Winding across 499 km of farms, fields, and forests, with nearly 300 crossing points, the almost-invisible border dividing the island of Ireland looms large over the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union.
Despite all parties to the negotiations – the British Government, the European Union, the Irish Government, and all political parties in Northern Ireland – stating their opposition to the introduction of a hard border, no solutions have yet been proposed which avoid such an outcome while satisfying the aspirations of all sides.
Those who grew up in Northern Ireland, or in the border region, fully understand that the complex issues surrounding Brexit and the border are not purely geographical, but are steeped in history and identity. Public discussion in Britain, however, including media and political discourse, has yet to reflect this complexity. Senior Brexit-supporting politicians in the UK have been particularly guilty of making egregiously absurd analogies – such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s comparison to the Camden-Westminster boundary in London.
Whether this is part of a negotiation strategy, or a genuine absence of understanding, is yet to become clear. Regardless, much of the attention has been ill-informed. Many on the Leave side, including elements of the British Government and media, have also expressed frustration with the Irish Government and the EU for their insistence on avoiding a hard border. If genuine, these complaints are truly surprising, given that Ireland has been clear and consistent in vocalising concerns over the border since the early days of the referendum campaign.
Prior to the vote, these concerns were blithely dismissed, with campaigners and commentators simply denying that the border would provide any complications for Brexit. Afterwards, the UK Government appeared to believe that simple statements expressing a wish to avoid a hard border would be sufficient to ameliorate all anxiety. That the question of the border would prolong the first phase of negotiations until December 2017 seemed to shock the Leave campaign and supporters.
Even then, the frustrations they expressed may have betrayed a lack of understanding of the situation – for example, Ian Duncan Smith’s assertion that the Irish Government was pushing so hard on the issue to gain advantage over Sinn Féin in the Irish presidential election. Such statements were received in Ireland with general incredulity, given that the Presidential election was a year away, the office carries little policical power, and Sinn Féin have scant hope of victory.
The eventual resulting agreement, expressed in December’s Joint Report, seemed to come as a bombshell to Leave voters. While leaving open the possibility of a solution as part of an overall EU-UK arrangement, Theresa May’s Government conceded to a fallback position of full regulatory alignment between the UK and EU to ensure no hardening of the border.
Even this, however, does not seem to have given rise to a greater understanding on the Leave side of the significance of the border, at least publicly. Boris Johnson’s Camden-Westminster comparison was followed by a suggestion from Prime Minister Theresa May that the USA-Canada border could provide a model for Ireland post-Brexit. Some, including a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have also tried to sidestep the problem by suggesting that the Good Friday Agreement has outlived it’s usefulness, and should be abandoned.
As these comparisons suggest, Leave advocates have focused on avoiding the immediate practical problems of a hard border. There is no doubt that these are significant. Even at the height of the Troubles, with most of the crossings destroyed, blocked, or closed, the vast presence of the British Army still could not control movement across. Now, with hundreds of crossings open, a hard border would require more infrastructure than possibly any other border in the world. Divergence of regulations is an even bigger issue, with agriculture particularly at risk due to the interconnected nature of the sector across both jurisdictions (for more on which, see the excellent book Brexit and Ireland by Tony Connelly).
Yet with the extent of Brexit envisaged by the UK at present, it is not possible to simply maintain the status quo. If the UK leaves the Customs Union and Single Market along with the European Union as intended, but retains a soft border in Ireland, goods imported into the UK could avoid Single Market and Customs Union regulations by travelling from Belfast to Dublin, and on to mainland Europe. Similarly, post-Brexit immigration controls in the UK could be avoided in the opposite direction, heading from Dublin to Belfast and taking a ferry to Scotland or Liverpool. In short: leaving the Customs Union and Single Market requires a hard border somewhere.
The EU has suggested that this could be the Irish Sea, due to the comparitive ease of checks on goods and travellers taking flight or ferry, as compared to controlling 300 road crossings over 500km. This has some precedent, with agricultural controls, for example, already present. Unionists, however, object to this on the grounds that it would further separate Northern Ireland from Great Britain, insisting that the entire UK including Northern Ireland leaves the EU on the same basis. They also argue that since most of Northern Ireland’s trade is with Great Britain, a sea border would be more damaging to trade than one in Ireland. There may be some validity to this – after all, if the minimal regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland has led to the northeastern six counties trading more with an island across the sea than the rest of the same island, even a soft border must be quite damaging to trade.
The British Government agrees with unionists, and rejected the sea border proposal. Instead, they have focused on potential solutions which are primarily technological in nature; designed not to maintain the status quo, but rather to minimise the amount of infrastructure required on the post-Brexit border, with the least possible economic disruption.
This entirely misses the point.
