In recent years, Britain's constitutional discussions have largely revolved around Scotland and its lack of a voice in Westminster. To some degree I have been sympathetic, given that I live within the bubbled protection of the M25 and therefore enjoy a disproportionate amount of media focus. But if we think Scotland have had it badly, we may also want to look to Northern Ireland, whose marginalisation from discourse and consensus has been captured exquisitely by the Brexit issue.
Slowly, and with enormous difficulty, our media are beginning to delve into the mechanics of the Northern Ireland problem. At the weekend I wrote fairly plainly about the Irish border question, explaining - without too much detail - why the situation needs agreement within the Article 50 window. If blogging has taught me anything, it is that it is always best to leave an issue alone if I know very little about it. This is why I have not tackled the Northern Ireland question as extensively as perhaps I ought to have done.
The situation is uniquely complex because we are having to find solutions not only to technical questions, but also to deep-rooted political ones which concern the maturation of the ongoing peace process. There is also the looming problem of acquiring what's called third country status, which necessitates a change in enforcement and surveillance strategy, meaning checks on goods no longer take place at the point of production, but rather take place at the border.
Which is exactly where the issue of special status comes in. Whichever way we cut this, special status of some kind will characterise the eventual relationship between Northern Ireland, the EU and the rest of the UK. We have discussed already the need to settle the border problem during the window of the Article 50 period. The British government itself acknowledges the importance of doing so, having agreed at the beginning of talks to the sequencing which has ensued.
The balancing act before us is really a question of how much of this 'special status' is politically acceptable to the DUP, and indeed to British unionists in Northern Ireland. The desire for as soft a border as possible provides each side with a strong prerequisite for facilitating this special status, which will need apply not only to Northern Ireland, but to the island of Ireland more widely. It is entirely possible that there may come a point at which the DUP feels Northern Ireland is too politically detached from Britain for a deal to be considered reasonable.
The crux of the issue is that in order to maintain a soft Irish border, which is possible (though we will not achieve perfection by any means), Northern Ireland will need to replicate a selection of facets of EU membership. This will include, most crucially, retention of status as an EEA country, and thus remaining in the framework of the Single Market. This will be necessary because countries participating within the Single Market adopt a harmonised enforcement and surveillance strategy - the mechanisms of which become apparent at the point of production.
On March 29th 2019 (we presume), Britain becomes a third country to the European Union. On this date, if we leave without any agreement over the Irish border, Northern Ireland borders a Customs Union, the EU and the EEA. These political walls exist by virtue of our leaving, not out of predatory action or spite commandeered in Brussels. We leave and so step outside of these walls, and by 'walls' I am referring to non-tariff barriers; hoops which are thrown against countries to enable the EU to ensure standards are being met.
Acquiring third country status means a huge shift in enforcement and surveillance regimes, meaning in essence: inspections take place at the border, not during production. This is so because the EU does not have legal jurisdiction in a third country and so cannot organise internal checks. This stands in contradiction to what we are trying to achieve, which of course is a part of the UK preserving similar levels of openness and access with its southern neighbour.
The EEA and EU are not the same thing. The Single Market is an extension of the EU's Internal Market, whereby add-on states enjoy a very healthy trading relationship and centralised enforcement in return for a variety of obligations, including financial commitments and, with some configuration and caveats, an honouring of the four major freedoms. Northern Ireland being in need of the EEA is unequivocal. What is less certain is whether such an arrangement would come in the form of a bolt-on to the EEA Agreement itself, or whether it would be agreed upon less formally and exclusively as part of the divorce settlement.
Northern Ireland will cease to be an EU member in 2019, but will need to duplicate the referenced inspections procedures in order to work productively towards the maintenance of a soft border. Keeping those checks away from the border is a difficult task, but will be vital both for business activity and the protection of integrated supply chains. It is here worth remembering that quite a number of businesses, such as those involved in dairy produce, see their goods cross back and forth multiple times as part of ordinary processing procedure.
If the UK were, as it ought to be, pursuant to an EFTA Brexit, this particular issue would simply disappear. Our problem with the border would ease, leaving us to worry about VAT, the effects of leaving the Union Customs Code (and subsequent assistance governing customs cooperation and mutual border inspection programmes) and the Common Agricultural Policy. These things are not relevant to the EEA acquis and must be dealt with separately. But the way I see it, three important issues are less bothersome than three important issues and a fourth, much bigger one.
We have decided instead to make things much more difficult for ourselves. The theory behind adopting special status as an EEA country is sound, but what I am slightly less certain about is how permissible it will be to the DUP, who are keen on reaching the closest possible ties with Britain and who, quite ironically, currently provide our government with numerical backing and policy support.
Ultimately the DUP will need to back down over any potential complaints they may have here. Special status doesn't end with the Single Market. It will be a recurring theme as negotiations progress, covering things like agricultural tariffs and rules of origin. The easier they make the process now, the easier it will be to work towards practical solutions come phase two.