There’s nothing complex about the Irish border

There’s nothing complex about the Irish border

Graham Gudgin on the border, the Good Friday Agreement, and why No Deal is nothing to fear.


Topics Brexit Politics UK

The Northern Irish border has been one of the major sticking points in the Brexit negotiations. The EU and its supporters continually invoke the border as an unfixable problem and as irrefutable proof of the folly of Brexit (and of Leave voters). An eventual ‘solution’, the backstop, became one of the most hated elements of the Withdrawal Agreement. Yesterday, Boris Johnson’s government published its alternative proposals, which include keeping Northern Ireland more or less in the Single Market for goods, but out of the Customs Union.

Graham Gudgin is an honorary research associate at the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at the University of Cambridge. He also worked on Prosperity UK’s Alternative Arrangements Commission, tasked with developing an alternative to the backstop. spiked caught up with him to find out more about Brexit and the border.

spiked: How have the UK’s proposals changed since the days of the Northern Ireland backstop?

Graham Gudgin: The original Irish and EU backstop would have kept Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and the Single Market – in the European Union to all intents and purposes, but without any representation in Brussels at all. The fact that this would put up barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and would make Northern Ireland a semi-detached part of the UK was of no concern to the EU. Indeed, that was an advantage to the Irish. But it was a step too far, even for Theresa May. She then suggested that the whole UK could stay in the Customs Union and the Single Market – again, without any representation in Brussels to determine what the regulations would be that we would have to live under. That was just crazy. Parliament turned it down three times. The EU has since returned to its default position of keeping Northern Ireland in the EU instead.

To Boris Johnson’s credit, he insists that the United Kingdom is a single customs unit and that’s how it will stay. What he has proposed is pretty close to what was in the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements report, which I was involved in and wrote part of.

spiked: Does this avoid customs checks at the border?

Gudgin: Any checks that need doing could largely be done at employers’ premises. For meat, for instance, the checks would be done at the abattoirs by vets, which is pretty much the situation now for Northern Irish companies who want to export meat to China, for instance – vets check that products meet Chinese regulations and that would be the same for exporting to the EU. It adds further checks but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

The complication here is that the UK government has guaranteed no infrastructure at the border, so you have to have some other way of knowing whether goods have crossed the border and need to pay tariffs or need to be checked, which is particularly important in meat, dairy goods and other food. Checks could be done in factories, and then it’s a fairly easy job to track trucks once they leave and for when they cross the border. With modern GPS and mobile technology, you know where these trucks are all the time. Of course, the owners of the trucks already need to know where they are all the time because they contain hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of goods. It’s only a matter of sending a signal via an app to a control centre just to say when the truck has crossed the border and when it has reached its destination.

Technologically, it’s old hat. It is not new technology. But, of course, the enemies of Brexit will say such technology doesn’t exist and will take years to develop. The whole thing has got mired in complexity, but actually it’s not that complex, really. European customs experts tell me this is fairly routine. Customs brokers from the Netherlands, for instance, say it’s close to what they already do if they’re selling a consignment from Rotterdam to Zurich, which is outside the EU. The customs declarations are all done online. You tell the EU system that the truck has left its depot, where it’s going to in Switzerland, and then it has to inform the system that it’s arrived. The only difference on the Swiss border is that drivers need a swipe card when they’re actually at the border, which we don’t want to do in Northern Ireland. But apparently that’s done merely for insurance purposes and the information from the swipe cards is virtually never used. So it’s something that can be dispensed with quite easily. I have also been working with Swedish and Dutch customs experts and they just keep saying all the time: this is fine, this is how it should be done, and this is more and more how customs is done around the world. The idea of having officers in peak caps standing by barriers at the border is laughably archaic to them.

spiked: What do you make of the arguments that the Irish border is different either because of either the Common Travel Area or the Good Friday Agreement?

