A few weeks ago, when discussing the fleeting visit of David Davis, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, to a peace and reconciliation centre near the now invisible border around the UK’s legacy colony in the north-east of Ireland, I mentioned the previous history of “no-go zones” along the contested frontier during the era of the so-called Troubles of 1966 to 2005. Despite the deployment of some 30,000 soldiers and paramilitary police – not to mention the use of terrorist proxies to eliminate local opposition – Britain singularly failed to secure large stretches of the countryside adjacent to the militarised frontier between the Six Counties and the rest of the island. In many parts, the best that the British Forces could do was to retreat to isolated hilltop watchtowers or to make use of civilian housing and buildings – including schools – to act as human shields for troops based in heavily fortified installations dotted among the hostile border towns and villages.
Little did I imagine that Davis’ unpublicised tour of the former warzone, escorted by a cohort of armed officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland or PSNI, would have such a profound effect on his thinking or that of his officials. According to apparently well-founded press reports, the UK is on the cusp of offering a new Brexit deal to Ireland and the EU which will see the creation of a “special economic zone” along the length of the north-eastern border, with the rest of the contested region becoming – in effect – a joint-regulatory territory of London and Brussels (and by extension, Dublin).
From the Guardian newspaper:
The Brexit department has confirmed it is working to refine plans for post-departure customs arrangements with the EU after reports said Northern Ireland could be given joint EU and UK status and a “buffer zone” on its border with Ireland.
The idea, outlined in the Sun, would see Northern Ireland have a joint regime of UK and EU customs regulations, allowing it to trade freely with both, and a 10-mile-wide “special economic zone” on the border with Ireland, thus avoiding checks there.
The proposal is quiet extraordinary and on the face of it probably unworkable. The number of questions arising from the suggested plan are almost bewildering. For instance, where will the zone begin and end? Will it be cross-border in nature (with the ten miles split between north and south)? Will its hinterland villages and towns be included or excluded, creating irregular salients and enclaves? Will there be customs checks on either side of it? How will the area be policed by customs officials or even regular law enforcement? Will regulatory alignment be solely regional in nature or apply to the United Kingdom as well? And which regulations will take precedent in case of dispute? The list just goes on and on.
However, as a first step towards the inevitable establishment of an “Irish Sea border” or customs frontier between the islands of Ireland and Britain, and between the European Union and Britain, it makes some sense. The British just need to be led a little further down the path by their Irish and European neighbours to the supposed Brexit freedom they desire so much.