only someone inside the British government could just stop and think, applying Holmes iron rule to the current Brexit conundrum, particularly as it relates to the border running across our island.
So, this week I want to apply the Holmes iron rule to how Brexit affects the Irish/Irish border and show why the U.K. is: 1). on the wrong course and 2) ignoring a far less painful option.
Option One: Ireland rejoins the UK. OK, I am leading-off with an absolute non-starter, yet there are, bizarrely, those on the other island who think one way to avoid a hard border is for us to see the error of our ways and return meekly to the current United Kingdom of Great Britain and parts of Northern Ireland.
These people are wondrously ignorant of modern Irish history, but then again there are former Northern Ireland Secretaries of State who are happy to tear up the Good Friday Agreement to save their imagined Brexit. So, for the avoidance of doubt, let me borrow some words from the late Mrs Thatcher that they can understand: this option is out, out, out.
Option Two: Irexit. This one is just as ludicrous as Option One, but with the dubious bobus of having some Irish advocates. You may have seen them a few weeks back, moistening the seats of the RDS as they listened to Nigel Farage and the only stopped clock never to be right even once a day: Anthony Coughlan, amongst others.
The harsh reality for these folks is that there is no backing for Irexit. The latest Eurobarometer poll, published just over a week ago, reported that 66% of us believe Ireland is better off inside the EU and that our attachment to the EU is at its highest level in 15 years.
Why would we give up our attractiveness as a base for foreign direct investment looking to access the European market?
Outside the EU the only major market access we could offer would be to the UK market – but why invest in Ireland to gain UK market access when you can invest in the UK directly and cut your cross-channel transport costs? Oh, now I see why Farage is pushing the idea, though why he would have Irish backers is still a mystery.
Option Three: UK quits the Customs Union and Single Market: If the UK is outside both the Customs Union and the Single Market then the border that separates the six north-eastern counties from the rest of this island will become an external frontier between the EU and a third country, the UK.
Let us be under no illusion: with the UK outside the single market and a custom union, there will be an unavoidable increase in border controls.
The people who backed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – North and South –voted to replace the “border” that divided us with a cross border approach that brought communities together.
That Good Friday Agreement is more than just a hard-won political agreement, it is an international treaty between two sovereign governments.
The cross border approach it enshrined is incompatible with the sort of border and customs arrangements which Mr May mentioned last week, a reheat of paras 46 – 54 in the UK’s August 2017 NI position paper. It was a non-runner then and as Fintan O’Toole reminds us today, it’s a dud now.
Option Four: A Canada/USA style border: This option arose just yesterday when Mrs May was asked for an example of a border between two countries that were not in a customs union. She replied:
“There are many examples of different arrangements for customs around the rest of the world and indeed we are looking at those, including for example the border between the United States and Canada”
This on the day that President Trump was announcing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from other countries, including Canada. Eh, no thanks.
Having crossed that border twice, a few years back, in a car from Seattle to Vancouver, queuing in traffic for about five hours not including the time spent out of the car at the huge customs post filling in forms, I can vouch that this one is a non-runner.
Option Five: No Brexit. I added this one as a counter balance to the previous four Irish centric, impossible options. The British people have voted to leave the EU and there is no hard data to suggest that the result of a rerun referendum would dramatically reverse that decision.
And before anyone points out that we have re-run EU referenda here, let me remind them that those first round turnouts were low, not a factor in the Brexit vote as I outlined here before.
The elimination of Option Five brings us to the one and only remaining option, no matter how improbable it may seem now. That is for the UK to leave the institutions of the EU, to quit the EU Council, Commission, Parliament etc., but to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market.
This, effectively, would see the UK return to the old EEC era – the common market. It is the solution that my friend, and former UK Europe Minister, Dr Dennis MacShane has been advocating from the moment of the Brexit vote. As Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna have said, there is a cross party majority in the House of Commons to back staying in both.
It also has the added cachet of according with the outlook of the already mentioned Mrs Thatcher, a fact lost on the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg who forget that Mrs T was a big supporter of the Single Market.
After almost two years of chasing Brexit fantasies the Brexiteers need to face up to the logic of their own position and stop pursuing the impossible.
They also need to start coming up with real, possible alternatives, so let me end by offering the bare bones of a proposal for Mrs May and the DUP.
Though I am a firm believer in a United Ireland and a strong advocate for more all island approaches, I can understand why Mrs May and the DUP baulked when they saw the the EU’s draft legal agreement proposing a backstop “common regulatory area”.
I don’t accept their objections to the draft text which, after all only turns in legalese what the EU27 and UK already agreed last December, but I can still understand how they might feel that it undermines the “constitutional integrity” of the United Kingdom.
So, I suggest that they look to Hong Kong for some inspiration. If it is possible to have one country, two systems, then it is not also possible to have two different economic regimes in one country?
Rather than moaning at Barnier, London should be looking to actively exercise its “constitutional integrity” and itself make Northern Ireland a “special economic zone” within the UK.
Make it a “special economic zone” which is linked via the “common regulatory area” to Ireland and hence to the EU.
A “special economic zone” which secures the important trade flows from Northern Ireland to Ireland (and vice versa): Northern Ireland to Great Britain and, of course, Northern Ireland to the EU.
This leaves the Irish/Irish border frictionless and invisible, as it is now, with the UK operating its own e-checks at crossing points to Great Britain, but not imposing tariffs on goods incoming from Northern Ireland.
It is not nearly as effective and workable a solution as remaining in the Customs union and Single Market, but no matter how improbable it may seem, it is a lot less impossible than options one to five above and it is entirely within their own hands.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney
Illustration: Sidney Paget