These are some very important reasons why the government’s plan for the Irish border after Brexit will never, ever work

Michael Hugh Walker
A defaced 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' sign stands on the border in Middletown, Co Armagh: Photography by Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Much to my bitter disappointment, the Northern Ireland team won't be going to its first World Cup in my lifetime this summer. Given that, it'd be pretty ridiculous for our team to be making a public spectacle of themselves over who should make the squad.

And yet – stranger things are happening. Like the cabinet splitting and squabbling over which of the two possible customs arrangements to go forward with when both have already been rejected by the EU, and fighting over a new “backstop” option for the Irish border when the UK already signed up to a specific backstop at the end of phase one of the talks.

Such is the level of confidence, it's like our glorious green and white army turning up to Moscow, boots in hand, in the vague self-assurance that the football governing body have just been playing hard ball up to now by sticking so rigidly to this “you must have qualified to participate” nonsense.

The whole situation is so utterly farcical that one of the two customs possibilities relies on technology that the government acknowledges does not exist and HMRC has said that neither option would have the necessary systems in place by the end of 2020, when the transition deal is meant to come to a close.

The magnificent Independent scoop that Brussels has instantly rejected May’s new time-limited backstop as a rowing back from what the UK has already agreed should come as no shock. May called the phase one backstop option something that “no prime minister could ever agree to”, a few weeks after being the prime minister that agreed to it.

In the run up to the phase one talks, I wrote that the Irish border would be the pin to pop the Brexit bubble, and here we are sat again, still waiting for answers. If I was to go into detail about all the ways the current Brexit approach simply cannot function, this’d be the latest War and Peace – so instead I’ll quickly highlight just a handful of the remaining obstacles surrounding the Irish border.

Of the UK’s three requirements to any Brexit deal – to be free to make our own trade deals, to have as frictionless trade as possible and to have no hard border for Northern Ireland – two of these cannot coexist: the ability to make free trade deals and no hard border. As put with perfect bluntness by the UK’s leading EU law expert, Catherine Barnard, you can only make your own trade deals if you leave the customs union – if Northern Ireland and the Republic are not in the same customs union, there is a hard border. Yet, as this still isn’t accepted by some, let’s quickly drill into one reason why – rules of origin.

For some reason, as yet unexplained, Brexiteers are vividly certain that the UK's market of 60 million will be able to get better trade deals than the 500 million of the EU. But let's indulge the dream, and say the UK gets better trade deals than the EU could muster. This would mean, for instance, Northern Irish dairy is privy to a better trade deal with Malaysia than the Republic’s dairy is. This would create a huge financial incentive for dairy made on the island to be considered of “Northern Irish” (and therefore UK) origin – but how can this be policed without a hard border or technology yet to exist?

As highlighted by the House of Lords’ EU Committee, this rule of origins issue could threaten a number of key UK industries, including agriculture. Basically, the UK’s trade deals will need to apply what’s called "preferential rules of origin", meaning only products which are "sufficiently processed" in the UK can be part of the UK trade deal. What "sufficiently processed" means will need to be painstakingly defined for every single product covered by the trade deal.

Bear in mind dairy here is an “all-island production chain” – it zigzags across the border, with one production stage in NI, another stage in RoI, until you have the finished product. So what origin would such dairy products be given – UK or EU – when their production is so interwoven?

Once origin is decided, how do you police it? How can the UK’s trade partners be sure that they are receiving UK products if there is no way to check that the products were “sufficiently processed” in the UK?

In short, a hard border is needed to police distinctions between EU and UK international trade agreements with other countries. However, if this hard border is erected, then it disrupts to the point of dismantling the all-island production chain.

Complicated? A mess? No kidding – and yet no answers.

And while we’re all here – how on earth can EU free movement of persons to the UK end while also having free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and also free movement between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?

The solution to all of this complication is simple and yet entirely unpalatable to some: the UK leaves the EU but remains within the single market and customs union – otherwise there will be a hard border in Ireland.

At the minute, we're trying to precariously and painstakingly piece together all of the best parts of the EEA/single market and customs union instead of simply entering them as the only realistic way to obtain those advantages. It's like needing to get to the town over and electing to turn your attention to a collection of car parts to build your transport from scratch rather than boarding the bus across the street. Yes, you would need to pay and you don't have control over the exact route taken to your destination, but at least the bus will land you there. All the while instead, you’re fiddling with some nuts and bolts, trying to work out how to make a road-worthy car unlike any ever made, in a stupidly unrealistic timeframe, oh, and without wing mirrors – you've an irrational thing against them. It's all that needlessly and stubbornly painful.

These are the hard facts; the inescapable truths. They are inconvenient, logical and rigid – for some, downright infuriating – but so is gravity when you graze your knee or fall off a cliff. We need to stop floating about in this Brexit fantasy and get down to business.