The United Kingdom Government has been given a sober and realistic warning of the dangers of failing to address Northern Ireland’s border issues during its negotiations on leaving the European Union.
It is no coincidence that the warning came from a Government of Northern Ireland in the hands of senior Public Servants rather than politicians with their many and varied axes to grind.
David Sterling, who for his sins has run the Province for more than a year following the collapse of the power sharing Executive, wrote privately some months ago to the then Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union, Oliver Robbins, saying that its plans to deal with the problem were unworkable.
That the letter was leaked, causing great glee in Brussels which has been saying the same thing about the UK’s position for months, is hardly Sterling’s concern. He had simply been providing the frank, free and fearless advice that as a Public Servant he has a duty to do.
No doubt he found it liberating that he was able to write free of the restraining hand of Northern Ireland Ministers who would almost certainly never have allowed his letter to be sent in this form.
That freedom allowed him to state that the UK’s negotiators might have made better use of local officials before drawing up their policy options. “We would like to see a more intensive and open engagement between Whitehall and Northern Ireland Civil Service officials,” he wrote.
He then went on to gently remind Robbins of a number of areas where the input of local knowledge might have been of some use such as on the Good Friday Agreement, cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and trade.
The UK currently has two options on the table in the negotiations. One is what it describes as a ‘customs partnership’, under which London would collect customs duties on the EU’s behalf. The second relies on a technological solution that would assess duties remotely, avoiding a return to highly sensitive checks on a reinstated hard border.
Both have been rejected as “magical thinking” by the EU side and some MPs are saying the proposals are so preposterous they have been put forward simply to fail.
The European proposal is that the customs border be removed from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea, but that has been firmly rejected by members of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party who prop up Prime Minister Theresa May’s Government in Westminster.
The problem would be solved if the UK stayed within the European Customs Union after leaving the EU, but that is anathema to hardliners who want a complete break.
None of this really matters to Sterling and his Government of officials. In the absence of political leadership they continue do their job, setting out the problems and the roadblocks. The next move is up to the politicians.
Robbins, now serving as Brexit adviser to Ms May, says the two UK border proposals remain its basis for negotiation. Further talks are planned. He hopes to have a resolution by October.
His chances look slim and meanwhile the people of Northern Ireland, who voted substantially to remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum, are left wondering what their future will be.