Gudgin: There was never any question of changing the Common Travel Area and stopping individuals after Brexit. Although, interestingly, I keep hearing stories from neighbours (I still have a house in Northern Ireland, having lived and worked there for 25 years). They tell me that they’ve been on the airport bus from Belfast to Dublin Airport and the bus is stopped on the Irish side of the border and some people are taken off. In the instances I’ve heard about, those people have all got dark skin. It looks like the Irish police are doing this at the same time as the Irish government is saying we must have no checks at the border. It’s absurd. And of course it’s getting no publicity, because so many of the authorities are opposed to Brexit.

I must say, I always smile when anyone brings up the Good Friday Agreement in relation to Brexit because you know they are skating on thin ice. Very few of them know anything about the Good Friday Agreement. The word ‘border’ doesn’t appear in the Good Friday Agreement. I was a special adviser to David Trimble, first minister of Northern Ireland, when he was setting up the Northern Ireland Assembly immediately after the Good Friday Agreement. I knew the Good Friday Agreement almost off by heart. It also has virtually no mention of the EU.

BBC News recently had some young reporter standing at the border saying that border controls were abolished due to the Good Friday Agreement and that’s absolutely not true. The border controls were removed in 1993, due to the Maastricht Agreement. But people confuse these controls with army posts, which were there for terrorism, not for customs. The customs controls were actually removed in the middle of the Troubles.

The British government has always said that they won’t erect any infrastructure at the border. And the main reason for that isn’t to do with the Good Friday Agreement, either – it’s because of the police. Even if you had something as minor as vehicle number-plate recognition cameras at the border, that would just be an invitation for the relatively small number of dissident republicans to shoot them up. Then someone would have to go and repair them. And the police don’t want to be in a position of having to guard people who are up poles trying to mend cameras at the border. That just puts policemen in harm’s way. So the British government says we won’t have anything at the border, we won’t have cameras, we’ll have nothing and we’ll do it a different way. But luckily, it can be done a different way. It can be done electronically now in the modern world. And as I was saying before, the customs experts from Europe that I talk to say that’s the way to do it anyway, irrespective of any problems of violence or anything else.

If you argue, particularly with Irish government spokespersons, about this and say that the technology can do it, there’s a flick of the hips and a change of tone. They then say: it isn’t actually about customs at all, it’s about identity. And that’s where the Good Friday Agreement comes in. The Irish change the question as soon as you have an answer. And having lived in Northern Ireland for many years, it’s not a big or convincing issue. There will be almost nothing for people to object to. If nobody’s stopped at the border and no trucks are stopped at the border, most of the public, I think, will notice no great difference at all.

spiked: But no matter how sensible any proposal may be, can the EU not simply veto it? Especially as the backstop was so advantageous to them?

Gudgin: Yes, that’s the story of these negotiations. The EU thinks it has the power to dictate terms — and with the British parliament and British courts behind them, who’s to say that they haven’t? The opposite view that one or two Tory MPs have put to me is that even if they can just reject any proposals, the EU needs to have Brexit finished. The continual extensions and never reaching any conclusion means that Brexit is taking up a lot of the EU’s time and distracting from other issues that it thinks are more important. They really need to get this done, and so they will be in the market for a deal. We’re in the position now where we’re about to see whether that’s true or not.

I remember talking to a former senior Australian diplomat immediately after the referendum result. He had a lot of experience in trade negotiations between Australia and the EU. He said, ‘Don’t listen to a thing that EU trade negotiators say until the last three weeks of the negotiations, because that’s when everything gets sorted’. Ironically, parliament keeps trying to stop us from reaching those last three weeks… But as you were perhaps suggesting in your question, I think the EU still has the whip hand in many ways. If they’re sensible and they really want this sorted, then perhaps some variant of Boris Johnson’s deal may be agreed, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it.

spiked: Is No Deal anything to fear?

