Author and freelance writer. Sometimes in London more often elsewhere




Persuasive writing


By James Maclaren, Oct 15 2018 06:06PM

The mystery of the whether Pakistan continues to detain POWs from the war continues. The families of the men missing for nearly five decades believe they are still held captive in defiance of international law in jails in Pakistan.

In the weak December sunlight, the Indian Air Force Hawker Hunter began a second run to strike the heavily defended radar complex set atop the Sakesar Mountain in West Pakistan. Its pilot Flight Lieutenant Gurdev Singh Rai knew the terrain well. He had conducted the same bombing run the previous day dodging the wall of anti-aircraft fire which rose like a curtain from the Pakistani ground forces deployed to protect the base. The 1971 war was only two days old and Rai was part of the enormous air offensive that would decimate its Pakistan Air Force opponents, cripple its navy and allow Indian forces in the east of the country to strike deep into East Pakistan and force the capitulation of its forces resulting in the creation of the new state of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Flight Lieutenant’s Rai’s short war was over. The hail of anti-aircraft fire from the ground batteries fatally wounded his aircraft. Rai crashed, and he was declared missing in action by his squadron later that day.

Two days later and four thousand miles away his younger sister Rajwant Kaur was sitting anxiously in the front room of her modest home in North London. She was watching the BBC’s evening news coverage of the war and alongside her was her husband and their landlord. Suddenly she bolted from her chair and went to the television pointing at the screen. ‘There,’ she said excitedly. ‘Thank-goodness there is Gurdev.’ There on the grainy screen was her dirty and battered but safe brother standing in a line of prisoners of war (POW) guarded by Pakistani troops. Relief washed over her. He would be safe now, however the war went he would come home.

But Gurdev Rai never did come home. Rajwant waited days, then weeks months years and finally decades for news, but she has never seen him or had official news of him since that grainy television picture.

How could this be? Gurdev was a POW and protected by international law. In theory when the conflict ended just a few days later with a decisive Indian victory, completed lists of prisoners should have been exchanged via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As POWs they would have been entitled to mail, fair treatment and should have been repatriated as soon as possible under internationally monitored arrangements. The 90,000 Pakistani POWs were rapidly returned but the unknown fate of Flight Lieutenant Rai is not an isolated one. When Pakistan produced its list of 635 POWs 51 Indian POWs from 1971 were not accounted for leaving their families grieving confused and over time to a large extent forgotten. The earlier conflict between the two countries in 1965 had left three other personnel still unaccounted for.

Suspicion that the men may still be alive and held captive by Pakistan continues. Over the years reports of sightings of the men who served in all branches of the Indian Armed Services have emerged. Dr R.S. Suri’s, father of Major Ashok Suri, captured in the 1971 war at first believed the army when they declared Major Suri as "Killed in action", Then in early December 1974 he received a smuggled note apparently from his son saying that he was well. The note had been carried by a released prisoner in Pakistan who claimed Major Suri was still being held in jail. To raise hope further, a second note from Major Suri arrived and was declared sufficiently authentic by the Indian Defence Ministry to have the officer’s official status changed from “killed in action” to “missing in action”.

Various other sightings of the missing men have taken place.

Major AK Ghosh was caught on camera by a Time newspaper report in late December 1971. A Pakistan radio broadcast in early December 1971 reported that Flight Lieutenant Sasoon had survived the wreckage of his Canberra aircraft shot down whilst on a bombing mission and was in captivity. The young wife of Flight Lieutenant Dhavale received his wallet which included her photograph and his scarf intact, but despite these personal belongings there was no apparent sign of his body near his wrecked aircraft.

Wing Commander Hersern Singh Gill was by reports befriended by two imprisoned Pakistani officers jailed in Attock military prison in 1973-1974 for their role in plotting a military coup. Other reports suggest that up to forty unaccounted for Indian prisoners were held in Attock Jail at that time.

A Sikh prisoner repatriated to India reported a meeting in 1983 with a Captain Kamal Bakshi who he had met while serving time in Multan Jail. Captain Bakshi’s sister is British and still lives in London.

As late as 2003 a Canadian Human Rights representative visiting Lahore Jail was called out to by prisoners claiming to be held from the 1971 conflict but was denied contact with them by his minders. Even more recently in 2012 an Indian carpenter working in Oman reported he had been approached by a fellow Sikh who claimed to be Sepoy Jaspal Singh and that he and four other Indian POWs had been held in Oman since 1975 in what would be one of the earliest cases of rendition.

