Theresa May’s chief EU negotiator has admitted that he was “slower” to realise that the movement of goods would be such a central issue in settling the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Ireland.
Sir Olly Robbins – the man who masterminded Mrs May’s Brexit deal – said he believed the central issues were going to be maintaining the common travel area, rights and identity.
He also said he is not sure anyone would have read a document on what the border would look like in the event of a Leave victory had officials compiled one prior to the EU referendum in 2016.
On the issue of how central Ireland was to become in the unfolding Brexit negotiations, Sir Olly told the Foreign Affairs Committee in Westminster: “I think we had all, to some extent, professionally grown up in a world where the movement of goods was a really very boring and obvious thing.
“And the movement of people was interesting and politically controversial. And we therefore thought that the central issue in settling our post-Brexit relationship with Ireland was going to be the maintenance of the common travel area, and the mutual sustainment of rights for Irish people and British people in one another’s territories, and the sort of core of the identity problem that the Good Friday Agreement had attempted to solve.
“I think I probably – to only criticise myself – was slower, I hope weeks rather than months, to come to the realisation that actually the people side of this, while not being complacent about any of it, was, as a bureaucrat, an easier problem to see one’s way through than the movement of physical goods.”
Asked about a lack of contingency planning in relation to Northern Ireland ahead of the EU referendum, Sir Olly said: “I know debate continues to rage, rightly and understandably, about whether it was the right political decision not to do contingency planning.
“I do think – as I say, very personal view – you can probably overdo the extent to which a vast Whitehall process of churning out ring-binders full of papers pre-June 2016 would somehow have meant that the British state was far, far better prepared afterwards.”
Sir Olly added: “I think if my Cabinet Office colleagues, who were in post at the time or more generally across Whitehall – I was in the Home Office at the time – if we’d been asked to produce a paper on what does the border look like after a ‘no’ vote, a ‘leave’ vote, I think we would have ended up in a position whereby we would have produced what I hope would have been a good quality piece of work, but I’m not sure anyone would have read it.”
He said he will offer any support he can to those who will continue negotiating the future phases of Brexit.