Gudgin: No, I don’t think so. My colleagues and I at Cambridge have examined in great detail the reports from the Treasury and the OECD and other bodies which all said that Brexit and particularly No Deal would be very damaging for the UK economy. There were four of us in a research group and my colleagues voted Remain. I think we’re the only research group that’s fully replicated, for instance, the Treasury’s projections. We found that their methods were deeply flawed. We needed a million pieces of trade data to do it. It was a big job. It took us months. But we found out that what they did was indefensible. My view is the Treasury’s role in the whole Brexit debate is a constitutional outrage.

Lots of companies and the media also tell us outlandish, bizarre stories about food shortages and medicine shortages. All of that comes down to congestion, particularly at one port: Dover. Dover is the ninth biggest port in the UK and it’s responsible for just five per cent of our imports. And it’s very unlikely that there will be any congestion at Dover anyway, partly because Calais has tried very hard to put new infrastructure and new arrangements in place so that there aren’t any problems on their side. The great problem for Calais is that if there is too much congestion there, business will go to Rotterdam and other ports instead. Causing congestion is the last thing they want to do.

On our side, HMRC has said they will prioritise ‘flow’, as they call it, over customs checks. So if there’s any possibility of incoming congestion, they’ll just let the lorries through. They have a checking centre in Milton Keynes, so if anything needs checking, they will just tell the lorry to go to Milton Keynes. So it’s unlikely that there will be any congestion. But everything we hear from NHS doctors and others is always conditional on this congestion. And the media, particularly the BBC, never pick this up. NHS consultants don’t really know anything about customs arrangements at Calais – that’s not their area of expertise. And yet, they are talking about it in the media, day after day, week after week.

I imagine there will be some short-term difficulties in a No Deal scenario. Having been in the EU for 40 years, having to bring in whole new customs and some regulatory checks and so on is bound to involve some difficulties. But I don’t imagine there will be any shortages. To give you one example, I’ve been told by several people that they have diabetic friends who are very worried about their supplies of insulin. Most of the UK’s insulin comes from a single Danish company. And you can go on their website which says that they have six months worth of supplies, that they are ready for No Deal and no patient will go without insulin, whatever the arrangements are. And of course, all the other pharmaceutical companies are in the same position. It would be a commercial disaster for them if they couldn’t get their supplies through to the NHS or to other patients. So all of that is just Project Fear.

The Yellowhammer dossier on the civil service’s No Deal planning that came out two weeks ago is almost in Monty Python land. Again, it was all about possible difficulties at Dover, but it relied on worst-case assumptions. And the worst-case assumption was that between 50 and 85 per cent of haulage companies wouldn’t be able to correctly fill in French customs declarations. And even three months later, most of them still wouldn’t have learned how to fill a French customs declaration. After six months, perhaps 50 per cent of them would still be in that difficulty. It’s just bizarre and outlandish but, of course, reported in the media as if it were a sensible assumption.

Graham Gudgin was talking to Fraser Myers.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Graham Gudgin

6th October 2019 at 10:03 am

Chris Topham says that there are 10 mentions of ‘border’ in the Good Friday Agreement. All but one of these are not ‘border’ but ‘cross-border’ which is quite different. The only other mention is to ‘border areas’ as a geographical region. There is no reference to the border and absolutely nothing about border controls. As a related issue customs controls were not abolished by the GFA (which does not mention them) but by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Army controls remained until 1998 as an anti- terrorism measure. They were removed when mass terrorism ceased.

KIERON Mcdonald

5th October 2019 at 8:15 am

All the EU really wants is country assets without a care for there welfare state as once written the pen is mightier than the sword & the EU now knows that without warfare it is easier to control a country without bloodshed & still create the German dream from what both world wars could not achieve total European control a superstate

Chris Topham

4th October 2019 at 7:34 pm

Graham Gudgin says that the word border doesn’t appear in the Good Friday Agreement. I’ve just searched the document and it appears 10 times.

Sarah Hayes

5th October 2019 at 8:01 am

Although it mentions borders. The good friday agreement is mainly about Peace talks and agreements between political partys. It’s a political agreement not strictly a border agreement.

