A deal could allow free passage across the island with rules on entry and exit.
A hard Brexit spells trouble for life on both sides of the Irish Border and our only hope, as all seem to agree, is to establish a special relationship with mainland Britain and the continental EU.
But what relationship should we seek? If only for the sake of further discussion, and without exploring difficulties of detail (where the devil surely lurks), I would like to propose a shared-space model.
The idea would be to allow a free passage of people and goods between both parts of the island but to introduce strict rules governing movement into and out of that space. Rules for entry and exit, which might be by air or sea or even cyberspace, would vary depending on whether the point of departure or destination was in mainland Britain, the continental EU, or a country elsewhere.
Rules of entry
The rules governing the entry of people and goods from mainland Britain or the continental EU, whether to the North or South of Ireland, would prohibit immigration restrictions or commercial tariffs. They would ensure that the island was a shared space, equally accessible from both areas.
The rules for entry from elsewhere, however, would not be similarly inclusive; and this, even if entry to the North was via the EU, entry to the South via Britain. People and goods entering the North from elsewhere would be subject to the constraints that obtain for entry to Britain. And people and goods entering the South from elsewhere would be subject to the entry constraints of the EU.
Rules of exit
The rules governing exit would have to be more complex, varying with the country to which people were travelling or goods were being exported. Depending on destination, different rules and different constraints would apply. All three destinations would check travellers and exports exiting from anywhere on the island. But for each destination, there would be a set of cases where restrictions and tariffs were ruled out.
The British mainland would not impose any immigration or import constraints in the case of people or goods returning to the mainland, originating in the North, or gaining entry from elsewhere (under British rules) to the North. Equally, the continental EU would not impose any constraints on people or goods returning to the continent, originating in the South, or gaining entry from elsewhere (under EU rules) to the South. And either of these areas would allow people or goods in transit to the other domain to pass through without constraint.
Except in the case of people or goods returning there, however, any country elsewhere would be likely to impose immigration and import constraints. But the constraints it imposed would reflect its independent treaties with Britain in the case of the North, with the EU in the case of the South. Different treaties and different constraints would be relevant, depending on whether the people or goods seeking exit originated in the North or the South, or had entered North or South from elsewhere.
A feasibility issue?
But would it be feasible, as these rules require, to determine the origin of people and goods that move freely within the shared Irish space? Yes, it would. As currently required, people would need to meet passport constraints in order to leave the island, whether for Britain, other EU countries, or elsewhere. And goods would need to meet parallel constraints in order to be exported.
Those constraints would require passports for goods: in effect, a record of their history of production in the case of commodities or, in the case of services, a record of their provenance. However difficult in practice, such records could be provided with the help of barcodes and other digitally encoded pedigrees.
Costs and benefits
The shared-space arrangement ought to be economically appealing, although it would leave tariffs in place for goods exported from the South to the British mainland. Ireland would belong at once to two free-trade areas, and would be able to import the best bargains on offer. The North would be able to export without tariffs to the British mainland, the South to the EU. And, in exporting to countries elsewhere, each would benefit from the free-trade deals that its own affiliate area, Britain or the EU, had negotiated.
This economic benefit would help Irish consumers across the board but, absent negotiated exceptions, it would put competitive pressure on Irish producers in the home market, particularly in agriculture. This cost ought to be bearable, however, since the producers in each part of Ireland would still be able to find a favourable export market in its own domain: mainland Britain or the continental EU.
The social and political benefits of the shared-space arrangement are particularly striking. The border would remain as invisible as it is today, avoiding the political and policing costs of a hard divide, and allowing the free movement of people and goods from one side to the other. The arrangement would enable the people of Ireland to enjoy a shared civil and commercial life, while preserving their current political identities.
Would Britain and the EU agree?
Given the relatively small size of Ireland, allowing it to share in both free-trade areas ought not to impose a major cost on Britain or the EU. And both Britain and the EU have been so invested in the Good Friday agreement, and developments since then, that they might be reasonably challenged to keep faith with their past commitments by supporting a shared-space model.
In any case, the model ought to be independently appealing for Britain and the EU. It would be an economic disaster in their books, as well as in ours, to restore the Border and try to maintain a divide between two major free-trade areas along its winding, uncertain route. Making Ireland into a shared space, or doing something along those lines, would be a win-win for all.
This piece first appeared in the Irish Times.