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2 February 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:41pm

Why threats to staff at the Irish Sea border are reprehensible, but entirely foreseeable

A month after the Brexit transition period ended, we are seeing quite how real concerns over border safety were.  

By Ailbhe Rea

Staff conducting post-Brexit checks on animal and food products at the Larne and Belfast ports in Northern Ireland have been withdrawn and inspections suspended over security fears.

These members of staff are tasked with implementing and enforcing the Irish Sea border created by the Brexit deal and the Northern Ireland protocol. They, in a sense, are the border, its main physical manifestation, and they have become targets of threats and menacing behaviour in recent weeks. This includes graffiti in loyalist areas of Larne explicitly declaring that port staff are “targets”, as well as what appeared to be attempts to gather workers’ personal information, including vehicle registration plates. 

Describing the risks of violence around any potential border in Northern Ireland is always morally fraught, whether that border is a physical land border on the island of Ireland or a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It is difficult to be clear that these are credible risks, and foreseeable risks, without also appearing to suggest that these threats or actions are in any way justified. But all of those things remain the case. 

[see also: The EU doesn’t understand the Irish border any better than the Brexiteers do]

Unionists have entirely legitimate grievances with the Irish Sea border, which has caused tangible disruption to the supply of goods to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, as well as, ideologically, representing a dividing line in a country that unionists see as one. That these grievances would result in credible safety risks for staff at Northern Ireland’s border control posts is both utterly reprehensible and entirely foreseeable. (The prospect of a physical land border on the island of Ireland presented the same challenges, but on so much greater a scale that there was an international consensus that it could never be a credible option after Brexit.)

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We spent years talking about concerns around border arrangements for Northern Ireland after the Brexit referendum. Now, a month since the transition period ended, between trade disruption, safety concerns and the EU’s crazy Friday night during which it nearly imposed a hard border on the island of Ireland, we are seeing quite how real those concerns were.  

This is the product of a political decision made by Boris Johnson, who agreed to an Irish Sea border having promised he would not, and by the Conservative politicians who supported it. But it’s also the product of many other political decisions, from the EU and Irish governments, who negotiated and agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol, the DUP, which initially supported Brexit and then didn’t vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and, to a lesser extent, other political parties in NI and across the UK who opposed Brexit and the prospect of a border on the island of Ireland, but were more equivocal about the impact of an Irish Sea border.  

The only ways we could have avoided either an Irish Sea border or an Irish land border were, firstly, to not do Brexit; to remain in the single market and customs union (which wasn’t compatible with most Brexiteers’ conception of Brexit); or to accept Theresa May’s UK-wide backstop. We chose an Irish Sea border. Now, all sides are seeking a political solution to the problems posed by it. But the answers aren’t straightforward, the future of Northern Ireland protocol is in doubt, and there are real people in Northern Ireland who can’t go to work today because of credible threats to their safety. One wonders if we made the right choice. 

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[see also: Podcast: why the EU Article 16 debacle sets a dangerous precedent for the UK]