In the last few days, former Northern Ireland Secretary, Lord Hain, has repeated his call for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market and customs union, irrespective of what the rest of the UK does after Brexit.
He said ‘in my view, the only way to resolve the border conundrum is for Northern Ireland to be within the same customs union and single market as the Republic…’
This is tantamount to proposing the partition of the United Kingdom.
This is also Sinn Fein policy.
It is time to inject some common sense into this debate. Nobody wants to return to the days of customs posts etc and I have no doubt that a sensible negotiation with Brussels can result in a solution to our specific problems, but there cannot be any question of agreeing to an effective border up the middle of the Irish Sea.
This is what Lord Hain’s proposal could lead to if the UK leaves the single market and customs union.
The most important trading relationship for Northern Ireland is its links with Great Britain.
Over 60% of our trade is with the mainland, and, with the exception of the 15% of trade with the Republic, much of our other exports pass via Great Britain to other destinations either in the EU (8%) or the rest of the world.
Ironically, Great Britain is the Republic’s biggest customer: for example 40% of the Republic’s food and drink exports are to Britain; this includes 55% of Ireland’s beef which goes to British supermarkets.
I learned this week that 90% of Ireland’s exports to Europe travel through Great Britain on their way to South of England and East coast English ports!
Such a dependency on free access to Britain from Ireland dwarfs the economic problems of the Irish border.
The EU manages to co-exist with countries that are not in the Union; Sweden and Norway are but one example. But it is wrong to assume that there is uninterrupted movement from the far reaches of Eastern Europe to the English Channel.
There remain many problems also in the way, despite the commitment to ‘open borders.
I believe that there needs to be a customs union between the UK and Ireland, sanctioned by the EU, with a guarantee from the UK to collect any duty due to the EU on goods passing through the UK from third parties.
This would avoid the rest of the world circumventing EU levies and thereby undermining EU producers.
It is not in our interests to see the EU fail; we want a successful Europe and we must realise that a new relationship is not about undermining the single market.
If we are to resolve the problem on this island we need support and co-operation from Brussels.
But Brussels needs to understand that the ‘Irish problem’ is not confined to the border alone; it goes much wider and involves Ireland’s entire economy.
I do not underestimate the difficulties the negotiators face, and I regret that Sinn Fein and others, including some in the Dublin government, seem to be focusing on politics instead of practical solutions.
But what I am clear about is this; unionists will not agree to a slicing up of the UK and creating a new ‘status’ for Northern Ireland.
This would be a breach of the Belfast Agreement and drive a coach and horses through the principle of consent.
So I say to Lord Hain: back to the drawing board Peter – your plan simply won’t wash here!
• Lord Empey is an Ulster Unionist peer and former leader of the party