Pakistan has always denied any knowledge of the men. As the years have passed the families faith in their own Government’s actions in attempting to recover the men have been shaken. In 1982 President Zia the military dictator ruler of Pakistan visited India. In a surprise move he agreed to allow some of the families to have consular access to prisons where it was suspected the majority of the 54 POWs were being held. Six of the families travelled to Pakistan although the heavily controlled visit yielded no sign of their loved ones nor clues as to where they might be.

There is an apparent unwillingness of the Indian Government to internationalise the issue.

In 2015 the human rights lawyer Jas Uppal from the UK charity Justice Upheld petitioned the Indian Supreme Court wanting the matter raised with the International Court of Justice as a matter concerning international law. As a result of her petition the Court received an affidavit from the Indian Ministry of Defence in which it declared that it had no details regarding 54 missing defence personnel believed to be held captive as prisoners of wars (POWs) in Pakistan jails after the 1965 and 1971 wars.

Ms Uppal has had the question of the missing POWs raised in the UK Parliament bringing the attention of the UK Government to the fact that two of the missing POWs have sisters who are British citizens. However, The Foreign Office declined to become involved referring to the matter as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Ms Uppal does not consider that good enough. “Two of the kin of the Indian POWs are British nationals who urgently need the support of their Government to ascertain the fate of their kin. The British authorities have good diplomatic ties to both India and Pakistan therefore Britain is the best placed to mediate in this situation.”

So far, her calls to elevate the case of the men has gone unheeded.

So, what happened to the missing 54 POWs? There is much evidence that these men survived the combat phase of operations and Pakistan has a history which continues of conducting ex-judicial detention. Its jails’ hold detainees which fall into special categories of prisoner which are determined by the Nation’s powerful security apparatus rather than the courts. Many believe that the fear of prosecution by the new nation of Bangladesh for war crimes of members of the former Pakistan military held as Indian POWs meant that a special category of prisoner for use as bargaining chips against such prosecution was created. Over time the prisoners became an embarrassment possibly to both sides as the turbulent diplomatic relationship between the two countries never produced the right time to reveal their existence.

This view may be supported by the decision of The Red Cross to keep its records of the Indo-Pak war of 1971 confidential until 2035. The reasons for this remain obscure but suggest that details of negotiations between the two countries are too sensitive to be made public. That’s only a short step from explaining away the missing 54 as simply collateral damage as the two nations struggle to live next to one another. It’s unlikely all of these men have survived nearly five decades in captivity but it’s quite possible that some did. If so, they continue to wait with diminishing hope that their government and international pressure will come to their assistance and allow them to live the last few years of their lives in a dignified manner.

The men have never faded from the memory of their families who keep hoping to learn the truth of what happened to their loved ones following that short war. Numerous appeals for information and legal applications to both governments and the international community have led nowhere. Sadly, for Rajwant Kaur alone in a North London suburb, a serious car accident has left her confined to a wheelchair. Yet she still waits patiently sustained by the hope that one day her brother will walk into the room and they will be reunited.

Elsewhere when Indians celebrate December 16 as ‘Vijay Divas’ (Victory Day) the feelings of the families to whom the 54 POWs never returned will have mixed and muted feelings as they wonder whether their loved ones remain hidden after all this time behind a Pakistani prison door.

Note to Editors:

