Meanwhile, Back At The Irish Border…



With all the furore over the meaningful vote this week one could be forgiven for missing yesterdays publication of a letter from the Government to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

This was a letter in response to the Committee’s extensive report on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland that they published in March.

That Report made 14 recommendations to the Government, calling on it to bring forward detailed proposals that set out how it will maintain an open and invisible border, and also address concerns about post-Brexit immigration arrangements, North-South cooperation, and peace funding.

The fact that it took nearly 3 months for Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland Secretary to respond would suggest that in fact that Government has been doing detailed work behind the scenes on the Committee's proposals.

But in fact - and the Government has form on this - the response is notable for its lack of detail. Whether it was by design or by accident, the fact that attention was on the meaningful vote meant that yesterday was indeed a good day to bury no news.

There are some things though that should be of interest to campaigners - a commitment to no routine immigration controls on journeys from Ireland to any part of the UK, nor within the UK. The issue of reciprocal rights is something that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium have focused on and Bradley’s letter confirms that the rights of Irish citizens to work, study, access social security and public services in the UK will be preserved on a reciprocal basis for Irish nationals in the UK and British nationals in Ireland.

But there are just five lines on the movement of goods and they say nothing new-  “the UK wants a new and ambitious customs arrangement with the EU that maintains as frictionless trade as possible in goods, and which, crucially, avoids any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland”.

On the fallback scenario and issue of alignment, all that the Government would say is that nature of the legal text remains a matter under negotiation between the UK and EU and nothing on border arrangements other than reiterating no hard border.

The commitment to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement is there and the recognition of the need for a bilateral replacement to the European Arrest Warrant. The pledge to honour commitments to the PEACE and Interreg VA funding programmes under the current multiannual financial framework is important. And the Government is clear that the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) – established by the UK and Irish Governments under Strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement – will continue.

But it is on funding that increasingly many civil society groups are now turning their attention to. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund was announced as the panacea to replace EU funding programmes that in the past have given investment to boost productivity and reduce economic inequality. But details on this new Fund have yet to emerge. All that is known is that the government “will consult widely on the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in 2018, as announced in the Industrial Strategy white paper”. That’s cutting it fine to have in place for March 2019.

The Chair of the  Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Dr Andrew Murrison said yesterday  :

"We are disappointed with the lack of detail provided by the Government in response to our report on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland…...We had hoped that the Government would recognise our intent and engage seriously with the issues we highlighted in our report. Instead, we have been provided with little more information than when we published our findings three months ago”.

Maybe there is a cunning plan but if so the Government is certainly not letting on. With just 12 days left until the EU meets to discuss the border, it is hoped they have a bit more substance to offer them. If not, the likelihood of being able to meet any timetable for October is receding.

Samuel Ellis