Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Brexit border concerns of smuggling and civil disorder

By Diarmúid Pepper

Boris Johnson previously said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than seek a Brexit extension.

At the conclusion of ‘Super Saturday’ on October 19, the first Saturday sitting of Parliament since the Falklands War, he sought a Brexit extension. 

In an act of supposed defiance, the letter he sent to the EU seeking an extension to the Article 50 divorce bill wasn’t personally signed by Boris Johnson.

Alongside the letter seeking an extension, Boris Johnson also sent a note saying that he didn’t want the extension but was bound by the law to seek one. It is now accepted by his government that the UK will not be leaving the EU on October 31. 

For many, it is pure electioneering and will enable a Johnson government to go to the polls and blame Parliament intransigence for the Brexit impasse. 

Indeed, Johnson and his Conservative frontbench have ramped up its drive for an early General Election. Today, Boris Johnson will table a motion seeking an early General Election on December 12, if the EU offers a Brexit extension until January 31. 

He has called for an election and is offering MPs until November 6 to scrutinise his Brexit deal. However, opposition MPs say this is too little time to pour over a 700 page document which was over three years in the making. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg took to the Commons floor in the wake of this announcement to say that Conservative MPs would effectively go on strike if an early General Election was not agreed to by opposition parties.

Boris Johnson has, on two previous occasions, called for an early election. There was even a stint wherein Johnson took to labelling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “chicken” and a “big girl’s blouse” over his refusal to accept the Conservative’s call for an early election. On Friday, Johnson implored Corbyn to “man up”. 

It is not often that an opposition turns down the opportunity to go to the polls and potentially get back into power but that is what the Conservative Party is accusing Labour of doing.

However, Jeremy Corbyn says that he is relishing the prospect of an election but only if the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit is completely averted. In an interview this week, he said: “Take no-deal off the table and we absolutely support a general election.”

Corbyn also said that he won’t confirm his party’s position on a snap election until the EU confirms if it will grant a Brexit extension.

However, the EU is also refusing to be drawn on whether it will grant an extension. The EU will wait and see if the UK votes for a December election before making a decision on a possible Brexit extension.

European Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva said on Friday: “What I can tell you is that the EU 27 have agreed to the principle of an extension and work will now continue in the coming days.”

Should the UK go to the ballot box, the outcome could be very interesting. As of writing, Boris Johnson would probably gain more MPs than his party currently has. But depending on what happens in the next week or so, Corbyn could come to power. 

A recent poll found that a slim majority would vote Labour if the Brexit deadline was extended beyond the current October 31 deadline. 

So where does this leave the north of Ireland? The DUP is on-board with an early election in a bid to get a Brexit deal that is more preferable to the party.

For them, and for many unionists, Boris Johnson’s deal is a “betrayal”. They claim that Johnson’s deal effectively draws a border between the UK and Northern Ireland down the Irish Sea because Northern Ireland would be left in the EU custom block and single market.

A lot has been made of the potential for violence on behalf of dissident republicans as a result of Brexit, but now attention is turning to the risk of violence on behalf of loyalists. 

Prominent unionist Jamie Bryson recently said: “People are being pushed into a corner. They argue that if republicans threatened violence against a hard land border and they made concessions, then maybe if we threaten with violence they’ll get rid of the Irish Sea border.”

In addition to this, Simon Byrne, the head of Northern Ireland’s police service, told the BBC: “Depending on the outcome of what happens with Brexit, should it impact the union, you can anticipate a lot of emotion in loyalist communities and the potential for civil disorder.”

Closer to the border, there are grave concerns amongst retailers. It is thought by many retailers that the proposed Brexit deal would be an open invitation to smugglers.

This is because whilst the current proposed Brexit deal will keep borders open, there will likely be different tariff regimes North and South. This would make the perfect environment for smuggling to flourish in. 

Michael Doherty, a customs and border consultant, said any divergence in regulations creates the prospect for increased smuggling. 

“And I can categorically say that there is no technology currently in operation capable of preventing smuggling without an infrastructure,” Doherty said last week at a conference on the economic implications of Brexit for the island of Ireland.

 Martina Lawless, of the Economic and Social Research Institute, laid out what the issue could look like at the conference. She explained: “If you have beef coming into Northern Ireland paying no tariff and an 80% tariff regime in the Republic, there will be people who want to take advantage of that gap.”

Angela McGowan was also speaking at the event. She is the Director of the Northern Ireland branch of the Confederation of British Industry, which represents nearly 200,000 business. She said that Brexit could drive Northern Ireland’s economy “off a cliff”.

McGowan further stated that, for Northern Ireland businesses, the difference between staying in the EU and leaving the EU was akin to the difference between “a three-course meal and a packet of crisps”.