1. The Indo-Pak war took place between 3 Dec until 13 Dec when the forces of Pakistan surrendered.

2. Jas Uppal is a UK lawyer who runs the charity Justice Upheld (

3. Supporting images for the story are available.

4. The names of those 'Missing 54'.

Major SPS Waraich IC-12712 15 Punjab

Major Kanwaljit Singh Sandhu IC-14590 15 Punjab

2/Lt Sudhir Mohan Sabharwal SS-23957 87 Lt Regiment

Capt Ravinder Kaura SS-20095 39 Med Regiment

Capt Giri Raj Singh IC-23283 5 Assam

Capt Om Prakash Dalal SS-22536 Grenadiers

Maj Suraj singh IC-18790 15 Rajput

Maj AK Suri SS-19807 5 Assam

Capt Kalyan Singh Rathod IC-28148 5 Assam

Major Jaskiran Singh Malik IC-14457 8 Raj. Rifles

Major SC Guleri IC-20230 9 Jat

Lt Vijay Kumar Azad IC-58589 1/9 G Rg

Capt Kamal Bakshi IC-19294 5 Sikh

2/ Lt Paras Ram Sharma SS-22490 5/8 G R

Capt Vashisht Nath

L/Hv. Krishna Lal Sharma 13719585 1 JAK RIF

Subedar Assa Singh JC-41339 5 Sikh

Subedar Kalidas JC-59 8 JAKLI

L/Nk Jagdish Raj 9208735 Mahar Regiment

L/Nk Hazoora Singh 682211303

Gunner Sujan Singh 1146819 14 Fd Regiment

Sepoy Daler Singh 2461830 15 Punjab

Gnr Pal Singh 1239603 181 Lt Regiment

Sepoy Jagir Singh 2459087 16 Punjab

Gnr Madan Mohan 1157419 94 Mountain Regiment

Gnr Gyan Chand Gnr Shyam Singh

L/Nk Balbir Singh S B S Chauhan

Capt DS jamwal 81 Field Regiment

Capt Washisht Nath Attock

Sq Ldr Mohinder Kumar Jain 5327-F(P) 27 Sqn

Flt Lt Sudhir Kumar Goswami 8956-F(P) 5 Sqn

Flying Officer Sudhir Tyagi 10871-F(P) 27 Sqn

Flt Lt Vijay Vasant Tambay 7662 –F(P) 32 Sqn

Flt Lt Nagaswami Shanker 9773-F(P) 32 Sqn

Flt Lt Ram Metharam Advani 7812-F(P) JBCU

Flt Lt Manohar Purohit 10249(N) 5 Sqn

Flt Lt Tanmaya Singh Dandoss 8160-F(P) 26 Sqn

Wg Cdr Hersern Singh Gill 4657-F(P) 47 Sqn

Flt Lt Babul Guha 5105-F(P)

Flt Lt Suresh Chander Sandal 8659-F(P) 35 Sqn

Sqn. Ldr. Jal Manikshaw Mistry 5006-F(P)

Flt Lt Harvinder Singh 9441-F(P) 222 Sqn

Sqn Ldr Jatinder Das Kumar 4896-F(P) 3 Sqn

Flt Lt LM Sassoon 7419-F(P) JBCU

Flt Lt Kushalpal Singh Nanda 7819-F(N) 35 Sqn

Flg Offr. Krishan L Malkani 10576-F(P) 27 Sqn

Flt Lt Ashok Balwant Dhavale 9030-F(P) 1 Sqn

Flt Lt Shrikant C Mahajan 10239-F(P) 5 Sqn

Flt Lt Gurdev Singh Rai 9015-F(P) 27 Sqn

Flt Lt Ramesh G Kadam 8404-F(P) TACDE

Flg Offr. KP Murlidharan 10575-F(P) 20 Sqn

Naval Pilot Lt. Cdr Ashok Roy

Sqn Ldr Devaprasad Chatterjee

Plt Offr Tejinder Singh Sethi

By James Maclaren, Mar 14 2018 11:20AM

Following the brazen attack on a former Russian spy on the streets of an English city which to date has not provided the inspiration for an espionage tale, the UK and with less enthusiasm its allies ponder how to respond to an act of state terrorism. The reason for outrage is obvious: the use of a highly specialised nerve agent on the streets of a city better known for its dreamy Cathedral spire and traditional country market raises the bar on the murky intelligence sparring with the Russian state which has either decided to operate outside of accepted international rules of behaviour or, possibly worse, has lost control of the most deadly of weapons a class of which it continues to develop and refine.

The UK is bracing itself for the usual reciprocal expulsion of diplomats and will find a catalogue of measures which they hope will satisfy domestic demand for a tough response while making its anger at the Russian action clear. The Government is keen not to repeat the debacle of the Litvinenko affair where its slow steady reliance on judicial process simply confirmed the Kremlin’s opinion that Britain has become a weak state vulnerable and easily bullied. It will have noted the decline in the strength and capability of its armed forces, the political divisions which prevent unified action and the slow integration of financial and economic links which make decisive reprisals difficult to swallow.

It is no longer the binary age of the Cold War and the last twenty years have seen a progressive economic integration into western markets which make many of Britain’s allies uneasy at the prospect of moving beyond the ritual declarations of outrage and support. It seems likely that whatever package of punitive measures are put in place, the problem of a long-term strategy as to how to deal with a Russia which is willing to operate outside of international standards remains.

Russia remains a deeply insecure nation that demands respect and needs attention. It craves the empire it never really had and feels deeply the humiliation inflicted upon the country by foreign powers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its grievances include, the expansion of NATO up against its borders, a string of western military interventions undertaken with scant regard for Russian opinion and a desire to be free of the encirclement it feels, despite the vastness of its lands. An encirclement made more obvious by the rise of the nations of the Far East and in particular China whose wealth and power now dwarfs that of Russia.

