In the Brexit negotiations the European Council says it will ‘protect’ Ireland’s cross-border Peace Process; given ‘the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including… avoiding a hard border’. What can this mean? How might it be achieved?
The leaky land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is unfit for purpose as an external EU frontier, and as a barrier to immigrants entering Brexit Britain where the hard or real border is likely to be local seaports and airports irrespective of what happens in Ireland. Very few people North or South want a hard border re-imposed, but few believe Brexiteer promises about a ‘soft’ electronic border, and it is widely recognized that attempts to ‘harden’ the land border would largely fail and instead inflict serious social damage, creating a Bonanza for Irish Smugglers and Paramilitaries. Yet there will be a hard border and the only question is where?
Northern Ireland could suffer more from Brexit than other parts of the UK, and the Irish Republic more than other EU countries. The question of borders crystallizes these problems but – the good news – there is at least one possible solution.
Implementing it – or something similar – faces serious obstacles. For instance, Theresa May has other priorities and Britain’s exit could be disorderly. In the North a clear 56% majority, including about a third of unionist voters, was anti-Brexit, but the largest unionist party, the DUP, is pro-Brexit and out-of-step. There has always been a sizeable fringe of nationalistic right-wing unionists who prefer nostalgic fantasies of absolute British sovereignty to dealing with society’s problems – including ones created by conventional sovereignty. And the issue is inevitably entangled in Ireland’s unionist/nationalist conflict.
There are, however, some good omens for preventing a hard border on the island and retaining current island-wide free trade. The EU wants significant progress on the issue before starting trade negotiations with Britain (which could of course fail). Those involved in the negotiations all say they do not want a hard border. Understandably, they are not yet saying what they do want, but it seems there is no genuine alternative to the real or hard borders being the seas around the islands of Ireland and Britain with customs regulations applied at seaports and airports.
We already have the well-rehearsed official notion that Ireland is ‘unique’ in the Brexit context and requires a ‘unique’ solution (e.g., not creating a precedent for Scotland’s different situation). Irish nationalists in the North have been demanding ‘special EU status’ for Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the EU, although if island-wide free trade continues without a hard border that effectively means ‘special status’ for the whole island. Seen from the Republic’s perspective, it should benefit from a unique ‘reciprocal special status’ which retains access to markets in Britain on which indigenous Irish industries are highly dependent.
Here the most obvious basis for a Brexit damage-limitation arrangement is for Northern Ireland to join the European Economic Area which is designed to give non-EU territories (e.g., Iceland, Norway) access to the Single Market (persuasively argued in Northern Ireland and Brexit: the European Economic Area option). To avoid a hard land border within Ireland the wider EU-UK arrangement has to encompass border customs regimes not only with ‘the rest of the UK’ (i.e., Britain with or without an independent Scotland) but also with ‘the rest of the (continental) EU’, and with ‘the rest of the world’. To resolve the problem of the leaky Irish border in the singular, this must involve all of the island’s borders and being an island helps.
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This could safeguard all-island free trade while also safeguarding the South’s crucial access to British markets and the North’s to continental markets – advantages which should marginalize the opposition from unionism’s extreme BritNat fringe. For in this scenario, Ireland could go from potentially suffering most from Brexit to being comparatively advantaged. The island could simultaneously be in free-trade zones with Britain and with the continental EU. These larger zones would overlap in Ireland but would otherwise be completely separated from each other by the hard borders which Britain and the continental EU want for themselves. In effect the island would be an ‘intermediate’ space located within the hard borders separating Britain from the EU.
Princeton Professor Philip Pettit has detailed an imaginative ‘shared-space’ model of how the entry and exit customs regulations can work. These are always complicated, especially for people and goods which originate ‘somewhere else’ but: Customs regulations would stay the same as now for the entry of people and goods to the island from the continental EU and from Britain; exit to the continent and to Britain would also follow current rules of free movement for people and goods originating in Ireland – but not for those originating outside Ireland. For example, non-Irish EU citizens travelling from Ireland can be denied entry to Britain; and non-Irish goods – for example, cheap US hormone-saturated beef which might be imported to the UK but contravenes EU health standards – can be denied entry to the continental EU from Ireland.
This arrangement’s great strength is that much remains the same but it does have a weakness. Pettit sees the customs authorities North and South mostly operating as now for things entering and exiting their own part of the island, but there is no acknowledgement that their ‘shared-space’ needs shared or joint management (even if that annoys unionism’s nationalistic fringe). Here, partly thanks to EU involvement in the Peace Process, Ireland already has a basic infrastructure of cross-border institutions (e.g., a North-South Ministerial Council and a British-Irish Council) that could support shared border management that, in turn, can be made democratically accountable to both political jurisdictions in Belfast and Dublin. This is crucial, especially as trade patterns will change in new and perhaps threatening ways.
Solutions for avoiding a hard land border are available, but implementing them could be a struggle and popular pressure is needed. The EU may not owe Britain any favours but it certainly owes the vulnerable Irish Republic, ‘EU loyal’ to a fault. Northern Ireland, likewise vulnerable, will have a major concentration of EU/Irish citizens living outside the EU who may demand to be heard. Some Irish nationalists see Brexit as an opportunity to demand a border referendum on politically re-uniting Ireland – and a reckless Brexit might ultimately lead to that, perhaps even to a federal united Ireland in a confederation with Scotland and with both as EU members. But that is racing ahead into a very uncertain future. Such a referendum would be a divisive distraction from the immediate challenge of preventing a hard land border.
Instead of dreaming about or dreading a future united Ireland, the undivided focus should now be on stopping the nightmare of a hard border.
James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and a founder-member of the Centre for International Borders Research at Queen’s University Belfast.