“DUP vows to block Dublin bid to make Irish Sea post-Brexit border with UK” shouted a Daily Telegraph headline yesterday, above a story about how the Irish government thinks a seamless border between north and south will be impossible – because it will be, and that has always been obvious to any objective viewer – and how Leo Varadkar has stirred the pot by suggesting that the customs border be moved to the Irish Sea.
This has, shall we say, not gone down well with the DUP. “We would be strongly opposed to the idea that you would create a border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. Pragmatically that is just not going to happen. If you look at Northern Ireland, for example, out of the port of Belfast 73% of the goods that come in and out of the port of Belfast which is by far our busiest port go to Great Britain,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP. I love the “pragmatic” point, as if the reason the DUP wouldn’t go for this is down to practicality. Why the DUP will never, ever agree to such a thing taking place is because it gets to the very heart of everything they stand for; if you move the border effectively from the current land one to the Irish Sea, you are essentially uniting the island of Ireland in all but name. Sort of a problem for a Unionist party, you might say.
This creates a huge problem for the British government, one that looks intractable to me. The Irish government think a land border would be an impossibility, making an already tricky task pretty much impossible itself – and yet the Tories cannot do anything the DUP would come close to hating as much as the Irish Sea idea or else there goes their government. So what do they do? Seems like two things are possible: one, they let the government fall over this and face the electorate again, leaving open the very real possibility of a Labour government; two, they just stay in the Customs Union forever and this problem then goes away. Both, shall we say, have political problems attached to them.
I always thought Ireland would loom larger as a Brexit related issue than anyone seemed to think at the time of the referendum. I think it’s only going to get bigger as a problem for the UK government from here on in.