In Putin it has a leader who is an unreconstructed product of the old order, when Soviet power, weight and influence, in particular by the United States, could not be ignored. As he engineers a further landslide victory in the forthcoming presidential elections, his grip and hold on the Russian establishment is stronger than ever. Despite the western mockery of pictures of a bare chested middle-aged man riding horseback in the Urals or fishing on a Siberian lake, to a Russian people who enthusiastically believe their own propaganda he is all-powerful.

In truth, economically Putin has been a failure. The economy continues to perform badly compromising the autocratic leader’s strategic ambitions for Russia. The economic marginalisation that is coming for Russia is set to one side while the state-owned media machine whips up the scapegoats of western sanctions to explain poor economic performance and generates support for foreign adventurism, which includes the seizure of Crimea, intervention in Syria and meddling in US and other elections.

The reconstruction of Russia’s military capability is a priority for Putin and represents a source of national pride. The rusting and rotting hulks in the harbours at Vladivostok and Murmansk must have been a source of irritation to the Russian leader and the reclaiming of Russia’s status as a great power begins with investment in the military tools that accompany such standing. As a Cold War era aircraft carrier chugs steamily through the English Channel and analogue non-precision cluster bombs are directed onto Syrian suburbs there is some way to go to achieve the military might that Russia clung onto during the heyday of the eighties. But we are back to Tupolev bombers circling Norway and the British Isles, submarine probes of the Swedish coastline, development of the modern domains of warfare such as cyber and of course as the events of Salisbury remind us, Russia has not lost its affection for the development and use of chemical weapons.

The real response to a Russia that will not conform to international standards of behaviour is to challenge it where it feels strongest. Russia adopts the tactic of the street gang-leader who demands respect with shows of strength and aggression. In the Cold War President Reagan recognised this and did what should always be the approach with bullies, he stood up to them. In the case of the Soviet Union he simply outspent them, forcing Soviet defence expenditure to over 15% of its GDP, a share that no countries economy could ultimately afford. It did so without the US economy having to pause for breath. Since then defence and security priorities have changed. The US and NATO have transformed themselves in a world police, focussed on the defeat of Islamic based terrorism and undertaking stability operations. With misgivings and warnings from some, military capability and force structures have moved away from the ability to conduct state on state conflict to meeting transnational threats. This may have to change.

So, what does this mean for Britain and what should the longer term British response to Russia be?

Britain is able to demonstrate some leadership by responding to the development of the Russian military capability in kind. It has a far bigger economy than Russia which could easily find the necessary defence budget increases to demonstrate to Russia that it cannot throw its weight around unchallenged. It can use the increase to fill the gaps in conventional warfare capability which have emerged as the UK’s armed forces have been hollowed out in favour of other political and domestic priorities. The arbitrary defence of meeting the NATO minimum GDP spending should be thrown out. It is in any case a spending limit which reflects a different set of strategic challenges.

Britain has to do this because it is unlikely that any other European nation has the mettle to go beyond statements and words that are as weak and feeble as those from Moscow are sneering and scornful. With a US that has returned to a position which follows national self-interest, there is no other credible western power with the capability and will to show the leadership the European Continent requires. In time its allies will realise that a resurgent Russia suppressing its fundamental weaknesses is a threat which must be addressed. Without leadership and example this will be a slow tortuous route to understanding that will be characterised by crisis and appeasement as Russia flexes its muscles. There will be no good news for many years.

Showing leadership in confronting Russia reflects Britain’s historical past in being prepared to do what is right rather than selfish or popular. The international community will respond, and Britain will not be alone in ensuring Russia learns to conduct its affairs within the accepted codes of behaviour or it will face consequences it cannot ultimately afford.

By James Maclaren, Jan 22 2018 08:33AM

Shortly the Government will release yet another defence review. In it, we can expect to see UK military capability conveniently redefined under the Treasury imposed expenditure threshold and expect it to say little other than re-emphasise the threats, present the cornerstone of UK defence policy as NATO membership and laud its special relationship (for which we can read reliance) upon the United States. It is unlikely to consider the flaws in this assessment, or consider what, in a post-Brexit environment, will be Britain’s role in the world. The principle purpose of defence review appears to be to address the gaping deficit in the Department’s budget. This most recent mini-review follows hard on the heels of a supposedly complete review in 2015 and is the third since 2010. To the cynical, UK defence reviews have become too political, too scripted and too frequent.

