Brexit and Borders

28 Nov

There is a lot of noise about Brexit and the UK-Irish land border. It is not helped by injudicious comments by grand-standing politicians. Pro-Brexit Labour MP’s Kate Hoey’s Trumpian remark that the Irish government would have to pay for any border wall was probably the most injudicious of all. But if we stand back and take a look at the situation then a few things become clear.

The first is that this will be a hard Brexit. By its very nature the EU is a members’ only club. Forms of associate membership are available but the key dividing line is whether you are a member or not. The act of leaving the club, and of leaving a club whose fundamental aim is the standardisation of rules (and values) across member states, ensures a hard Brexit.

The second point that is emerging from behind the political noise is that the technical negotiations are a long way off finding viable solutions for the border issue. The UK-Ireland land border – like all borders – is a political creation. Crossing the border is an everyday activity for many people who live along the border (they cross to fill the car up with diesel, go to college, go to work, go to see their relatives). Many people cross the border multiple times a day. In order for that to continue to happen a seamless system has to be in place. Such a system will probably rely on technology (perhaps a smart pass system like in toll roads or London’s congestion zone). But the technical details, let along the infrastructure of cameras and the crucial detail of who pays for and polices this) have yet to reach the feasibility study phase. Quite simply a smart pass border relies on smart politicians to mandate very smart technocrats to work on this. So far, the politicians are still grandstanding.

The third point is that Northern Ireland will be different in terms of both the UK and EU contexts. The point is important and matters a great deal to Northern Ireland’s unionists. For them, it is crucial that Northern Ireland remains within the UK and its people have the same protections as everyone else in the UK. This is a bit of a fiction. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement already awarded Northern Ireland special status on top of its place in the UK. Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to dual citizenship (British, Irish or both), and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is conditional on people actually wanting it to remain in the UK. The 1998 Agreement authorises a referendum on the constitutional issue.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Ireland-UK negotiations on the UK-Ireland land border it is clear that Northern Ireland will be different from other EU-non-EU land borders. We have never had a situation in which a member state leaves the EU – a member states that contains many citizens with everyday links across that border. That will require all sorts of deviations from the normal.

It is worth remembering that communities along the border have lived with political boundaries for generations. They have found ways to subvert political borders through everyday activities of trade, love, family and culture. Those ‘subversions’ will continue. At the height of the Troubles, the British military had a chain of watchtowers and checkpoints along the border. They also blew up many roads to make sure that people only crossed the border along designated routes. Communities made their own roads across the border in order to avoid the checkpoints and the hassle. It is a useful reminder that people can be ingenious in finding ways to subvert political boundaries.

A final point is that there are few countries that can match the UK-Irish inter-governmental relationship. Attempts to find a way out of the Troubles from the mid-1980s onwards have meant that generations of civil servants have developed close working relationships. These reached a zenith in the mid to late-1990s and early 2000s as the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and bedded down. Many of the key players have retired and a few have died. But there is still a good institutional memory in permanent government to allow imaginative solutions to be found. The political timetable (possible election in Ireland and a precarious UK government) and grandstanding politicians don’t seem to help matters.

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