Donaldson complains bitterly that the Unionists in Northern Ireland have been let down by the Johnson government. That may well be the case - and it undoubtedly appears that there has been double dealing on the part of Westminster.

But when Donaldson was a firm advocate of leaving the EU, how did he think the border issue with the Republic of Ireland would be managed post Brexit?

Is he one of several Brexiters who are now saying that their problems might go away if only Britain would enter a free-trade agreement with the EU?

  • 1
    How "free"? Don't the UK and EU already have that TCA?
    – Fizz
    Sep 18, 2021 at 13:50
  • Critics say (ibid) the DUP wanted a hard border between Ireland and NI, but you'd probably be hard pressed to find the DUP admitting this.
    – Fizz
    Sep 18, 2021 at 15:47
  • 2
    Since when do politicians think the matters through to the end? Here we see all sorts of harebrained schemes voted into law...
    – vonbrand
    Sep 18, 2021 at 21:56
  • 1
    @vonbrand - Probably he didn't anticipate that the EU would go out of its way to use the Irish border as a negotiating tool
    – Valorum
    Sep 18, 2021 at 21:58
  • 1
    It must be noted that a free trade agreement is not a customs union, and countries that have a free trade agreement but not a customs union must have customs controls for goods passing between them.
    – phoog
    Sep 19, 2021 at 18:08

3 Answers 3


I can't find anything from Sir Jeffery on this matter before 23/6/16 but the view of the DUP can be summed up by Nigel Dodds (then deputy leader of the DUP)

We have come through far, far more difficult challenges to the political institutions in the peace process than this issue

So the DUP thought that this issue would be easily resolved by negotiation. Essentially the DUP thought that this was a non-issue:

[The peace process is] not going to be interrupted or disadvantaged by whatever decision we make on the EU membership issue.

  • 3
    How is this a position/ answer? There are three different requests from different sides: 1. The UK wants independence from EU regulations. 2. The EU wants only products obeying EU regulations inside their borders. 3. Northern Ireland and Ireland want an open border between them. It is impossible to fully satisfy all three because they partly contradict each other. Claiming it will be a non-issue that can be resolved through negotiation is just ignoring the situation.
    – quarague
    Sep 20, 2021 at 6:43
  • @quarague "Claiming it will be a non-issue that can be resolved through negotiation is just ignoring the situation." They might have thought that the EU would just cave in and agree to their demands.
    – nick012000
    Sep 23, 2021 at 6:16

Donaldson may have taken leave campaigners at their word when they said that the UK would either remain a member of the single market, or have unfettered access to it. If that were the case there would be no problem in Northern Ireland, since UK goods would meet all EU standards and the UK would be on a level playing field (i.e. employment law, environmental protections and so forth would remain compliant with EU directives).

For example, Michael Gove of the official Leave campaign said

“There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will remain in this zone.

“The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and the Ukraine would stay part of this free trade area - and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus - is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining UKIP.

“Agreeing to maintain this continental free trade zone is the simple course and emphatically in everyone’s interests.”

In April 2016 he added

“Outside the EU, we would still benefit from the free trade zone which stretches from Iceland to the Russian border. But we wouldn’t have all the EU regulations which cost our economy £600m every week.”

The countries he mentioned have all harmonized their laws and standards, in preparation for potentially joining the EU. Remaining in alignment with EU rules is required for the kind of access that they have.

Similarly, Dominic Raab suggested that the UK would continue to trade freely with the EU, of which alignment is an absolute requirement that all other countries with even partial free trade deals/partial customs unions have met.

“We’re very well placed, and mutual self-interest suggests we’d cut a very good deal and it’s certainly not in the European’s interests to erect trade barriers.”

BBC Sunday Politics, June 2016

“The idea that Britain would be apocalyptically off the cliff edge if we left the EU is silly.”

BBC Daily Politics, April 2016

Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Vote Leave, was of a similar oppinon.

“It’s clear the trade deck is stacked in the UK’s favour. EU trade is shrinking yet we are held back from striking deals with emerging markets as we’ve given up control to Brussels. The real question should be why our EU neighbours wouldn’t be clambering over themselves to secure a free trade deal with their biggest market.”

