Article by Andrew Fanning, Business Post (Dublin)

5 February 2016

SDLP MP for South Belfast Alasdair McDonnell has told The Business Post he is “deeply despondent” about Brexit and the prospect of retaining a seamless border between the Republic and Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the EU.

Dr McDonnell is a member of the British parliament’s Northern Ireland Select Committee, which heard evidence on Wednesday about the future of the border from Michael Lux and Eric Pickett, two customs experts and international trade lawyers.

Lux told the MPs that British prime minister Theresa May’s declaration in Dublin on Monday that she wanted a “seamless, frictionless border” after Brexit amounted to no more than “nice words”.

May said earlier this month that Britain would not be a full member of the EU customs union – in which goods can cross the border without tariffs – after Brexit.

Lux said that although Britain could choose not to have customs controls if it left the EU customs union, the Irish government would have no such choice under EU law.

The SDLP MP described Lux’s evidence as “stimulating”, but added that “the more he talked, the scarier it became”.

“Whatever happens, we’re going to have a border. You cannot control the movement of people or goods without having a checkpoint of some sort,” McDonnell said.

He said Lux made clear that even if this is as seamless as possible, there will be transaction costs for people moving goods across the border.

Concerns about impact on food industry

Lux told the MPs that customs checks would hit the food processing and dairy industries in particular, as the administration involved in transporting ingredients and products across the border would lead to extra costs.

Dr McDonnell has particular concerns about this aspect, saying the island of Ireland has effectively become a single market in this area in the past 25 years. He cited the example of milk, which in some cases crosses the border five times in the course of processing.

“Each one of those crossings entails a customs check and an expense. That’s the worry,” he said. “I don’t want there to be delays, but it is not possible for us not to have some sort of border, and some sort of control, of goods moving up and down,” the SDLP MP said. “Even the perfect solution will require documents to be prepared, which will take up companies’ administrative time,” he added.

“the arrogance of the Brexit wing of the Tory party is frightening”.

The South Belfast MP said he and many other people have been aware that this type of scenario was inevitable, despite others including Theresa May trying to talk it down. He said the Irish Government was aware and had done “a massive amount of work behind the scenes” trying to minimise the effects. But he urged the government in Dublin now to redouble its efforts to minimise the effects of Brexit on the border.

“Europe has very clear guidelines, with all sorts of waivers and special adjustments around the edges, but these can only be worked if both sides want to work them, and the arrogance of the Brexit wing of the Tory party is frightening,” McDonnell said.

“Ultimately, the easy way to deal with this is to retain the island of Ireland as a customs union,” he said. Lux said at the hearing that it may be possible for Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union for a transitional period after Brexit, but then there would have to be controls between the North and the rest of the UK.

Speaking about the House of Commons vote in favour of the bill enabling the British government to trigger Article 50, Dr McDonnell said the debate against the bill had been driven by the Scottish Nationalists.

And he predicted that Brexit could have longer-term consequences, due to what he called the “delusional” anti-European wing of the Conservative Party.

“Effectively, what they have done is started a process that will only be complete when Scotland is independent and Ireland is united. That’s the only solution. Any other solution will be temporary and dysfunctional,” the SDLP MP said.

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