By: Harry Deacon
The topic of Brexit is as irrepressible these days as the prevalence of politicians with questionable haircuts. Since the 2016 referendum, political, social and economic discussion across the UK has been dominated by Britain’s exit from the European Union, with little scope for respite. Over three years on from that historic decision by Britain’s people, Britain’s politicians remain unable to reach a consensus on how (and indeed if) to deliver Brexit. As the October 31st deadline looms, key figures in Westminster appear to be spending more time grappling with unlawful prorogations, minority governments and extension bills, than in Brussels attempting to negotiate a timely departure. While Brexit remains an intrinsically complex commodity, one unlikely aspect appears to be a primary cause for the current impasse: the Northern Irish border. The island of Ireland is home to upward of 6.6 million, however the impact for these people has been much neglected during the Brexit process thus far.
Today’s Northern Ireland is a political paradox. Although the ‘Troubles’ of the previous century garnered international media attention, many in the six counties feel their voices are not heard in the political process; alienated by the British press and institutions. For example, the ‘backstop’, much vilified by pro-Brexit factions, is a mechanism primarily designed to maintain the security and prosperity of Northern Ireland. However, as that October 31st deadline beckons, it appears increasingly likely that Northern Ireland and its people will fall victim of the push to deliver Brexit at all costs.
Boris Johnson is faced with two contradictory choices. Firstly, he can construct a customs curtain across the Irish Sea. This option would preserve the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, which seeks to retain the right to free movement on the island of Ireland, but would ultimately undermine the identity of the United Kingdom. With a separate pseudo-EU status for Northern Ireland, there would likely be a push from other pro-Remain areas such as Scotland to seek a similar deal, thus furthering divide within the ‘Union’. Furthermore, given recent losses for his government in the Commons, Boris Johnson is probably not too keen to alienate potential coalition partners; the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) support is possibly key in the next election.
That brings us to the second choice: reinstatement of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This option presents significant logistical challenges that perhaps haven’t been appreciated by Westminster. Vague buzzword terms like ‘frictionless technological border’ have been bandied about with little consideration for the fact that certain roads meander their way across the border several times, and that farmers have agricultural land spanning acres both North and South. The practicalities of managing such a lengthy border are overwhelming. Unless border patrol officers fancy chasing stray vehicles as they beetle across a field in Fermanagh to ‘the other side’, it will be a decidedly complicated task day-to-day. We all know what Trump’s solution might be.
But another potential issue now arises: who are these border patrol officers? What rational individual would knowingly accept a position overseeing what was once one of the most dangerous borders in the world? The Troubles saw 3,500 (mostly civilian) casualties, paramilitary ambushes along country lanes and a division of communities, friends and families. Yet for Boris Johnson, this option is far more appealing—he has exhibited little tangible concern for the welfare of the island of Ireland and is under pressure to preserve a borderless Union for Britain. EU bureaucrats previously adamant that a hard border would be avoided, now appear to be flirting with the idea. Perhaps Barnier et al are as fed up as the British public about what is now a 3-year Brexit saga.
These recent developments will worry Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The mood in Dublin was previously one of cautious contingency planning, and perhaps optimism at the opportunities for relocation of businesses from London to Cahersiveen. But now, as the prospect of some form of hard border and a return to violence becomes frighteningly probable, as Johnson prepares his chequebook to sweeten the ‘deal’, the Irish public are no longer just watching on in casual interest. Many also forget that 25% of Ireland’s trade is with the United Kingdom and a further 24% passes through the United Kingdom en route to mainland Europe. Despite this significant dependency, the Republic is and has been essentially powerless regarding decisions made in Westminster and Brussels that could negatively impact the nation for decades to come. Brexit was a decision taken by the people of Britain, but it could yet be the people of the island of Ireland who pay the pyrrhic price.