Chris Topham

4th October 2019 at 7:22 pm

Just a small point, Graham Gudgin says that the word border doesn’t appear in the Good Friday Agreement. Just searched it and it appears 10 times.

Dean Jones

5th October 2019 at 8:39 am

So many unverifiable, anecdotal claims in this article. For example, the claim that “I knew the Good Friday Agreement almost off by heart. It also has virtually no mention of the EU.”

You can check the text of Belfast Agreement online. It clearly states:

“The British and Irish Governments …Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union … Have agreed as follows: ”

It’s easy enough for anyone to fact-check these things nowadays. I know why I think the journalist here decided not to do that.

Rory Downey

4th October 2019 at 6:47 pm

Think tank Transparify, which is funded by the Open Society Foundations, ranked the Policy Exchange as one of the three least transparent think tanks in the UK in relation to funding. Transparify’s report ‘How Transparent are Think Tanks about Who Funds Them 2016?’ rated them as ‘highly opaque,’ one of ‘a handful of think tanks that refuse to reveal even the identities of their donors.[12]’ Website ‘WhoFundsYou?’ rate Policy Exchange as ‘E’, the lowest score out of five for funding transparency.[13]

Rory Downey

4th October 2019 at 6:46 pm

As for the EU being able to veto any proposal, Article 50 enshrines that they have to negotiate for a deal, but international law, the GFA, usurps this.

Marcas MacAedha

4th October 2019 at 2:23 pm

Graham is of course correct, there were no customs posts operable from the mid 1990’s, I traveled constantly between Belfast and Dublin then and they were removed following the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht because UK and Ireland were obliged by superior law, EU law, to do so.
The key problem is not the relatively free flow of goods rather it will become the free flow of people as the UK economy booms post Brexit then foreign nationals will enter through the Free State and come to Britain through this part of Ireland, how could technology solve this conundrum?

Gary Owen

4th October 2019 at 3:07 pm

Free state! What year are you living in? According to the government’s own forecasts it’s Ireland that needs protection from hoards of English who will be looking for refuge from the damage done to the country by Brexit. The amount of people seeking Irish passports has soared in the past three years. I’m basing my opinion on published projections. What are you basing your opinion on?

james smith

7th October 2019 at 4:09 pm

why would you worry about british people getting irish passports and moving there ? Its a common travel area isn’t it, so they don’t need an irish passport unless they want to go to elsewhere in the EU surely ?

Pat McEnery

4th October 2019 at 5:56 pm

Is this Irish border issue a red herring. Reality is with WTO and the likes of Switzerland, Norway and infact all trading nations all checks are at source. This is just nonsense

Rory Downey

4th October 2019 at 6:36 pm

You do not understand free ports

Dean Jones

4th October 2019 at 12:56 pm

I’ve rarely read an article in which so little is based on verifiable facts and so much is based on hearsay and anecdote. A few samples:

“European customs experts tell me this is fairly routine.”
“Customs brokers from the Netherlands, for instance, say it’s close to what they already do.”
“I keep hearing stories from neighbours … They tell me that they’ve been on the airport bus from Belfast to Dublin Airport and the bus is stopped on the Irish side of the border.”
“I remember talking to a former senior Australian diplomat immediately after the referendum result.”
“The opposite view that one or two Tory MPs have put to me …”
“the customs experts from Europe that I talk to …”
“I’ve been told by several people that they have diabetic friends who are very worried about their supplies of insulin.”

This is not journalism, not the pursuit of truth or knowledge, it’s just a re-iteration of the remembrances of a retired academic.

The few claims which can be verified do not stand-up to close examination. For example, the claim that “I knew the Good Friday Agreement almost off by heart. It also has virtually no mention of the EU.”

You can simply check the text of Belfast Agreement here: It clearly states:

“The British and Irish Governments …Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union … Have agreed as follows: ”

It’s easy enough for anyone to fact-check these things nowadays, I’ll leave you to decide why the “journalist” in question here decided not to do that.

