With all the tussles about immigration from mainland Europe, British commenters all too readily forget that there is another border, closer to home. And voters across the UK need to consider it as we head to the polls.
Belfast is a city which wears its past close to the surface, and the EU referendum has become part of a fraught landscape.
Walking through West Belfast last week, I was struck by the roads hung with Union Jacks and 1916 flags (no, not that 1916 – these flags mark the sacrifice of soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division in the Somme), and how many also featured Leave posters in residents’ windows. A few streets away, on the Falls Road, the Irish tricolour and Irish-language murals were joined by signs urging voters to back Remain.
Polling in Northern Ireland over the last few days has shown support for Remain (although the gap is closing), particularly among Catholic voters. But what could the vote mean for the province?
The border between the North and the Republic
I’ve heard people joke, when talking about border controls, that the UK should have little problem as it’s an island. Well, actually, it’s not. One of the biggest concerns for Northern Ireland is what would happen to the border with the Republic if Brexit occurs. Suddenly it will become a land border between a non-EU and an EU country.
Last week – the same week I casually took a bus from Donegal Town over the border to Derry – David Cameron warned that border controls would have to be introduced.
“If we were to Leave, and, as the Leave campaigners want, make a big issue about our borders, then you’ve got a land border with Britain outside the European Union and the Republic of Ireland inside the EU.
“Therefore you can only either have new border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, or, which I would regret hugely, you would have to have some sort of checks on people as they left Belfast or other parts of Northern Ireland to come to the rest of UK.”
Both options would be controversial. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said that a new boundary within the island of Ireland would signify a return to “division, isolation and difference”, with the potential to provide “an opportunity for others with malign agendas”.
What would happen to the Good Friday Agreement?
Brendan Donnolly, a former MEP and senior research fellow at the LSE, recently penned a blog post explaining that “it is not by chance that in the Good Friday agreement… so much emphasis is laid on the membership of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in the European Union”.
Funnily enough, the same people who don’t trust Britain to administer the peace process would also be unhappy with the EU leaving that process. Donnolly writes:
“Nationalist sentiment in Ireland since 1973 has seen the sharing of British and Irish national sovereignty within the Union as an important softening of the bipolar choice between British and Irish dominion in Northern Ireland. A DUP-inspired option for the UK to leave the Union will be seen by many nationalists as a reconstruction of political and even physical barriers between the north and south of Ireland, which the Good Friday agreement was designed to reduce…
“The UK’s continuing membership of the European Convention of Human Rights, which plays such an important part in the Good Friday agreement, is moreover guaranteed and reinforced by its membership of the EU. There are many in today’s Conservative party who would wish to use British exit from the European Union as an opportunity to terminate British membership of the Convention. This would be an existential threat to the Good Friday agreement.”
The question of a united Ireland rears its head
Of course, the campaign to remove Northern Ireland from British control has never really ceased. But Brexit would undoubtedly lend a renewed urgency to the question of whether the North should become part of the Republic.
Before the election, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said that the EU referendum must be met with “a seperate and binding one here in the North”. More recently, he has said that Brexit would constitute “a democratic imperative to have a border poll”, although he refused to comment on the possibility that border crossing points might become a target for dissidents.
The peace process
Aside from EU funding helping to regenerate Northern Ireland generally – they received almost £2.5bn of funding in the last EU funding round – the Union has also contributed to specific programs across the island, including specific peace initiatives.
Anyone who has spent much time in Belfast recently can’t have missed the general geographical distribution of “Leave” and “Remain” posters. And within Stormont, the DUP have been campaigning for a Leave vote and Sinn Féin for Remain.
More generally, there are fears that any introduction of border checks could reignite an atmosphere of conflict and distrust, as former NI secretary Peter Mandelson recently warned.
A situation in which Northern Ireland, and particularly the nationalist communtiy, vote for Remain but Britain (or, more specifically, England) decides to leave could be disastrous for Anglo-Irish relations.