Unionists should spell out why they reject NI in customs union

Professor John Barry, a Green Party councillor who signed the recent letter by civic unionists and others, at Stormont
Professor John Barry, a Green Party councillor who signed the recent letter by civic unionists and others, at Stormont

While much media attention has been on a ‘hard/soft border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic post-the UK leaving the EU next year, another border issue relates to a new border down the Irish sea if NI (but not the rest of the UK) stays part of the EU single market and/or customs union.

While much media attention has been on a ‘hard/soft border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic post-the UK leaving the EU next year, another border issue relates to a new border down the Irish sea if NI (but not the rest of the UK) stays part of the EU single market and/or customs union.

This has been met with fury by the prime minister, Brexiteers, the Labour Party, but above all unionist politicians and commentators who state that a customs border would undermine the constitutional integrity of the UK and make Northern Ireland (ie themselves) ‘less British’.

But why should an economic border and different regulations around trade do this? How and in what ways would NI staying part of the EU’s customs union (CU) undermine ‘the union’?

Beyond vague and abstract claims that NI staying part of the single market or customs union would “irrevocably change our position within the United Kingdom” (Ben Lowry: ees-Mogg is right to call out Dublin on its tough EU tactics) that the European Commission document was an “act of aggression” demanding “that a friendly European state should be dismembered at its behest” and “the province should be detached from the rest of the country and become a protectorate of the Brussels” (Jacob Rees-Mogg: ‘The UK will quit the EU as one country,’ March 3).

While hyperbole and exaggerated rhetoric is to be expected in political debates, it is not unreasonable to ask those claiming this to spell out how and in what ways NI remaining part of the CU heralds the ‘break up of Britain’ or somehow mean NI Unionists are ‘less British’.

Another perspective is that this possibility simply continues the process of a looser union which has been ongoing since devolution across the UK for the last number of decades.

That is a continuation of economic and regulatory divergence but within a single unitary UK state. Thus, for NI to remain part of the CU is simply a departure in degree not in kind of the regulatory divergence that has occurred under devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Economic divergence within political and constitutional unity as it were.

Take NI bank notes (and here I am mindful of ‘doing a Boris’). As anyone who has travelled to England and tried to use NI can testify, the refusal by shops to accept them, is an small scale, everyday example of the impact of different economic rules might have.

If you are a unionist, does the refusal of a corner shop in London to accept NI banknotes make you feel less ‘British’? Does it undermine the constitutional integrity of the union? While irritating and inconvenient certainly, to equate this irritation with constitutional divergence, or that it signals a diminution of one’s identity as British (a sort of cultural divergence), is to go too far, is to protest too much.

Or consider that councils in England have more powers that NI councils — does that ‘regulatory divergence’ undermine NI as part of the UK? Does that then mean being a DUP councillor on a NI council mean they are less ‘British’ than a Labour or Green councillor in England?

The planning system in NI is different from other parts of the UK, the Scottish legal system has differences from those in England and NI, and not to mention that NI is the only part of the UK where abortion and equal marriage are illegal.

Do any of these regulatory, legislative, legal and economic differences necessarily equate to constitutional divergence?

Unionists viewing the proposal for NI remaining part of the EU CU as akin to some sort of ‘political Armageddon’, do have to spell out how precisely NI compliance with EU health standards, agricultural controls and minimum product standards, joint EU-UK customs teams checking on goods coming from the UK into the new regulatory space for example, undermine ‘Britishness’ or herald the ‘dismembering of the UK’.

Can we perhaps understand this reaction in the context of seemingly endemic unionist insecurity around identity and NI as part of the UK, and this despite the fact that since the 1998 Agreement ‘the Union is safe, but unionism is not’?

Indeed, one could see in the proposal for NI to remain part of the CU an opportunity for progressing a more flexible, future-oriented and federal United Kingdom, one which might serve long-term unionist interests better than demands for the ‘status quo’.

Here, unionists should be more concerned with how Brexit is being used by London/Westminster to centralise and grab power from the regions, as Welsh first minster Carwyn Jones and Scottish Brexit minister Mike Russell noted last week (see this report in The Guardian).

Staying part of the CU within this federalist view of a future post-Brexit UK could both avoid a hard border and offer unionists the opportunity to reimagine the Union.

After all, it’s the tree that does not bend in the gale that breaks. But it is for unionists to outline how and in what ways economic and regulatory divergence, which we already have had for decades under devolution (pre-dating Brexit), necessarily means the ‘breakup of the Union’ and undermines their ‘Britishness’.

• John Barry is a professor of politics at Queen’s University & Green Party councillor in North Down. He was a signatory to the recent letter by civic unionists and others