Owen Polley: An Irish Sea border would have a profound effect on the Union

Theresa May giving her 'admirably direct' speech on Friday
Theresa May giving her 'admirably direct' speech on Friday

As Brexit talks have progressed, unionists – whether they voted Remain or Leave in the referendum – have consistently opposed an Irish Sea border, ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland or any other form of words that means Brussels retains effective control over this part of the UK.

Now that the negotiations are in their final weeks, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has at last dropped these provocative terms in favour of reassuring language about technical checks, supposedly designed to protect the single market.

This does not mean that the constitutional threat has passed, even though the prime minister made an admirably direct statement on Friday, effectively advising EU leaders to mind their manners and stop trying to break up her country.

The EU may present its proposals in a more artful way, but it still insists Northern Ireland must stay in the single market and customs union, even while the rest of the UK leaves. It intends to drive a wedge between our economy and its largest market, in Great Britain, while our rules and tariff regime would be determined by Brussels, rather than London.

For months, Barnier has talked about ‘de-dramatising’ the prospect of an internal-UK, Irish Sea border and ‘improving’ the EU’s interpretation of the ‘backstop’ that is supposed to guarantee a soft border on the island of Ireland. Last week, we discovered more about this “revised draft of the Northern Ireland protocol” and what it might involve.

Initially, the details were greeted with excitement, even by some Brexiteers. The EU seemed to acknowledge that it was possible to create a hi-tech, unobtrusive border, of the type that has long been advocated by Leavers.

Yet, it soon became apparent that these technological solutions were intended to operate between Great Britain and the island of Ireland, rather than Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Why does any of this matter? Most of our lives wouldn’t be affected by officials scanning barcodes on freight at ports and on ferries, or companies having to fill in a few extra forms.

It matters because the checks are not the decisive thing.

If Northern Ireland takes its rules from the EU, while the rest of the UK leaves, and if its customs regime is tied to the EU, while Great Britain makes its own decisions, our economies will diverge and in turn our societies and our politics will move further apart.

This won’t happen next April, because, initially, regulations and tariffs are unlikely to change, but it will have a profound effect over years and decades. It’s not melodramatic to state that it may mean the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland and the Union.

That’s why nationalists and the Republic’s government have been so enthusiastic about an Irish Sea border.

The idea that Leo Varadkar is merely promoting his country’s best interests is nonsense. The Republic’s economy is far more dependent on trade with Great Britain than Northern Ireland. Rather than focus on keeping goods flowing freely across the Irish Sea, Varadkar has chosen quite deliberately to challenge British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

He and Barnier are attacking the very essence of the Union and the ‘principle of consent’ that secures Northern Ireland’s place within it.

They want to deny the UK the right to govern an integral part of its territory and they want to deprive people in Northern Ireland of the right, as British citizens, to participate in the politics, decision-making and economic life of their country.

The UK government is terrified of offending Irish nationalist sensibilities, so it has responded mostly by mollifying Dublin, which has been interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Consequently, in Salzburg last week, EU leaders rudely rejected the prime minister’s Chequers plan out of hand. In turn, she rebuffed Mr Barnier’s ideas and spoke strongly about the unacceptability of an internal UK customs frontier.

May is less forthright about a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, though, on Friday, she insisted that the devolved institutions would have to agree to any divergence.

The government intends to draw up yet another set of proposals that preserve these principles, in the hope that it might find common ground with the EU. Yet, alarmingly, if the Assembly were restored, an anti-Union coalition of Irish nationalists and the place-apartists of Alliance already have a slim majority in favour of loosening ties with the rest of the UK.

Many knowledgeable pro-Union, pro-Brexit voices are convinced that, in the end, acceptable arrangements will be agreed. Viewed from this side of the Irish Sea, their equanimity is less reassuring.

Ultimately, the prime minister relies upon a ‘confidence and supply’ deal to prop up her Conservative administration and, in theory, the DUP could always withdraw support if she agreed to treat Northern Ireland differently. But is it possible that Arlene Foster and Co might be tempted to trade their votes, if they were offered enough inducements?

If the EU continues with its current intransigence and Theresa May softens her latest statement on the border, it could come down to whether the DUP’s unionism is based on Northern Ireland’s full participation in the political, cultural and economic life of the UK, or whether it’s an Ulsterist charade, that has more to do with flags, Orange marches and the Stormont pork barrel.

It’s hardly a comforting bulwark against the most serious assault on our constitutional status since the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

• Alex Kane is away