Ministers are proud of the UK’s record in meeting the NATO expenditure target of two percent, one of only four countries in the alliance to do so. While they gloss over the creative accounting necessary to maintain this achievement and prefer not to dwell on the mismanagement and budget raids which have slowly hollowed out the UK’s military capabilities. They prefer to point to increases in the military’s equipment budget headed by new RAF combat aircraft and the re-emergence of carrier strike capability. Not much will be said about the Army, which in particular looks in need of refreshing, particularly in the high-intensity combat area. The combined effects of sustained operations in Afghanistan, under-recruitment and reconfiguration to concentrate on operations short of high-intensity have left it ill-prepared to face a resurgent Russian military capability.

To many the need for a defence review seems unclear – what in the nature of threats and challenges to national defence has changed that much? The UK managed to navigate the end of the Cold War without a defence review and it was only the politically motivated Labour Party manifesto commitment to its SDR in 1997 that brought about the first defence review since Dennis Healey, another labour defence Secretary ripped up the defence song sheet in 1967. The answer that will be given to Parliament will probably be not much. But in truth a great deal has changed to Britain’s strategic situation and there is now, more than ever, a need for a proper review which does more than the usual exercise of packing a great deal of foreign and defence policy padding around what is essentially strategic defence mismanagement.

Part of the padding refers to some assumptions and constraints that Government is unwilling to confront with fresh thinking. For example, that NATO is a cornerstone of our defence policy or that the NATO inspired 2% spending commitment is the correct level of national treasure to invest in meeting the national interest. Recent defence reviews have broadly come to the same conclusions and followed the same narrative, the role of Trident, NATO, relationship with the United States are unquestioned and are taken as cardinal laws. As Britain considers its role in the world after departure from the EU then confronting some of these unchallenged rules of defence policy may be unavoidable.

Defence capability follows trade. The power of the Royal Navy was founded upon the need to protect the nation’s sea lines of communication. In a world where the UK begins to see its trade interests expand beyond the European continent, then a steady reversal of the Healey doctrine of withdrawal East of Suez will take place. It will do so at a time when the world has become to look significantly more dangerous than the decades in which Britain hibernated into the European cave and carried out its Cold War. Britain will need to stand on its feet again and to do so will have to have the capacity to act militarily and potentially unilaterally. International solidarity has limits and while NATO may just serve its purpose as a bulwark against Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, it is unlikely to have the appetite or resources to support its members whose national interests have moved beyond the continent or usual reach of the alliance. To suggest that Britain should continue to be Europe-focused for defence while it

s trade and commercial interests reach far wider, is not logical and defies the lessons of history.

An increasing reliance on internationalism for national defence faces challenge in three areas. One is that countries with different interests and outlooks cannot always be expected to support one another. US patience with Europe is stretched. Presuming that it would be willing to support British interests as it seeks a wider global role is asking a great deal. Second, Internationalism genders a false sense of complacency which is created by a multinational approach to capabilities and capacity. It allows nations to comfort themselves that renouncing a national capability is OK, because it is still there, just provided by someone else. But whether that is true or not depends upon the circumstances that it can be called upon. Britain’s interests will diverge from many NATO member states, and the need for autonomous capability that may no longer be available from an alliance partner will increase.

There is a third concern which has remained largely unspoken. The Americanisation of European armies has been continuing for some time. The reliance upon US leadership, military philosophy doctrine and procedures, never mind its unmatched range of capabilities is almost total. Any force operating in coalition with the US is obliged to follow its methods and conform to its organisations. Nowhere is American exceptionalism more evident than in the conduct of military affairs. It demands and expects from its allies, and it ignores that with which it does not agree.

The problem is that many feel the American way just does not work! The American way of war is weighted towards technology often at the expense of grasping the political, environmental and situational nature of conflicts. Americans assume the domination of technology will prevail and this leads them on a vast and expanding journey to build increasing technology and complexity into weapons systems. It is arguable whether the American idea that networking technology directing precision munitions has actually revolutionised warfare or has provided the crushing advantage over its opponents. Not only does a case exist to say that this view of war is flawed, it is too expensive for allies such as the British to follow. To do so requires expenditure on equipment so costly that forces and capabilities which may have greater utility, particularly in the lower end of the conflict spectrum must be sacrificed to pay for it. Continuing to support unreservedly the ability to ‘plug-in’ into US capabilities will result in possession of a few exquisite and tiny capabilities incapable of autonomous action. This presents a problem to a UK required to operate beyond the NATO umbrella or without the support of critical allies. Numbers still matter if a nation is to be able to win wars, or at the very least conduct major conflicts at scale.

