Richard North, 10/07/2019  

To replace the Irish backstop, Jeremy Hunt tells us in last night's televised scrap, there are "three elements" to his plan. These, he says are "based on a 202-page 'excellent' piece of work by a group of MPs led by my friend Greg Hands". It involves: "first of all, mobile checks for food products, secondly a trusted trader scheme and thirdly use of technology, not new technology but technology that already exists".

A blustering Johnson went for the same, confirming that there was "no difference between us on this point" when it came to the backstop. He too wanted checks "away from the border" although he argued that if a new deal was not ready by 31 October, "then we do it in the implementation period".

And there, naked in tooth and claw was illustrated the utter fatuity of the contemporary political "debate" – two clueless candidates for the Tory leadership mouthing meaningless nostrums which, even that very day, had been rejected by four prominent Northern Ireland business groups.

Of course, if Julie Etchingham, the half-witted woman interviewing the two candidates, had an ounce of sense or political acumen, she would have seized on the response of these groups and, even with the material presented, could have demolished this gormless pair.

But this isn't how they do things in legacy media land. They whiffle around the edges, missing the killer points, coming up with a fudged morass of verbiage which fails completely to enlighten, and merely adds to the noise.

The purpose of this "debate" might have been to tease out differences in positions between the two candidates but, in this area, all it served to do was demonstrate once again that there is nothing of substance between them – two peas in a gormless pod, neither with an idea between them of how to resolve the Brexit impasse.

As for Hunt, he cannot even bring himself correctly to identify the origins of his own stupidity, attributing Shanker Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) fantasy report to "a group of MPs" – who had next to no input in the formulation or writing of the work.

It might have helped proceedings if yesterday's rebuttals had been given more prominence by the legacy media but one saw the BBC and others fall into the old trap of treating the backstop as local (Northern Irish) news, failing as always to look at or understand the bigger picture.

However, despite having to fight the national battle on a local front – with local resources – the four groups involved, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing NI, the NI Retail Consortium and the Freight Transport Association did tolerably well (although the NI Retail Consortium not so much).

And if one was to look for a reasonable summary of their endeavours, the Irish Times is as good a place as any to start. It forwarded the view of Manufacturing NI, which argued that the "Singham special" would "kill firms, damage consumers and inflict a level of surveillance on to Border communities which doesn't have their consent". It would, it said, "re-establish barriers" and "fundamentally disrupt the all-island economy".

In more detail in its online report, it noted that the AAC had offered "inadequate or no solutions offered for VAT, State Aid nor providing market access". Crucially, it added, many of its proposals "would require not only exemption or derogations, but changes to EU Law and Treaties which would require approval in the EU27 including through referenda".

When it came to the crunch, Manufacturing NI thought that the proposals "would ask businesses and individuals to trust in the delivery of a mass, complex mixture of derogations, simplifications and the rest". This is despite there already existing a solution which delivers frictionless trade on the island of Ireland which is supported by the overwhelming preponderance of business, farmers and civil society.

In this, the group took the view that it was "not clear that border communities in particular would give their consent to an increased level of enforcement, greater intrusion of HMRC and others, when it has been committed until now that there will be none".

This, presumably, was a reference to an earlier response to the AAC's work, where one of Singham's gofers had been told that full police support would be needed for officials if they tried to go into nationalist areas in Northern Ireland to do Brexit checks.

Adding detail, Manufacturing NI noted that many of the suggestions made on SPS "stretch the rules (exemptions, derogations etc.) a significant distance beyond what is provided for in EU law". For instance, it said, "the suggestions that inspections could take place at locations which are not Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) but there does not appear to be provision for this in EU law".

And, in a direct challenge to the competence of the report authors, it pointed out that "SPS is not customs". Given the impact SPS will have on creating a Border, it said, "it is perhaps advisable that the AAC Technical Panel would include a greater level of technical understanding in this area to guide its work in the next stage and before publishing its final report".

As regards mobile border inspection posts, the group acknowledged that there were "some flexibilities in the Union Customs Code" but none of those, it said, "removes the need for checks". Furthermore, it said, "Regulations on Border Inspections Posts are not covered by the UCC. So, again, there would be a requirement for significant Treaty amendment and approval from the EU-27".

Where the group really failed to score was in omitting reference to Singham's own claim than his Commission had "intentionally restricted our work to existing legal frameworks, administrative processes, software and systems solutions and existing technology devices to ensure that the ideas in this report could be agreed, implemented and tested within three years".

Yet here we have the trade association remarking that the core proposals in the AAC report have "no provision" in EU law, and that there would be "a requirement for significant Treaty amendment and approval from the EU-27".

Actually, we're looking at law changes rather than treaty change, but the point is valid. And since the EU has only just revised the whole corpus of law on official controls – which do not take effect until 14 December – it is very unlikely that it could be prevailed upon to change the law yet again. The fact is that Singham is working outside the current legal framework, inventing provisions that do not exist. This must undermine his own claim that his report "could be agreed, implemented and tested within three years".

Startlingly, one of his inventions has now reached the very top, with Hunt last night arguing for "mobile checks for food products". If only he could have been told, there and then, that the only thing the EU permits is the "mobile official control team", providing staff for dispersed BCPs performing controls on consignments of "unprocessed logs and sawn and chipped wood".

It is on such things, therefore, that detail matters, but where the NI groups acquitted themselves with less than full honours. The NI Retail Consortium, for instance, limited itself to observing that, "we know of no border where mobile SPS infrastructure operates effectively at the moment".

This, bluntly, is as weak as ditchwater. Indeed, there is no border where mobile SPS infrastructure operates effectively at the moment, but the reason for that is that mobile units – even if practicable (which they are not) – are not permitted by EU law.

Thus it is that a candidate for the office of prime minister gets away with uttering complete tosh on prime time television, and no one has to the wit to call him out, while the very organisations which could have hung him out to dry, drop the pass.

Therefore, it is not only the prattle of empty-headed media commentators which lets us down. Players right down the food chain need to up their games if we are to make a dent on the intellectual vacuum at the top of politics. As long as vacuity survives unchallenged, that's all we can expect from our politicians.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few