The Brexit Beartraps, #1: The Irish border issue

The first in a new series looking at some of the practical problems around Brexit.

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Okay, so what definitely fictitious problem have you remoaners made up in an attempt to stymie the will of the people now?

This is one you didn’t hear about during the referendum campaign, and it’s only a tiny thing, really, so you can be forgiven for not knowing about it. It’s this: Brexit could re-ignite the Troubles.

Or, to put it less euphemistically: it’s possible Brexit could trigger a return to armed conflict in Northern Ireland.

Don’t be ridiculous.

I wish I were, but it’s not me saying this. It’s Sir John Major, who back in March said that “uncertainties over border restrictions between Ulster and the Republic are a serious threat – to the UK, to the peace process, and for Ireland, North and South”. Sir John, you’ll recall, was involved in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, so he should know.

Always said he seemed a bit hysterical.

Much of the Good Friday Agreement, after all, was predicated on the assumption of both EU membership, and free movement between the two halves of Ireland. This, the writer Seamas O’Reilly tweeted immediately after the referendum, was “just enough to comfort nationalists, but not closer enough to a united Ireland to antagonise unionists”.

When the UK leaves the EU, dragging Northern Ireland behind it, it won’t just endanger that cross-border co-operation: it’s very likely to require a harder border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland. And “a border,” the University of Liverpool politics profession Jonathan Tonge told me earlier this week, “is the one thing that could potentially reignite violence in Northern Ireland.”

To be fair, it’s nearly 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, so it had a good run.

Well, can’t things stay as they are?

Not easily. At the moment, there are no border controls between the two parts of Ireland. Both the UK and the Republic are in the EU, so there’s completely free movement of both people and goods between them: more than 2m vehicles cross that border every month.

What Brexit will look like is still hilariously unclear – but the UK government’s position seems to be that Britain will leave both the single market and customs union. If we leave the latter, then you’d expect customs checks at the UK/Ireland border, to make sure the importer is paying the relevant tariffs, and to make sure nobody is sneaking sub-standard goods from one market to another.

There’s also the tiny problem that an open border in Ireland would effectively mean an open border between the UK and the EU. This would make a mockery of the obviously stupid but equally obviously popular idea we’re taking back control of our borders.

Yes, quite, we should do that. A hard border between the UK and Ireland it is, then.

Well, no, that’s not going to work, either. For one thing the border is 310 miles long: short of going all Donald Trump and building a wall it’s probably not defensible. Secondly, plenty of people live in one part of Ireland and work in the other, so it’d do untold economic damage, too.

And oh yes – there’s the tiny matter of the peace process. In April, the socialist Northern Irish politician Eamonn McCann told the Guardian that a border would require 10,000 immigration officers – “That would mean there would be 10,000 sitting ducks along the border.” McCann was pro-Brexit (the EU is neo-liberal, you see): his point was that a border was a non-starter.

At any rate, it’s pretty clear that Brexit will necessitate the existence of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even though such a border is effectively impossible. Great stuff, Leavers, fantastic stuff.

Stop talking Britain down. There must be other options.

Well, the one David Davis is pushing is an electronic border: surveillance cameras which automatically read number plates, that sort of thing. The Irish government, alas, has said this is a non-starter – and best one can tell, every other EU land border checks at least some vehicles.

Another option is to give Northern Ireland a special status in which it effectively remains inside the EU-

No no no you’re not getting us like that, you’ll be talking about keeping Scotland and London and Tunbridge Wells in next. Brexit means Brexit.

To be fair, the customs stuff could probably be solved by a fudge. “My own view,” Professor Tonge told me, “is that the UK government will simply turn a blind eye to the absolutely phenomenal level of customs tariff avoidance which will go on. The EU would like a border – but they recognise the sensitivities of it.”

In other words, we’ll all just pretend there’s a border there even though there isn’t, and we’ll just accept that some goods will move into our out of the customs union unmonitored. Sorted.

The real problem is free movement of people...

See? I’ve always said that’s a problem.

If the UK wants to control its borders, but doesn’t want a hard border around Northern Ireland, then that probably means tougher immigration controls for everyone crossing between province and the mainland. That effectively means treating Northern Ireland as not a proper part of the UK: which will be massively popular with unionists, obviously. It could also take us one step closer to Irish reunification.

Alternatively, since both British and Irish governments have also stressed their commitment to the Common Travel Area we’ve had for nearly a century, we could dispense with such controls and let people cross the Irish Sea unimpeded.

Exactly, everything’s fine, what you moaning about.

Yes, if you ignore the fact that can’t maintain the Common Travel Area while ending freedom of movement to the UK but maintaining it in Ireland; that the Daily Mail is inevitably going to have a fit when it realises Bulgarians can still get into Britain whenever they want as long as they come via Dublin; and that any attempt to institute a border to prevent that could imperil peace in Northern Ireland, then yes, it’s going to be fine.

Or – just a thought – we could cancel Brexit.

You know, smug Remoaners who insist on arguing with fictitious Leave voters are exactly why I voted Brexit.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. He writes the Evening Call newsletter. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.