The question of the border is not simply about trade and economics, but cuts to the very heart of the centuries-old conflict over British rule and colonisation in Ireland.
A key misunderstanding seems to be in the nature of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This may have marked the end of nearly 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, but it was never simply about ending the violence. Rather, it was about solving the underlying dispute which led to the violence.
Almost certainly, this misunderstanding rests on a widespread lack of knowledge about the causes of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Often framed by the media as a religious Protestant versus Catholic dispute, the Troubles actually had virtually nothing to do with religion, but should more accurately be viewed as the latest violent expression of the historical conflict over the validity of British rule and British efforts at colonisation.
The Good Friday Agreement, building on previous political deals like the Downing Street Declaration and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, was a political solution to this historical political conflict, much more than it was simply a deal to end the violence of the Troubles. It was a political solution to unfinished business from the 1921 Treaty which partitioned the island into Northern Ireland and the independent Irish Free State.
The heart of the Good Friday Agreement is the Principle of Consent, which allows the people of Northern Ireland to choose whether to remain part of the UK, or to join an independent united Ireland. While unique, this sounds straightforward and democratic – but as is often the case, the truth is far from as simple as it appears.
The democratic nature of the principle of consent is not the issue; but rather the area over which that democratic consent should be expressed.
Nationalists hold no allegiance to Northern Ireland. They believe Northern Ireland should not exist. Irish nationalism holds that the entirety of Ireland should have become independent nearly a hundred years ago, when the Irish Free State came into being. At the time, the vast majority of the population of the island of Ireland supported independence from Britain.
Instead, the island was partitioned. The border of Northern Ireland was drawn arbitrarily; not on the basis of any historical significance, but solely to gerrymander as large an area as possible with a British unionist majority – a population only present, it must also be remembered, due to historic efforts to colonise Ireland.
In the Good Friday Agreement, nationalists made an enormous compromise. They accepted partition and the principle of consent within the present border – that Irish reunification would only happen with a majority vote in the present area of Northern Ireland. This compromise was not acceptance that democracy should prevail over violence – but rather that such a democratic decision should be effective only over the arbitrary area of Northern Ireland as an entity, rather than the whole island of Ireland, or over smaller areas – bearing in mind that the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, for example, have always had nationalist majorities, as has the city of Derry.
Acceptance that the principle of consent should apply over Northern Ireland as a whole was possible only because of the European Union. The free movement of people and goods north and south, facilitated by the five freedoms associated with the Single Market and Customs Union, meant that nationalists could feel connected to and part of Ireland as a whole, without a fully independent united Ireland. The additional principles in the Good Friday Agreement – recognition of Irish identity and citizenship, access to Irish TV stations, north-south bodies, and so on – were not enough on their own to balance acceptance of partition, but only in the context of the invisibility of the border facilitated by the European Union. Northern Ireland remained in the UK, but nationalists could believe that it, and they, were also part of Ireland.
Any change hardening the border, or making it less invisible, threatens this fundamental basis on which the compromise is built.
Some of the statements on the border in the context of the Brexit negotiations have spoken of a threat to peace in Northern Ireland. While dissident activity may be a risk, such statements go too far, and still betray misunderstanding of the problems and historical context.
It is unlikely that significant violence would result from a hard border. The Provisional IRA grew not simply out of the constitutional question alone, but out of the discrimination against the Irish in Northern Ireland by successive Unionist governments (which came to a head during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s), and the lack of policical options to pursue their cause due to gerrymandering.
With discrimination consigned to the history books, and with democratic options for the pursuit of constitutional nationalism at local, national, and international levels, there is no support within the nationalist community for any violent action.
However, no hardening of the border whatsoever, no matter how little infrastructure is required, could be psychologically acceptable to nationalism. If the UK, including Northern Ireland, were to leave the Single Market and Customs Union along with the European Union, their connection to the rest of Ireland will have been weakened by the British Government once again. It will be seen as reinforcing partition. In the absence of the foundation of the EU’s five freedoms, the political compromise would be fundamentally broken.
The Good Friday Agreement would have to be reopened, with everything on the table, including the geographical extent of the principle of consent.
Given the recent breakdown in negotiations over the re-establishment of the Stormont Parliament and powersharing Executive within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement, it seems unlikely that reopening of the Agreement in the context of having a harder border could produce a revised deal. Indeed, the presence of a harder border would likely itself preclude any revised agreement. Enduring instability would result, with divisive political chaos, and likely civic protests, including a risk of refusals to co-operate with the UK Government.
In short, Britain’s historical actions in Ireland place firm limitations on its Brexit ambitions. The alternative is the reopening of Europe’s longest-running territorial dispute, and policical conflict with their nearest neighbour. It’s time for the UK to realise, or admit: there can only be as much Brexit as the Good Friday Agreement will allow.