The gaps in other capabilities which attempting to maintain technology alignment with the US creates, requires the UK to rely heavily upon US help during military operations. Key ‘enablers’ such as heavy airlift, command and control, strategic intelligence, reconnaissance, air to air refuelling give the Americans a de facto veto over future UK military operations. The US has never been shy of exercising such a veto if it perceived to be in their interests to do so. While the Government would point to existing UK capabilities in all these areas, they do not exist at the level required to conduct strategic autonomy. Slowly, but irrevocably, since 1967 and probably before then, the commitment to NATO, Europe and the US, with the exception of a brief ad hoc hurrah to the South Atlantic in 1982, British operational coherence to respond to national strategic requirements has been eroded.

The American military philosophy adopts essentially a centrist approach to the conceptual art of war. While it loves to consider itself an advocate of the manoeuvrist approach and decentralised command, it truth it seldom practises what it teaches. The US love of detail extends throughout its military organisations. The use of operational art, a military philosophy enabling junior commander’s freedom of action allowing rapid decision making within a broader intent, is quoted often, but practised little. The stove-piped juggernaut of American military planning and operations is widely emulated among European allies who seem unable or reluctant to challenge whether the huge planning organisations and the military bureaucracy they create, either work for the conflict they are in, or are right for their own organisations and capabilities. They mimic without question.

More worryingly as the challenges of the future strategic environment are confronted the reliance on the US may expose the largest flaw of all. They lose their wars, or certainly do not win them.

In recent years, Britain has been dragged into wars of the US making in which it has offered sufficient forces to share solidarity but not enough to make a difference or alter the strategic direction of a conflict. These half-wars, high in human cost and expensive have demonstrated British strategic weakness. There is an argument for a significant increase in the amount of national hard power which Britain can deploy accompanied by an increased reliance upon its own military philosophy and notions of using combat power which are both distinctive and effective. It is normal for the UK to deploy small formations and individuals to conflict environments and achieve success through their own wit and resources. To do so they understand the human environment and the interactions and interdependencies between combatants and civilians. This is at odds with an American approach which utilises mass, kinetic effect and centralised control, but which is less agile and able to adapt.

It is not as the misquoted Churchill speech suggests that Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, but a rebalancing of UK national interest into a global trade environment will require Britain to be able to defend its wider trade routes and interests. This will as true over the next decades as it was in Napoleonic times.

The need to lift our defence sights beyond the edge of Europe, be able to engage in high-intensity conflict without reliance upon American support and not necessarily in a way dictated by the US, means the willingness to develop a national defence strategy that will cost more than the comfortable, presentationally satisfactory limit of 2% of GDP.

The UK cannot aspire to global significance while hiding behind the European curtain of defence cooperation and limits on expenditure. In Europe, defence expenditure is largely about territorial integrity with minor participation in low risk small operations managed and led by others. The British defence challenge just became bigger. Increasing the UK defence budget to 3% of GDP is not just about filling in the deficit caused by bad management, it’s about changing the shape of UK defence strategy and building capability to meet future needs. Its deeper message would be that Britain is serious about becoming globally engaged and is willing to plot its own course on the world stage.

By James Maclaren, Nov 29 2017 11:25AM

The Brexit debate has been injected with some Irish blarney as the stakes for arrangements concerning the three hundred mile land border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are raised. Dublin knows its moment of influence is passing. If a decision is made in December to move the Brexit negotiations to Phase 2, discussion on future UK and EU trade arrangements, then it may be left trailing in the wake of negotiations where its vital economic relationship with the UK slips down the negotiating agenda. Aside from fears for its own economic well-being Dublin knows that treaty arrangements for monitoring an external EU border falls to itself, the cost and organisation of which it would prefer to avoid.

The Dublin tactic to raise the stakes have been initiated with spark by Leo Varadkar, whose comments incensed, with probable intention, the pro-Brexit DUP and many in the UK’s Conservative Party who considered the intervention lacking in gratitude from a country that preferred the UK for a 10 billion sterling loan during its economic crisis rather than the EU. The Irish Government demand, pressed with the solidarity of the EU, for single regulatory arrangements across the Island of Ireland is tantamount to remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union. The Irish side has attempted to fold in the widest aspects of the Good Friday Agreement to justify this position, suggesting the economic pillar to this agreement can only be fulfilled with cross-border engagement that relies upon operation of the single market, or something akin to it.

