What is Special About Customs?

Given that there are many policy differences between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK, asks Jonathan Evershed, why has customs policy been singled out as a red line by Unionists? 
On her recent visit to Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Theresa May made a speech to an assortment of ‘business and political leaders’ at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. Among other things (including calling into question her role as a rigorously impartial broker in Northern Ireland with a robust restatement of her party’s Unionist credentials) she appeared to renounce her commitment to finding a legally workable ‘backstop’ on the Irish border. Following hot on the heels of a Parliamentary vote which made it illegal for Northern Ireland to form a separate customs territory to the rest of the UK, May’s speech proclaimed that, 
"It would not be showing ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations’ of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland to cut their part of the United Kingdom off from the rest of the UK…The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept."
While, on one level, the Prime Minister’s speech simply represents a restatement of her government’s prior position, her couching of the argument in the Good Friday Agreement’s language about ‘parity of esteem’ is new. Perhaps it demonstrates that her confidence and supply partners had a hand in drafting her speech? For it has become a prevailing argument in my conversations with DUP members (and Unionists in Northern Ireland more widely) that a customs border in the Irish Sea would contravene the Good Friday Agreement. It would do so, they argue, precisely by undermining British sovereignty (and, thereby, Unionist identity) in Northern Ireland, which the Agreement recognises as legitimate until such a time as a majority of Northern Irish citizens vote for its relinquishment (one might of course be forgiven for describing this discursive recourse to the Good Friday Agreement on the part of the DUP – who opposed it outright in 1998, and whose present attitude towards it remains ambivalent if not actively hostile – as more than a little cynical).
The idea that divergence in customs arrangements across the Irish Sea would be synonymous with diminished British sovereignty and, thereby, disesteem or unequal treatment for Unionism is an intriguing one. It reveals the way in which Brexit has been mapped on to the complex issues of culture and identity which have defined post-Agreement Northern Irish politics. Like the issues of flags, emblems, Orange parades (as an aside, was Number 10’s choice to publish its Chequers White Paper on the Twelfth of July symbolically or politically significant?) and language, or the vexed question of ‘eleventh night’ bonfires –  which once again reared its head this Summer – Brexit (and support for or opposition to it) has become part of Northern Ireland’s contested cultural landscape: of the culture war which has defined post-Agreement Northern Irish politics and provided a proxy for its unresolved constitutional conflict. 
Equal and opposite questions – fastidiously ignored in the Prime Minister’s speech – might be raised about the impact of Brexit on ‘parity of esteem’ for Northern Ireland’s Nationalist community. And given the myriad ways in which Northern Ireland already diverges from the British ‘mainland’, Theresa May’s speech begs another question: what is special about customs, and what does it have to do with identity at all? 
Why, for instance, would variance between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain on customs (which would, at any rate, be contrary to the Prime Minister’s own stated aim of seeking broad and enduring convergence with the EU and a ‘common rule book’ on trade and tariffs) represent a threat to Unionist identity, where discrepancies in other matters of economic policy do not? Take, for example, corporation tax, on which the DUP’s consistent policy aim over several years has been achieving a differential and lower rate than pertains in Great Britain: one which would align Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Theresa May and the DUP may rightly point to the fact that import and export controls and trade are matters reserved for the mother Parliament at Westminster. But until as recently as 2015, so too was the power to legislate on corporation tax in Northern Ireland. What any of this has to do with issues of culture, identity and parity of esteem between Unionists and Nationalists is, at any rate, unclear.  
Likewise, why would a differential regime of customs and excise across the Irish Sea pose a threat to Unionist esteem, or the equality of Unionist claims to (British) citizenship, where profound differences in social policy between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, apparently, do not? It was pointedly suggested to me recently by one senior Unionist politician that it would be ludicrous to expect an Irish citizen transporting goods from Cork to Dublin to pay duty on them. For them to do so would suggest that Cork and Dublin were not co-equal parts of the same sovereign territory, undermining the sense that Irish citizenship was of equal status, value and esteem on either side of the internal border between them. Accepting the logic of this proposition, if a British citizen were to travel from Liverpool to Belfast only to have their marriage certificate effectively voided, or their right to access reproductive health services curtailed, would it not also apply? 
Ultimately, while they have been accepted across the political spectrum in Great Britain, claims that some sort of special customs arrangement is synonymous with diminished British sovereignty over Northern Ireland are not difficult to refute. And the Prime Minister could have pointed to the other divergences across the Irish Sea both sought and maintained by the DUP – some of which arguably mark a far greater risk to equality of citizenship, parity of esteem and Northern Ireland’s perceived ‘Britishness’ than would a different customs regime. Instead, her intervention can only have served to entrench further the confused and emotive conflation of customs policy with the constitutional question and the contested politics of identity. This will make it all the more difficult, if not impossible, to unpick. 
Theresa May’s Belfast speech signalled something of the closeness of her relationship with the DUP – some of whose members and supporters arguably are not only willing to accept, but actively want a hard border on the island of Ireland – as well her inability to stand up to the Brexit hardliners on her back benches, her unwillingness to deliver on her previous promises, and her resultant unreliability as a partner in negotiations. She could have presented the Irish backstop as an opportunity for Northern Ireland to ‘have its cake and eat it’ economically and in terms of protections for the rights and entitlements of its citizens. In electing to represent it as a threat to Unionist identity, she has instead added fuel to the fire of the ‘culture war’ which continues to smoulder beneath Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, further undermining her already dubious credibility as joint custodian of its foundering political settlement. 

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Jonathan Evershed's picture
University College Cork
25th July 2018
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