How Would Holmes Solve Brexit?


From top: Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’; Derek Mooney

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.

That is a fact. Don’t take my word for it, read what Dr Katy Hayward and Dr David Phinnemore of Queen’s University, Belfast have said:

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.

Elementary, huh?

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

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43 thoughts on “How Would Holmes Solve Brexit?

    1. Me

      I disagree, it is one of the most coherent pieces I have read on the various options available.

        1. bisted

          …I am grateful to BS on Telly for giving Derek the opportunity to expose his true self…these weekly missives do not adequately let him express his inner gurrier…a trait so beloved of the FFer…

  1. Jimmey_russell

    brexit was racist democracy was hijacked away from the people it’s clear putin was involved we need to listen to the people who know what’s best like Tony Blair and John Major and overturn the descision also lower the voting age to 16 this will ensure the right outcome this time.

    1. david

      Maybe convert the Brits to paddyism
      The UK are not like the Irish
      A referendum passes it passes and its out out out

  2. some old queen

    The problem with option 6 is that the DUP won’t accept it. They insist that NI is the same as Britain but of course, it is not. It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is not the same, and it never was.

    Maybe it is time to question some assumptions. What does a hard or soft border mean anyways? Do we have a soft border now, or is it something else? And what will a hard border look like? Sealing off all unapproved roads? Look what happened the last time that was tried.

    Unless May pulls some sort of magical rabbit out of a hat, NI will have to get a special status, there is no other way. The DUP will have to pull their horns in because they do not represent the NI majority on this issue. Not that such ever bothered them before, but still.

    Derek ya hoor, you nicked my clock metaphor. Give it back, NOW!

    1. scottser

      it’s a fragile alliance propping up a fragile government. We’ll see a general election yet and my own feeling is that IF the DUP are still involved next year then we will see a hard border up north.

        1. Neilo

          Manned customs points with never-ending queues, rifling through your motor for PS consoles bought in Newry, mountains of paperwork for truckers etc.

    2. david

      It is
      The north are part of the UK full stop and subject to their laws rights etc
      Until such as the majority want to become part of the south so be it
      Maybe if Sinn feinn took their seats and worked at a political solution in the UK parliament the republicans might have a voice and bring a motion like the Scots did to leave or stay in the UK

      1. some old queen

        If the laws are all the same, how can I as a gay man get married in Britain but not NI?

        1. Neilo

          Save Ulster From Someoldqueen! would be the answer to your excellent question from many of the troglodytes resident in the Teddy Bear’s Head.

          1. :-Joe

            lol… that teddy bear, brainless or otherwise… helped me pass my driving test….



        2. david

          Maybe Sinn feinn should ask that question in the UK parliament
          Maybe its to do because direct rule has not been imposed on the north and these things must be passed by the assembly which is not running and maybe Sinn feinn might just ask a question in the UK parliament regarding this
          Sadly they will not take their seats so we will never know

          1. some old queen

            So you are saying that if the assembly was running again, equal marriage would be legal. Really?

            On one hand the DUP want NI to be the same as the rest of the UK but on the other they don’t. Which is it because it can’t be both.

  3. Zaccone

    Presuming we end up with a no deal, or just a hard Brexit, the easy solution for NI to have a referendum in the North on whether the people there want to stay in the EU customs union or not. Let them decide if the border will be on land or in the middle of the Irish sea.

      1. Zaccone

        I know. And the referendum result would likely be even more heavily pro-customs union. But an explicit referendum on the customs union border would give the Tories a legitimate excuse for abandoning the DUP. Which they’re going to have to do if they want a hard Brexit.

        1. qwerty123

          I hope so, although never underestimate the stupidity of the current tory party. I wish Labour did not not have an anti EU leader, would be a lot different I feel.

          1. Neilo

            Corbyn is willing to endure some form of customs union etc in pursuit of power. I’m not pointing the finger: that’s good politics.

          2. david

            It’s not about a party anti or pro leader its about a referendum where the citizens of the UK on the whole were asked do we remain or go
            This is the bit you cannot grasp
            The EU had a chance of handing the UK a lifeline something a concession to bring to his people
            Cameron got back to the UK with node zilch and the rest is history
            The blame squarely lies with a rigid unbending EU
            Look at all the recent elections all over Europe and the results point to anti immigrant racist right wing
            Look at Germany now going totally right wing look at Austria France hungry Poland
            The UK frankly do not want this Europe and I cannot blame them
            Look at our country
            Its developed into a uncaring nation where we abandon our low paid and accept homelessness and a disintegrated two tier health service

      2. david

        Bit like saying Kerry voted for enda and Dublin did not so Dublin is not subject to enda’s regime
        The north is part of the UK and the majority of UK citizens voted out of the EU
        Its called democracy

        1. qwerty123

          Yes, exactly the same, Kerry v Dublin, Northern Ireland v England. Thanks for clarifying, makes much more sense now. Ever read the good Friday agreement? Actually, no please don’t respond.

          1. david

            Never read it
            I assume it included the terrorists stopped killing and the various parties represented their communities
            But sadly Sinn feinn are blaming everyone but them selves
            The main point is that if Sinn feinn cannot reign in their terrorist pals then back to the old days
            Maybe they could defuse the orange card being used in London by taking their seats but no
            They will kiss the frau’s bottom but not the queens
            If they take their seats the strangle hold the unionist have could be depleted but no
            Even if the GFA is about to collapse

          2. Qwerty123

            Insightful, you should blog! Have an auld read sure, and then you’ll see it is incompatible with the advisory, non binding referendum that was brexit. UK/England doesn’t give a toss about NI, but are now beginning too.

          3. ReproBertie

            The GFA means that, following Brexit, the EU/UK border will be in the Irish sea and NI will slip further from Westminster’s influence.

    1. david

      The people of northern Ireland are not fully represented in the UK parliament simply because Sinn feinn will not take their seats
      Without representation there is no chance of a referendum or ensuring the orange card dose not keep may out of office

      1. some old queen

        You are asking SF to compromise in its core principle. It’s just not going to happen, ever.

        1. Cian

          I dunno.
          SF have a one-off “OMG SF just took their seats in Westminister” that would make global news – and can use this to highlight something huge and/or wreck a vital vote – but it is a one-use-only-deal and may never be used.

        2. david

          Core principles mean nothing when your people are headed to the road to ruin
          So the sinnfeiners do not want to be ruled by a foreign empire
          But they want to remain in the Reich
          So German master compared to British master
          I think after the experience of the troika and the vultures I can safely say its a no brainer

          1. ReproBertie

            I heard Sinn Féin are responsible for the return of roaming charges for UK subjects following Brexit!

            I don’t know about anyone else but I am greatly amused by how you think not jumping to the British Taoiseach’s tune means Ireland are somehow obeying instructions from Germany. I guess it’s hard when you realise that Ireland is part of a strong union while the UK has voted to be a bit player on the world stage.

  4. :-Joe

    I thought we were finally becoming collectively aware of and working together to get rid of spin?

    Mooney should have his own website or blog called or whatever…

    BS I know it’s going to take a long time to reach critical mass but I hadn’t pegged you as being one for dragging your heels…. better the devil you know I suppose.

    Keep your enemies close, perhaps sounds like a good idea but pretty soon wake up and your flooded with FF/FG drones and your just the digital reinvention of the Irish Times part deux point zero, no?….

    Perhaps I should just accept the most probable inevitable outcome….


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