March 2016

Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market

Daniel Hannan MEP, April 2016

Only a madman would actually leave the Market

Owen Paterson MP, November 2014

Wouldn't it be terrible if we were really like Norway and Switzerland? Really? They're rich. They're happy. They're self-governing

Nigel Farage, BBC Question Time, January 2013

Increasingly, the Norway option looks the best for the UK

Arron Banks, Leave.EU founder, Twitter, December 2015

Even after the referendum, in July 2017 then international trade secretary Liam Fox said

“The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history. We are already beginning with zero tariffs, and we are already beginning at the point of maximal regulatory equivalence, as it is called. In other words, our rules and our laws are exactly the same.”

  • 3
    The problem is that the people you quote were speaking out of both sides of their mouths. I feel sure you will find as many instances of their stated rationale for leaving the EU being to "establish trade deals around the world". With whom was never properly explained. But membership of the Single Market would have scuppered that idea. However the Theresa May deal, with the Irish backstop, would, one assumes have involved membership of both the SM and Customs Union.
    – WS2
    Sep 18, 2021 at 17:28
  • Norway and Switzerland have customs controls at their borders, and if the UK had a similar relationship to the EU customs union, they would still have to have customs controls for goods passing between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
    – phoog
    Sep 19, 2021 at 18:11
  • 1
    @WS2 surprising that they are not called on it very often isn't it?
    – Jontia
    Sep 19, 2021 at 18:41
  • @Jontia Quite so!
    – WS2
    Sep 19, 2021 at 19:23

The view of the UK government as a whole was that the North\South border would be a soft border over which Irish nationals (and those with leave to remain) would travel freely as they did pre Brexit, and through which goods would travel using a digital permit system under which shipments would be registered electronically at their destination port and then verified manually at their destination port, and that it would largely be an honour system that was maintained by intelligence lead policing and spot checks to keep out bad actors.

This vision hinged on the EU accepting that Northern Ireland could contain two categories of goods. Those that were compliant with EU regulations which could be transported across the border with an electronic permit, and those which complied with domestic legislation, which would not be transported across the border.

In essence, if a company intended to export to Southern Ireland they would need to comply with EU regulations, but if they intended for their goods to be used domestically within the UK they wouldn't need to.

  • 1
    How does this answer the Q about what DUP leaders wanted?
    – Fizz
    Sep 18, 2021 at 15:39
  • 3
    @Fizz well presumably AZ is arguing that they wanted that. The problem is that what it calls for is something for which there is no such example anywhere in the world. It was always clear that persuading the EU to accept such a fanciful, ill-defined, and decidedly "oven unready" arrangement, was going to be a severely uphill task.
    – WS2
    Sep 18, 2021 at 17:34
  • 2
    There exist 50 examples of this in the United States alone. 52 if you count Haiti and Guam. It's how individual states in the union manage their trade relations and differing internal regulations. It's also how trade between Hong Kong and China is managed. The concept isn't new. It's essentially that only products intended for export need comply with the regulations of the country to which they are being exported. But this wasn't what the OP asked. The OP wanted to know what the DUP expected, and the answer is that the DUP maintained the same policy as the wider UK government.
    – user38958
    Sep 18, 2021 at 20:23
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    @AaarghZombies: The US does not have internal customs barriers at all. State-level regulations are enforced against whoever ultimately sells the product, not against whoever imported it into a given state (because "importing" is not a thing for goods moving within the US). If you take an interstate, domestic flight within the US, you are not asked to fill out a customs declaration, "walk through the green lane," or anything similar (except for Hawaii, which has some weird environmental/agricultural protection laws).
    – Kevin
    Sep 19, 2021 at 5:30
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    You took this off topic by mentioning the 50 states of the US. These states are part of a single customs territory with a single customs tariff and a single customs service. They're also part of a free trade area that includes Canada and Mexico, but there are customs controls on those borders, because a free trade agreement is a fundamentally lower level of integration than a customs union. Also the lack of immigration controls between the UK and Ireland was the normal state of affairs even pre EU, from the 1920s.
    – phoog
    Sep 19, 2021 at 18:15

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