Gary Owen

4th October 2019 at 9:23 am

‘it’s close to what they already do if they’re selling a consignment from Rotterdam to Zurich, which is outside the EU.’ However Switzerland is in the single market while NI will be ‘more or less’ in the SM. The article bases it’s ideas on two situations which aren’t analogous.

Gerry Morrow

4th October 2019 at 10:37 am

Switzerland is not in the Single Market it trades with the EU on a series of bilateral agreements and has adopted some EU laws to do so.

Gary Owen

4th October 2019 at 1:22 pm

But the bi-lateral agreements are not the same. Is NI getting Schengen membership? The UK never had that before even before the referendum. Is Switzerland beholden to an international peace treaty Ratified by the UN? Apples and oranges.

Carlo Guli

4th October 2019 at 9:08 am

Until the EU knows they can’t rely on insiders in parliament to block no deal there’s no way we can get a decent deal approved. Whether or not we want a deal we should strengthen the hand of the PM and petition to exit with no deal. Let’s show parliament their position is against people’s will to exit. Yet a petition for no deal still languishes at less than 200 k signatures while nonsensical petitions to stop prorogation gathers millions.

Jamie Spary

3rd October 2019 at 8:32 pm

Reforming the EU is like joining the mafia and trying to make it a legitimate business. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” – sums up the last three years….

James Knight

3rd October 2019 at 8:02 pm

If there is a free trade agreement, there should be no tariffs to evade or collect. The EU deliberately and dogmatically tried to separate them, insisting on a solution to the border before any discussion on trade could be had.

Tell the EU to stick it. If they want to build a wall we cannot stop them. They are going to have to do better than Trump.

Pedro Dias

3rd October 2019 at 7:53 pm

Since UK will have to repatriate a couple of millions of retired people living abroad, why not repatriate British people living in Northern Ireland and deliver Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland? Problem solved. Borders closed, everyone happy…

bf bf

3rd October 2019 at 10:10 pm

No nothing JF moron

Stella Blair

4th October 2019 at 10:19 am

I’m sorry but there is a problem with your suggestion our wee 6 counties of northern Ireland are part and parcel of the union between the uk and northern Ireland so why should we be handed over to Ireland you know nothing about the troubles here and what we sacrificed for over 30 years of conflict with the ira and niw we have to put up with shin fein and other nationalist groups so NO THANK YOU we are proud to be british and no surrender

Forlorn Dream

3rd October 2019 at 6:56 pm

The integrity of EU borders only seems to apply if big business could be undercut by a developed nation (UK) flooding the market with cheaper goods through Ireland. Cheaper goods but of equal quality.
When its mass migration of economic migrants who could be put to work for big business, on slave labour rates, then the EU doesn’t seem to care. This mass immigration destabilises the workforce as they come to realise they could be replaced at any time. Also, if a few thousand of that workforce are butchered along the way then so much the better, that opens the door for ever more draconian laws coupled with ever increasing surveillance.
The EU is an evil empire in the making and my fear isn’t that we won’t achieve Brexit. My fear is once the EU has its military we’ll become its first target as we’ll need to be punished.

Dominic Straiton

3rd October 2019 at 5:44 pm

With the teashock stopping a “deal” Ireland has come to the aid of Britain. Many thanks. Perhaps we can forgive a couple of billion for bailing out the Irish banks. Dont think they should be able to vote in elections anymore however.

Eric Sheldon

3rd October 2019 at 5:07 pm

From what the EU is saying about the backstop, you’d think that they’re completely unfamiliar with the concept and management of borders, even though they’re surrounded by one.

Philip Hart

3rd October 2019 at 5:05 pm

The Common Travel Area is a massive misnomer. In principle it provides for the “free movement” of people between UK and ROI, but the practice is somewhat different.

Those arriving in UK (GB + NI) from ROI are welcomed as if they are travelling freely intra-UK between any of the four nations.

By contrast, anyone arriving in ROI from GB – NI being a special case, as outlined in the article – must show a passport or other approved identity document (

Seems somewhat one-sided!

