The totally obvious point that, if Northern Ireland chose to “leave the United Kingdom and join with the Republic of Ireland in a United Ireland” it would then become part of the EU even after the rest of the UK had left, is not news. Nor is it really very helpful.
The significant political issue around Brexit is the status of the border. If this can be managed in such a way that the border remains a practical irrelevance with free movement of goods, services and people across it, Northern Ireland’s departure from the EU will be an irritation but potentially little more than that. If, on the other hand, the border becomes so relevant that vehicles are regularly stopped at it for customs checks and application of tariffs, then it is a whole different issue. This issue, Nationalists and some others suggest, could simply be solved by having a United Ireland.
Well, no. Placing Northern Ireland in a United Ireland in such circumstances would then place it on the wrong side of a “hard border” from what is by far its main trading partner – Great Britain. In fact, at a purely economic level (noting that if things were decided at a purely economic level the UK would not have voted to leave the EU in the first place), it would be the height of madness to swap the UK for the EU, given that the UK is many times more important to Northern Ireland’s economic and financial well-being than the EU is.
Therefore, that whole debate, not for the first time, completely misses the point. Irrelevant of constitutional desires, what Northern Ireland should be looking for out of the UK-EU negotiations is a gateway arrangement whereby it can trade as freely as possible both with the rest of the UK and with the rest of the EU.
It should be noted that Northern Ireland’s position in this regard is far from hopeless. The European Council (in effect now representing the European Union’s remaining member states post-Brexit) has already said that Agreements must be protected and the border must remain open. The UK Government seems rather more indifferent to the whole matter, but it too has no interest in anything other than a prosperous Northern Ireland with an open border.
Noting, additionally, that the race to the bottom on corporation tax now makes the case for lower corporation tax in Northern Ireland all but redundant, we now have to face the fact that the Northern Ireland economy has no “silver bullet” (if it ever had) to get it back on track. Why not replace a now redundant cause for lower tax with a “Gateway Arrangement” enhancing not just Northern Ireland’s economy but also its social well being?
Not for the first time, constitutional debates will get us nowhere; but a bit of creative thinking just may…