Bordering on the ridiculous
Bordering on the ridiculous
11 DECEMBER 2017 8:23 AM

Brexit negotiations are stuck on whether the U.K.’s border with Ireland should be a “hard” or “soft” one. Hoteliers in Ireland should be concerned about this, although the U.K. system is hardly set up for their voices to be heard. 

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not an island if the definition of that in sovereign terms is a land mass without borders with neighboring countries.

The U.K. does have a land border, the 310 or so miles between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland, and it is this border that might create a potential huge headache for hoteliers.

This border has been the scene of much strife over the last 50 years or so, most notably during the sectarian violence. Most commentators say a return to that scenario is very unlikely. Everyone is happy those days are over.

The problem for the hotel industry is that hotels do not usually change locations. It is their guests who do that, and borders of any kind represent barriers that can be the difference between a booking and a non-booking. Travelers do not like delays. They also do not like if their own currency has been devalued, which is what is happening to the pound sterling following the Brexit vote.

For those not from the U.K. or Ireland, or those not taking a special interest, this is why that border is again proving to be a headache and a definite thorn in the side of revenue and operating profits.

I’m sure hoteliers on both sides of the border are stunned by recent developments, despite U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on 8 December saying there would be no “hard” border, although May failed to give any more color on the issue.

The industry must further organize and lobby as to the devastating effect a newly imposed land border will result in. Ultimately, the imposition of a “hard” border might not be up to the U.K. but on the terms of any trade-deal agreement.

This border is the biggest sticking point in the U.K.’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union—not the divorce bill, not the status of mainland European employees in the U.K., which no one believes the government are that concerned about, not the businesses that depend on these qualified employees.

In the last U.K. general election, the ruling Conservative party narrowly won power, but it did not do so with a working majority of Parliament members. In order for conservatives to form a working government, they—with 315 MPs among the total of 650—had to rely on the support of the 10 MPS elected from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. (Also representing Northern Ireland is party Sinn Féin, but its seven MPs refuse to sit in Westminster and thus do not vote, which provides the Conservative party a little more breathing room in obtaining a majority in voting.)

So, effectively those 10 DUP members are kingmakers. The Protestant DUP does not want to see a hard border, and truth be told, few do. But a real border has to be imposed if the U.K. wants to leave the EU customs union. Truth be told, no one wants this, but what Brexiteers want is to be in control of immigration.

This to me is when it all borders on the ridiculous. Even now, with May saying the government has done a deal with the EU, it still feels as though in relation to the Irish border question, the can has just been kicked down the road.

If talk about having a hard border in Ireland is abandoned—as the calculated 30,000 who cross the “border” every day without the need to carry paperwork or to queue hope it is—well, that makes a mockery of discussions about customs unions and single markets.

And if Ireland has special dispensation, Scotland will ask quite rightfully why it should not be afforded the same privilege. Actually, it already did ask this question, about a second after the U.K. government said agreement was close on Brexit discussions with the EU, that is, at least “agreement” on certain points but not on the Irish border.

May’s 8 December announcement might appease some worries, but the government’s conduct on Brexit negotiations always seem to produce more questions than answers.

And that Scottish demand came a second after the DUP said they could not vote on there being no border, as that, for them, would mean closer union between the two parts of Ireland, which is anathema to them.

Confused? I might be, too, so please let me know if I am missing any salient points.

But back to the hotel business, a hard border would indubitably mean a reduction in guests. The government’s slavering to keep its party intact and stubbornness to see Brexit through—remember, originally May voted to remain in the EU—could yield far more serious consequences.

Hoteliers should be looking to make sure their businesses are as fit as possible to take on these challenges and come out smiling on the other side.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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