Ben Lowry: The bogus denial of a major new Irish Sea border is an illustration of this tragicomic political saga

There is a neat historical symmetry to what has just happened.

Lorries at the DEARA site near Belfast Harbour yesterday, January 1 2021, as the UK leaves the single market and customs union and the Irish Sea border becomes operational. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Lorries at the DEARA site near Belfast Harbour yesterday, January 1 2021, as the UK leaves the single market and customs union and the Irish Sea border becomes operational. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Northern Ireland in 2021 celebrates 100 years of its existence.

And Northern Ireland in 2021 undergoes a change without precedent during the century in which it is has been one of the four home nations of the United Kingdom.

A change indeed without precedent almost anywhere in the world. Unfettered trade within a nation state is not only guaranteed in almost every country, it is one of the characteristics that marks out a nation.

As from 11pm on Thursday just past, trade is no longer unfettered between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Brandon Lewis’s insistence yesterday that there is no Irish Sea border is the latest outlandish comment in a tragicomic saga.

To get a sense of how unthinkable, literally so, the internal UK border is consider a series of essays this newspaper ran a decade ago in which no contributor thought there was a risk of such a border.

The series was called Union 2021. With Northern Ireland then a decade from its centenary, we asked people to assess the state of NI’s place in the UK. Essays came from businessmen, academics, politicians, commentators and others.

They included a headmaster who said that he had when younger expected a united Ireland by 2021, but had come to realise how wrong he had been.

The overwhelming view was that the Union was utterly secure. A united, independent Ireland was just not on the radar.

I had concerns about this consensus because not a single person raised a threat that I thought was becoming apparent: that NI stayed in the UK, but be changed from within so that it was unrecognisable as part of the nation, with the only Britishness being UK funding.

I wrote an essay to explain my view, but I was then a news editor, and as such I oversaw our news coverage and did not write opinion pieces. After a discussion with senior colleagues, my essay did not appear.

My concerns have been more than vindicated. But none of us — essay contributor, reader, journalist — back then saw a threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the internal UK market economy.

There is another way to illustrate how unthinkable such a development was until recently — republicans did not think of it either.

Republicans have long wanted things such as an Irish language act, because they know how much it will change the feel of Northern Ireland.

They have long tried to win the battles over legacy and history.

They have long wanted to use human rights legislation to constrain the way that the UK can govern.

They have long wanted to increase cross-border bodies.

They have long wanted to expand the role of the Irish government in running Northern Ireland.

But even republicans did not seek to undermine the UK internal market.

How could they have done?

The overwhelming bulk of Northern Ireland’s trade is with Great Britain. In a limited number of sectors such as agriculture there is significant cross border trade, but in most sectors there is little all-island commerce.

And nothing republicans could do, from bombing to propaganda, would change that.

The only realistic way of altering the direction of our main trading flows was a full change of sovereignty, which was not even on the agenda 10 years ago — or indeed five.

Thus what has happened is a gift beyond their dreams.

There is not enough room in this article to explain the magnitude of what has happened. Suffice to say that it is gradually becoming clear, from movement of pets to declarations of cash. It will become clearer still with time.

But do not believe the claim that it is just a small increase in what is called ‘phytosanitary’ checks, building on existing Irish Sea animal checks.

It is far more significant than that. Northern Ireland will be in effect in the European Union single market for all manufactured goods. And while the Province will technically be in the UK customs zone, it will apply the EU customs code.

Being on the EU side of the trade divide will take us to places that are at present unknowable, but could be very significant indeed. The UK and EU have reached a trade deal but have just embarked on a long political and economic and psychological battle that will last decades.

Both sides need their own economic model to prevail, in one case to justify Brexit and in the other to justify the continuance of the EU.

Even if Brussels did not threaten to block certain movements of foods to Northern Ireland in the trade talks — as the UK says it did but the EU says it didn’t — it will very much enjoy having part of the UK on its side of the trade divide.

All attention in NI will now turn to whether or not unionists can overturn this new border four years from now in the assembly. That possibility is, from a unionist perspective, the big improvement in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal over Theresa May’s one.

There are other respects in which Mrs May’s deal was not as favourable to unionists as some people like to say.

For example, her deal put Northern Ireland in the EU customs union and the rest of the UK in acustoms union, so her own deal set the scene for future tariff border in the Irish Sea — when GB cut free of such a plan, as I believe it one day would have done, leaving NI unable to follow suit.

Mrs May also established the disastrous notion that the UK (which recently regained its position as the world’s fifth largest economy) was so emasculated that it could not use CCTV at its own frontiers.

But while there are glimmers of hope in the new dispensation, it cannot be denied is that there is a major economic sea border, and that nationalist Ireland has gained something that was not even on the radar a short time ago.

There are many reasons for this. All business groups endorsed the backstop and its implied principle that keeping an unfettered land border was the over riding Brexit objective for Northern Ireland.

And post 2016 NI Brexiteers predicted with certainty our exit from the single market /customs union, while not acknowledging the need for so much as a debate about whether unionism might be better served by a softer Norway-like deal.

But a recent moment crystallised this horror show.

On December 9, Michael Gove — one of the smartest, and once one of the most dedicated, unionists in Parliament — was asked in Westminster about the coming problem with chilled meats, and the fact that Dublin was boasting about the looming need for NI to source meat from the Republic.

He failed entirely to assuage the concerns, and said that Northern Ireland could source from within NI.

He then, in jovial mood despite the gravity of the concern, thought it apt to end his evasive answer with this feeble joke: “When it comes to pork products there is nothing better than an Ulster fry.”

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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