Jonathan Evershed of University College Cork asks whether the UK Government’s new tariff plan is a case of double standards and, if so, why the silence so far from the DUP?
The passage of the Withdrawal Agreement at the second time of asking was predicated on changes to the backstop which the Prime Minister was never going to secure. So, her defeat in the House of Commons (which was not really about the backstop at all, but about enduring deep disagreement among MPs about the preferred shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and a failure to confront the trade-offs it requires) on Tuesday came as no great surprise. Her government’s planned customs regime and proposals for the management of the Irish border in the (increasingly likely, given that it remains the default, even though MPs have nominally voted to ‘take it off the table’) event of a no-deal Brexit, however, came as something of a shock. This is because under this plan, Northern Ireland would be subject to what appears to be precisely the kind of regulatory divergence on trade and tariffs which the UK government, and its (surely, now, former?) confidence and supply partners in the DUP have consistently insisted would threaten Unionist identity and esteem in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the very constitutional integrity of the Union.
Under proposals published yesterday, certain kinds of goods (principally, and of principal concern for Ireland, in agri-foods) moving from Ireland directly to ‘mainland’ Britain would be subject to high tariffs. However, no tariffs would be paid on the same goods moving South to North across the Irish border, with a limited range of controls imposed on goods moving from Larne or Belfast to Stranraer or Liverpool (NB, no such controls would have been imposed under the backstop, which would have guaranteed unfettered access to ‘mainland’ markets for goods and services from Northern Ireland). The collection of tariffs and taxes on goods travelling from Ireland to Great Britain via the North will rely primarily on self-declaration – a sort of ‘honesty box’ for export duties, with incentives for smuggling and risks to legitimate business abounding – and on point-of-purchase duties in Great Britain.
The silence from the DUP on these proposals has, so far, been deafening. Having been led to believe that the issue of regulatory divergence on trade and tariffs between Northern Ireland and rUK was an issue of intransgressible principle for the party, one might be forgiven for asking why no vocal opposition to the government’s no-deal plan has been forthcoming. Indeed, it strikes me (as it has others) that there is no a priori difference between this set of divergences and those proposed in the Withdrawal Agreement. Coupled with the dubious legality of the proposals, it is little wonder that the EU has expressed some puzzlement (putting it mildly) as to why the UK’s new tariff schedule would treat Northern Ireland differently when the government’s objections to the backstop were precisely that it would treat Northern Ireland differently.
The principle of divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in the area of import controls has actually long since been conceded by the DUP and by Unionism more widely. I have written elsewhere that I find it difficult to see how a marginally enhanced system of checks on particular goods moving between GB and NI would function to impinge on Unionist identity and Northern Ireland’s perceived ‘Britishness’ where more meaningful differences in this regard – in the realms of rights, equality and recognition (on, inter alia, marriage and abortion) – apparently do not. It is hard to see what the issue of trade has to do with Unionist esteem at all. Further, the backstop demonstrably poses no risk to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status given its foundational ‘principle of consent’: change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only be brought about by referendums, North and South, on that specific question. In a nutshell, it is hard to find any enduring normative reason as to why the DUP maintains its vexatious opposition to the backstop, in general, and vis-à-vis its tacit support for a differently differentiated regime of import and export controls, in particular. I increasingly tend to the worrying conclusion that DUP Brexit policy – which has been made up by the party as it goes along – is being driven by those a) who don’t like the backstop simply because it meets with EU, not to mention Nationalist, approval and b) who see the whole affair as a means of re-imposing the hard border which their particular ‘us and them’ vision of British and Irish identities and relationships demands.
It is often said of the DUP that it is good at tactics but not at strategy. It is quite difficult to see how their approach to the backstop falls under either rubric. The DUP could, legitimately, have presented the particular form of the backstop contained in the Withdrawal Agreement as a win. The WA’s proposed customs partnership between the EU and the whole of the UK represents a sizeable concession from the former, whose negotiators had initially ruled this out altogether. The very minor divergences between Northern Ireland and the UK – which HMG had at any rate pledge to minimise almost completely – and ‘de-dramatised’ checks necessary to secure and protect the EU’s single market seem a small price to pay for such a substantial prize. Indeed, dual certification, under the label UK(NI), would have represented a significant ‘best of both worlds’ market advantage for Northern Irish businesses, and this helps to account for widespread support for May’s deal among Northern Ireland’s business and farming communities. This support was, and remains, cross-sectoral and cross-communal, and it is mirrored by an equal and opposite opposition to the no-deal tariff schedule and plans for the border outlined yesterday. Crucially, a majority of the DUP’s own support base would appear to support the sort of differentiated post-Brexit settlement for Northern Ireland represented by the backstop. Having found it hard to establish any essential principle underpinning either the DUP’s continued and vocal opposition to the backstop or its tacit support for the proposed no-deal tariff schedule, it is therefore difficult to find any strategic or tactical logic to it either.