Lies, Half-Truths and Opinions: The Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Border

Fact: The Good Friday Agreement does not prohibit a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Stating that it does is an incorrect factual statement, and therefore either an error or a lie. If you doubt this, the full text of the agreement is here:

Fact: The UK Prime Minister and Irish Taoiseach have agreed that there should be no hard border following Brexit. It is true this is a relevant point when disscussing the subject. It is not true that this means that a hard border would break the Good Friday Agreement. It is also true that, unlike the king of the Medes and the Persians, they are allowed to change their minds.

Fact: The Supreme Court has ruled that the Good Friday Agreement is concerned only with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, not its place in the EU.

Statements about the following are opinions:

– Whether or not a hard border would undermine peace in Northern Ireland.

– The extent to which a Brexit deal should prioritise the wishes of those in Northern Ireland over those in other parts of the UK.

– Whether or not the fact that a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted Remain implies that no hard border is the right or only way to respect their wishes.

Whilst it’s certainly possible to construct a reasonable argument from these statements that there should be no hard border, that would be a reasoned opinion. It does not change the fact that the Good Friday Agreement does not prohibit a hard border.

Such arguments also have a high dependency on the nature of the ‘hard border’. A border like the Berlin Wall would clearly pose a much bigger threat to peace than a border like the US-Canada border.

The statement, “A hard border would undermine the Good Friday Agreement” is an opinion if ‘the Good Friday Agreement’ is being used as a metanym for ‘peace in Northern Ireland’. Normally, using the term in this way would be uncontroversial; however, given the level of misinformation about whether or not a hard border would be in breach of the Agreement, such usage is at best misleading and at worst a deliberate attempt to deceive. I’d describe it as a half-truth.

Alternatives to no border?

I am not convinced that no hard border is possible, unless we stay in the Customs Union (though am open to attempts being made to find such a solution). So, what might a light-touch, reasonable border look like that didn’t undermine peace?

Well, let’s assume we sign a free trade agreement very like the EU-Canada FTA – so 97% of goods are tariff free. And further, like Canada, that there is visa free travel for business and tourism, with no extra documents needed if you enter by road. We could then have:

– No checks on any personal vehicles (ie cars).

– A high threshold for transport of products for personal use.

– A very small number of checks on lorries (say 1%), facilitated by use of technology, self-declarations and trusted company schemes.

– Heavy fines for those found breaching the law.

– Standard checks on nationality and residence status when applying for jobs, renting/buying property, etc.

This would ensure a completely open border from the perspective of ordinary citizens and a minimally restrictive one for business. Most businesses would comply with the law: 97% of goods would be tariff free anyway, and most businesses – particularly large ones – would not risk the fines and reputations damage of smuggling. There would, of course, be a small amount of leakage, but probably no more than in the old ‘booze cruise’ days – and this would simply be considered the price of maintaining a low friction border.

Such a solution could be implemented alongside the UK leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. It would not impact on the day to day lives of citizens and have minimal impact on business. And it is compatible with the Good Friday Agreement.