Is this true? To a point. There is no doubt that some aspects of cross-border cooperation will have to be adjusted to reflect new circumstances.

But there is wide belief that the dangers are being exaggerated to brighten the Irish side of the argument. One of the areas where exaggeration is suspected rests with nature of border controls in a post-Brexit Irish future. Certainly no one wants to return to the security dominated structures and operations which characterised the border during the time of the troubles. From the army’s small forts dominating routes into County Londonderry, explosive cratering of the Fermanagh country lanes to the helicopter and watch tower suppression of the dangerous terrorist country of South Armagh, cross border access was dominated by a massive security effort. But while some will attempt to resurrect this spectre of militarisation, in truth there is no comparison. The problem is one of trade not security. The ability of dissident republicans to generate a terrorist campaign is feeble by the standards of the Troubles and the cores aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are not seriously threatened.

This worrying picture of a return to a hard border is a fallacious one designed to generate uncertainty and fear. But that aside it confuses the debate and misrepresents what constitutes a hard or soft border. Is a hard border one defined by the level of infrastructure, or the levels of tariffs that must be exchanged as a result of whatever trading framework emerges? This is where the recent statements by Dr Liam Fox bring an uncomfortable truth for the EU to contemplate and go a long way to undermining the Irish position. How can the nature and extent of border control be determined until the nature of the economic and trade situation to be controlled is agreed? It cannot. This fundamental weakness in the EU negotiating strategy seemingly overlooked by a media more interested in UK Government division goes for the most part unchallenged.

The British approach has been to propose governing principles which they set out in a Paper in September 2017. This was much criticised for an absence of detail. Yet without the regulatory understanding that can only be brought forward with a trade agreement how can such detail be defined? The UK Government pointed to the technology that would be available to monitor whatever level of trade arrangement was finally decided and offered to lean into the operational problem with technology investment. Some might judge this generous, given that the widespread economic view that the presence of a very large, low tax, global trading economy on the border of the EU presents the regulatory and monitoring problem to the EU and Ireland.

Moving cross-border trade including consignment data and payment into an online environment would allow the operational movement of trade across the border to remain unaffected. Pre-notification and payment in this day of computer and online service technology may not be welcome to some, but in the context of the national decision to leave the EU is certainly viable. The volume and nature of cross border trade between the ROI and the North is unlikely to cause undue stress to any systems of control and enforcement. Alongside such a system the current Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland known as the CTA is able to continue unaffected. The future political and economic circumstances do not deny access for people to the UK, but will control employment. This is a matter for immigration policy with limited impact upon border controls.

A 21st Century approach to a revised economic relationship.

Is such a system watertight? Probably not. But the level of abuse is likely to be relatively insignificant and probably focussed on the local north south economies. Anyone with any knowledge of the border history knows that cross-border smuggling was just the way of the world. In places like Dundalk, Carrickmacross and Crossmaglen the view on the single market is that of a local benefit denied. Distant politicians knew better than to interfere with imposing the details of treaties on these border communities.

Of course, cross border trade will need some regulation and enforcement – but physically on the border itself? Probably not.

Let’s return to the security problem posed to security officials attempting to prevent or interdict the transit of IRA terrorists from their safe havens in the ROI and into the North. Many years ago, I completed a road, terrain and waterways analysis of the border between the ROI and Northern Ireland. It was not the first such study but it set the way for a technology based denial of terrorist ingress to Northern Ireland. In the current debate people point to the porous border poorly defined with over three hundred recognised crossing places. In truth, very few of these are suitable for the sustained cross border transit of HGV transported goods. Cost, time and poor access alone will prevent the use of a web of country lanes in any case further into the North and South they serve only to join up with the main arterial routes that make up the major road network connecting centres of commerce. The confluence of roads, waterways, bridges and junctions mean that the monitoring of trade can be undertaken with remarkable accuracy based upon a relatively few number of locations – none of them near the border. This approach allowed the mostly effective combatting of cross-border terrorism. The principle would work just as effectively for understanding and monitoring trade ingress and egress. Throughout the duration of the Troubles major authorised road trade cross border routes operated without significant impediment.

And the technology to facilitate this exists.

Developments in ANPR, CCTV supplemented by mobile DVLA and customs enforcement allows road transport movement to be pretty much reconciled with authorised cross-border trade. ANPR technology was pioneered in the UK and was deployed first in Northern Ireland nearly two decades ago. If it could frustrate the intricately planned and meticulously conducted operations of determined terrorists, the improved systems of today can comfortably cope with the regulation of road trade flows.

