As the outline of a revised deal begins to become public, it is important to consider carefully the extent to which an amended backstop or “alternative arrangements” still pose a threat to our union. The key landing zone seems to surround the idea of an all-Ireland regulatory area along with a form of customs arrangement, which will likely require certain internal checks within the UK. While at first glance this may appear to represent a material threat to our union, such a situation is not necessarily without precedent, both historically within the UK as well as the wider Anglosphere and therefore should not be dismissed in haste.
One of the best examples of differing domestic regulations can be seen in Australia, which operates some of the most stringent systems of internal controls in the world. Here, checks are carried out at land crossing points between states, as well as on domestic flights and include goods for personal as well as commercial use. Numerous examples of prohibited “imports” exist between states and include moving citrus plants outside of Queensland and even taking a fruit salad to Tasmania. Failure to comply with these regulations can lead to both a fine and prosecution. While Australia’s reasoning for such controls is namely quarantine based, as opposed to trade, such restrictions arguably go even further than those proposed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which would largely affect traders, rather than individuals and are likely to be far less systematic in scope than the Australian model.
Within the United States too, an array of differing regulations are also applied at state level, with specific controls levied on fruit and vegetables travelling from the US mainland to Hawaii. All of the relevant checks required here are carried out with a minimum of fuss and to my knowledge have never been cited as a threat to national unity. As much as it must be admitted that this patchwork of regulations has caused complications for the US in negotiating free trade agreements in the past, given that Northern Ireland only accounts for an exceedingly small proportion of the total UK economy, it would seem unlikely that such issues would significantly impact the attractiveness of the UK as future trading partner.
Even closer to home however, there are also several historic examples of Intra-UK checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Such controls began in 1930 with the Agricultural Produce (Meat Regulation) Act (Northern Ireland) and while I am sure few readers, as well as myself until recently, are familiar with its contents, in brief the legislation placed licensing requirements on the agricultural industry sending meat to Great Britain. These regulations were further clarified in 1962 with it being made a specific offence to send meat to the rest of the UK unless it had first been:
“Inspected by a veterinary inspector or an authorised meat detention officer under the supervision of a veterinary inspector”.
Such wording sounds bizarrely similar to modern EU regulations and while I have struggled to find evidence as to how this system was enforced, the fact that the information is virtually unknown today, I feel is quite telling in relation to any wider impact on national unity. It seems then not unreasonable to suggest that the Government’s proposed all-Ireland regulatory zone, at least partially, follows processes in place long before the UK’s entry to the common market.
Controls on animal health are also already carried out on certain consignments of live cattle travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland with such checks actually protecting Northern Ireland from the worst of the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. At the time it should also be remembered that, far from opposing such checks, DUP founder Dr Ian Paisley famously quipped “our people may be British but our cows are Irish”.
Turning to customs, this too is not an issue without historical precedent with the draft Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 in fact originally envisaging that customs posts would not be permitted between Northern Ireland and the new Irish Free State. While this clause was ultimately dropped from the final document, it is important to keep in mind that a desire to avoid intra-Ireland checks was also present long before the advent of the European Union.
Should a new agreement be successfully negotiated then, it is vital that we do not unfairly condemn any new terms which the Government may have agreed with the EU. Compromise was always going to be required in order to reach an amicable conclusion and while we need not accept a deal at any price, committed Brexiteer-unionists, including myself, can rest assured that differing domestic regulation does not necessarily represent a threat to national unity. Indeed, we should have more confidence in the strength of our 200 year old union, which has after all faced far graver challenges than internal regulatory checks.