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Irish preparations for border checks bring home the reality of Brexit

The news that the Irish government has begun preparing for customs checks has caused alarm.

With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union, the re-introduction of some form of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic is, perhaps, inevitable.

In particular, after Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK will be leaving the single market, few can be surprised to hear that the Irish Revenue Commissioners have begun identifying possible locations for customs checkpoints.

Internal government documents, whose contents were reported in yesterday's Irish Examiner, are said to examine possible sites in Louth, Monoghan, Cavan, Leitrim, and Donegal.

Yet if the news is not surprising, the prospect of a reinstated border still has the potential to alarm – another reminder of the unavoidable impact of Brexit on these isles.

According to the Donegal Daily, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty has called the proposals “deeply worrying”.

“This is a major cause for concern for the island of Ireland as a whole, but particularly for counties along the border where communities there have such close social and economic links.

“The re-introduction of full customs checkpoints would cause considerable economic upheaval, and poses a very real threat to our economy and to employment on this island – both north and south.

Concerns have already been raised about services which may be threatened by Brexit. Cross-border health schemes that currently give Irish patients NHS access, for instance, may be at risk, according to UK government documents leaked to the Times.

For those in the border counties, however, the concerns are not only practical.

Although systematic customs checks were abolished in 1993, with the creation of the single market, it was not until the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were implemented that British military checkpoints were removed from the Irish border. The last major structures were removed in 2007.

Nowadays, road travellers from the North may not even notice they have crossed into the Republic until the first bilingual road signs appear.

Yet the border still looms large in the local imagination. Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, is from Derry-Londonderry, and grew up with a military checkpoint at the end of his street.

“The psychological dimension, and the political reverberations from that, shouldn't be overlooked," he tells me.

“The free movement of people across the border has encouraged plural senses of identity and belonging. It was never quite the European cosmopolitanism that some claimed but it was much looser than the traditional 'us and them'. With a reinstated border, we face a situation where the young in particular are expected to return to old identities and allegiances to which they've never really subscribed. Other borders, beyond the physical, risk being reinstated.

Although politicians would no doubt point out that there is a big difference between watchtowers and a routine customs stop, for some, even these proposals represent a worrying step backwards.

“Even if it does occur with minimal disruption, how long will it stay that way?” Anderson asks. “The head of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland has expressed concerns that border posts would be 'propaganda gifts' and 'sitting ducks' for rogue Republican groups, adding that attacks are ‘highly likely.’

"Should those occur, and security be stepped up as a result, it is very easy to see the border becoming re-militarised and the reassurances going the way of the Leave campaign's NHS funding pledge.”

Brexit secretary David Davis has promised that there will be no return to a “hard” border.

Last week, the House of Commons voted down a proposed amendment by the Social Democratic and Labour Party which would have guaranteed that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement be considered during negotiations to leave the European Union.

Speaking after the vote, Ulster Unionist Party MP Tom Elliot re-iterated comments made by the Irish ambassador, Daniel Mulhall, stating that the Irish government has “absolute determination” that the 1998 agreement will not be impacted by Brexit.

But the work on the Irish border suggests the practical side of Brexit may overrule the political principle. 

The Irish Revenue Commission have been approached for comment.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”