And it is done elsewhere.

Norway and Sweden have a porous border with the lightest of touches on operational control of the frontier. But they are both in the single market I hear the detractors cry, it’s not the same.

But it is.

The technology has no interest in whether it is being asked to monitor trade relations between single market members or across the Latvian border with Belarus. It just provides the data to the questions it is asked. The use of technology to control and monitor trade between the ROI and Northern Ireland is a powerful and credible enabler which is poorly understood or misrepresented.

The arguments being deployed by the EU and the ROI are largely synthetic. They understand well that the operational problem of monitoring a border with a non-EU nation rests with themselves. The current judiciously timed Irish intervention appears to be one to gain political advantage and wider influence over all-Ireland policy. The DUP understand this, the UK Government quietly recognise it. Whether they will seriously challenge it is a probably a matter for wider Brexit negotiation.

Not for the first time the Irish are being asked to do their part in controlling a border they have been historically reluctant to do. This time they may not avoid the responsibility.

By James Maclaren, Aug 27 2016 08:21PM

The beauty of waiting to comment on a major political and social event like Brexit is that there is more to say once events have unfolded slightly. If the mist shrouding the unknown has not gone away, there are gaps emerging through which we can glimpse how events may unfold. Two months have passed from the vote, which surprised both the Conservative leadership who believed the modest and vaguely insulting ‘renegotiation of Britain’s membership’ would quell dissent with the federalist direction of Brussels and the EU itself, which thought that Britain would not dare. The debate has changed from ‘whether we would leave’ to how ‘we will leave’.

That’s not to say that the Remain camp has given up the charge. Far from it: the political and legal ripples will continue for some time to come. Theresa May’s preferred position is to trigger Article 50 as soon as her government is in a position to conduct negotiations and she intends to do so without the involvement of Parliament. A legal challenge to this based upon the sovereignty of Parliament is almost inevitable. So be it. Whether she has her way or not, it seems unlikely that MPs will ultimately defy a decisive vote organised with constitutional correctness – not if they want to be elected again and we can trust political self-interest on that point. British referendums are not Irish or Dutch events which are treated with respect only when they offer the correct decision and to attempt wriggle out of it would risk a political upheaval too grave to contemplate. Article 50 will be triggered and the 1972 European Union Act will be repealed.

To many the journey post-referendum has got off to a slow start. They will lament Cameron’s decision not to make good on his promise to trigger Article 50 immediately. That he did not reflects the failure of his Administration to conduct any contingency planning for a ‘leave’ vote. Separation from the EU would always be the subject of negotiation – and could not be pre-ordained in the way that many Brexit opponents suggest. If both the Government and the EU had taken the possibility of leave more seriously, perhaps an outline of the new environment might have been visualised – more fool them. The need now to take some time to organise affairs around a departure strategy is not the fault of the Leave campaign – policy and plans can only be undertaken by government. The referendum decision determined the new strategic relationship according to the will of the British people; it is for the Government of the day to organise the detail of affairs in accordance with.

This includes the negotiation any future commercial relationships with the EU and its member states. It is important to remember the member states. The focus has been on the EU as if this organisation is sovereign. It is not, although clearly a number of its bureaucrats believe it should be. Behind the bruised egos of an EU elite the member states realise that that their own economies continue to need a strong relationship with the UK. Slowly but surely their pragmatic self-interest will influence the EU Brexit direction. The UK understands that it requires a steady flow of migrant labour from both the skilled and unskilled EU labour pools. The negotiation that will take place will be about calibrating access to EU markets at the best conditions possible without having to accept freedom of movement, replacing it with a controlled system of immigration – probably and quite properly on favourable terms.

The UK remains an economic power capable of prosperous and independent global trade, it seems difficult to understand why anyone doubts that – after all the economy is bigger than those of Australia, Canada, South Africa, South Korea and is not so far behind Japan, None of these nations feel the need to belong to protectionist political unions to operate prosperous economies. Free of the collective negotiation quagmire that accompanies decision making in a 27 state union, bilateral trade deals with other countries will be relatively simple. These deals, over time, will more than compensate for the upheaval of negotiating an economic relationship with the EU.

But most importantly the political and legal relationship has changed. Whatever the terms of access to the single market is finally decided, it will be an economic arrangement and not part of a political federal union, which lurches from crisis to crisis and seems set for increasing division and continued decline. That separation of powers was at the heart of the decision to leave the EU.