Peter King

3rd October 2019 at 11:23 pm

Really? Everytime I’ve been to the ROI, by boat and car/foot passenger, we’ve been waved through with no checks on the ROI side yet coming back to UK every single foot passenger has had to show some type of ID when landing.

James Hayward

3rd October 2019 at 4:50 pm

I appreciate I am being a little snarky and reductive in saying so but I’d imagine that the Greeks, the Italians, and the Spanish are more than a little jealous of all the attention the EU is giving to the Irish border right now.

Forlorn Dream

3rd October 2019 at 6:51 pm

Ha! That’s a good point.

Jerry Owen

3rd October 2019 at 4:26 pm

‘The Irish backstop’.. why wasn’t this mentioned in the original ‘project fear’ campaign some three years ago ?
Such a serious issue ( ha! ) as it apparently is would surely have been top of their list.
It wasn’t in their list as it isn’t a problem , they just dreamt it up , a bit too late to be credible to most folk. I still think the biggest problem of leaving the EU is the apparent shortage Belgian sperm , that would be catastrophic to say the least !

Jim Lawrie

3rd October 2019 at 4:08 pm

The jumped up Varadkar talks like he already runs the whole island. I wonder how that is going down with the people of Northern Ireland.

“”We do not want to see any customs posts between north and south, nor do we want to see any tariffs or restrictions on trade between north and south,” he said. Tusk backed that statement up “We stand fully behind Ireland.”

Jeremy Bonington-Jagworth

3rd October 2019 at 2:31 pm

Remainers continually Remoan about the divisive, inflammatory, violent, even war-like (“surrender”?!) language of Leavers.

Yet they continually THREATEN TERRORIST ACTION if we dare leave the EU leaving poor Ireland split asunder?!

Jeremy Bonington-Jagworth

3rd October 2019 at 2:29 pm

Strangely you never hear of panic on the EU side about double the queues at their ports Despite Brexit.

Sorry, despite the fact they export twice as much to us.

Perhaps each UK port is twinned, or even tripleted, with two or three EU ports?!

Jim Lawrie

3rd October 2019 at 3:06 pm

The queues are a project fear, graphic headline grabber. If significant delays develop at one location, they will lose out to a competing port. With their jobs at stake, the workforce will soon sort it. Both sides.

Jane 70

3rd October 2019 at 1:46 pm

Professor Gudgin should be given more media time; what a hope! I challenge the Guardian, C4, Radio4, Emily Maitlis and Sky to give him a chance.

Forlorn Dream

3rd October 2019 at 1:00 pm

Here’s a man who seems to have inside knowledge of the subject and yet he’s telling an entirely different story to most of the ‘experts’ we see on the NPC media.
Who should I believe? Should I listen to a knowledgeable man rationally explaining how easily the border non-issue could be resolved using existing tech and systems or, should I listen to the rabid bleatings of useful idiots who seek to override a massive democratic vote?
Hmm, rational knowledgeable man or NPC bleatings? It’s a tough decision, lol.

Jim Lawrie

3rd October 2019 at 1:43 pm

That same media fixate on Dover, which handles less than 7% of goods, and diminishing, but presents the photo panic opportunity of queues of lorries. The electronic surveillance in and out of the tunnel is beyond the sophistication of tariffs.

What I wonder is how, post Brexit, The EU are going to collect VAT.

Jim Lawrie

3rd October 2019 at 12:19 pm

An absolutely top class interview. What a pleasure to hear from someone who knows his onions.

Jerry Owen

3rd October 2019 at 5:09 pm

Jim Lawrie
Your comment reminded me of the comedy series ‘Allo Allo’ in the eighties ( I think ) .. the bed ridden old granny eating her onion soup .. with the expected after odours !

Jerry Owen

3rd October 2019 at 5:10 pm

The EU ‘ French connection ‘ !

Rory Downey

4th October 2019 at 6:37 pm

The word border is used multiple times in the GFA, how can you take him seriously?

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.