Larne: The Northern Ireland port town that is Brexit in a microcosm

Larne: The Northern Ireland port town that is Brexit in a microcosm

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At a port inspection facility on the Northern Ireland coast is the cow that could save the Brexit deal.

The cattle compromise could unlock the backstop – a bovine Brexit breakthrough. Much rests on the shoulders of Daisy and friends.

I first heard of this facility in Larne six months ago. But finally we had the opportunity to visit.

Extraordinarily, the finer details of the operation of a facility operated by 14 people do matter in the last stages of a Brexit deal.

The key is that the checks here for veterinary health and disease management occur mainly on cargo arriving from within the UK. They are “Great Britain-Northern Ireland” or “East-West” or what might be called “Irish Sea” checks on trade.

Jonathan Guy is one of the top vets at the Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs, which operates the facility on land rented from the port operators.

He shows me the offloading facility. 100% of the approximately 10,000 cattle and 30,000 sheep that transit on the ferry from Cairnryan, 25 miles away in Scotland, are checked in some way.

About 10% are taken off their vehicles and checked more thoroughly in a maze like holding pen at the back of the facility.

This looks a lot like a border in the Irish Sea – but for livestock.

They certainly are sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks that have become important in the Brexit discussion about Ireland.

Mr Guy disputes the description of his facility as a “border”, though his inspectors do operate under the existing UK and EU laws governing the trade in animals.

The principle here is that the island or Ireland is a single space for the circulation and standards governing farm livestock. As is Great Britain. So Irish Sea trade, even when it is intra-UK, requires checks.

EU top negotiator Michel Barnier referenced the facility even this week: “Obviously in the future the island of Ireland will remain and must remain a single epidemiologic area, obviously.

“Such checks already exist in the port of Larne and Belfast.

“However they would have to cover 100% rather than 10% of live animals and animal-derived products, which would involve a significant change in terms of scale,” he said.

There would have to be “administrative procedures that do not exist today” but “the EU proposes to carry out these checks in the least intrusive way possible”.

This is a hint of what some sources in Brussels have been suggesting about the important physical implications of their backstop.

In the future, Larne’s animal trade checks will have to be the equivalent of what is known under EU law as a “Border Inspection Post”.

Larne will be treated as an effective gateway to free circulation within the EU single market, even if the UK leaves the customs union and single market.

And so that leaves Northern Ireland de facto inside the border wall of those entities.

For EU negotiators the logic of this is clear.

If the UK is to choose to leave the single market and customs union then inevitably that introduces border friction back into the trade between the UK and the EU, and the only question is where.

If both the UK and Ireland agree that such new friction and checks cannot occur at the land border, and that was agreed last December in the Joint Report, the only question is where, and for the EU the logic is in places such as Larne, where they already occur.

It has already attempted to “de-dramatise” the checks.

If the UK leaves the customs union, then customs and VAT checks could occur away from the border and only require a simple barcode scan.

Product regulatory checks could occur away from the border “in the market” too.

But there is no getting away from an intensification of animal and animal product “SPS” checks, negotiators have argued.

Thinking through how this would physically manifest itself on the trade coming through this small port is intriguing.

Essentially such checks will be an attempt to protect the EU single market, from the promised divergence of standards the UK says its wants to strike third party trade deals with the likes of the US or China.

For example, if the UK did accept hormone-treated beef or chlorinated chicken into the Great Britain supply chain, it is at places such as Larne that the EU would mandate it was stopped from circulating into the single market.

All such third country products of animal origin must be checked at an accredited “Border Inspection Post” under EU single market law.

If it is not on the Northern Ireland-Republic border, and standards are different, then it must be in Larne, or perhaps in Cairnryan, or just maybe, on the ferry in between.

This then brings us to the rub.

How can the UK negotiate new independent trade deals after Brexit for Northern Ireland?

DUP leader Arlene Foster was given an uncompromising message from Michel Barnier that it would not be possible to apply such deals to Northern Ireland without the consent of the EU, presumably to protect against the perception that future UK governments would lower food standards to win trade deals.

It is this in particular that has raised anger among the unionists, who just happen to prop up the government of Theresa May.

And the local MP in Larne? The town is a DUP stronghold and its MP is the uncompromising hardliner Sammy Wilson, also the DUP’s spokesman.

He picks me up in his white transit van, used to service his gardening hobby, and we go to a beautiful spot on the coast overlooking the approach to the harbour.

You can see the mainland from here across the Irish Sea.

He points to the arriving afternoon ferry telling me “there will be no border on that boat, no border in the Irish Sea”, and “never” will he vote for a Brexit deal with a backstop as currently being discussed.

He rejects the idea, as repeatedly suggested by Mr Barnier, that his town and the whole of Northern Ireland itself will reap a bonanza from being the only part of a third country able to export freely to the EU and all of its free trade partners, and the rest of the UK itself.

Legal and judicial coherence and the application of UK government negotiated trade deals to Northern Ireland is a red line.

And it is a red line that seems incompatible with that of Ireland and the European Union.

Echoing Conservative Brexiteers, he argues that now the EU acknowledges that some borders can be made virtual by technology, that should apply at the UK-Republic of Ireland border, in some way, and the UK should leave on a Canada-style free trade deal with the EU.

He rejects the idea that such compromises are required to protect the Irish peace process, and accuses the EU of ratcheting up tensions by using the issue for Brexit negotiation leverage.

Larne suffered during the Troubles. “Welcome to Loyalist Larne. UVF” was a mural on a prominent bridge.

This is not about a few extra checks on cows, checks that already occur, but about the whole raison d’etre of unionism, Mr Wilson tells me, untroubled when I ask him if he fears the electoral consequences if Brexit causes trade chaos.

He then goes on to make on camera a political threat to the government that relies on his support and votes to pass the bulk of its legislation.

It is a matter for the Conservatives who leads its party, but “healing the wounds” and taking Brexit “in a different direction” to ensure that the confidence and supply “agreement could stay in place” … “may lead to a different leader”.

Voting down a Budget or a part of a Budget is not an issue of confidence in the government he says, but might be in the leadership.

It is worth noting that the much-derided post-Brexit Irish Sea bridge proposed by Boris Johnson would operate across the Irish Sea from Stranraer, exactly to the point where I am interviewing Mr Wilson, in Larne, in his East Antrim constituency.

Larne is Brexit in microcosm.

A Northern Ireland port town of just 20,000, and yet for centuries on a key trading route. Brexit negotiation red lines cut right through the Irish Sea here.

A deal may be in reach between London and Brussels, but from this port town – with the DUP’s Parliamentary leverage over Number 10, the possibility of Irish Sea border checks, and the EU’s insistence that checks already exist – these waters look far trickier to navigate.

(c) Sky News 2018: Larne: The Northern Ireland port town that is Brexit in a microcosm