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The question of the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has been the main sticking point in Brexit for some time now. It emerged well after the initial talks about leaving began, back in the day, and, together with the more recent attempt by Spain to claw back control of Gibraltar as part of any withdrawal agreement, was never part of the original criteria for the departure of the UK from the EU.

To that extent, therefore, British negotiators, as well as the British People, are entitled to feel somewhat aggrieved about the way the Europeans have moved the goalposts and, at the insistence of the Irish, demanded the inclusion of the now infamous “Backstop” clause that requires Northern Ireland to be considered as part of Europe until a final Brexit deal is struck.

There is, however, another reason we should be concerned about the way in which the backstop has been justified. We are often told by the likes of Mr Blair, as well as nameless and faceless European bureaucrats, that it is essential to maintain the concept of one Ireland that emerged from the Good Friday Agreement, and which involved a commitment to the removal of barriers between the North and South.

Given the problems that were created by the border, and the opportunities for criminal and other related activities that arise wherever such demarcation lines exist, it seemed to make good sense. And for a time it has worked well. However, by invoking the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, many seem to be threatening the UK with a possible return to the bad old days of violent Irish nationalism and terror. Is this really want they believe will happen?

It seems that they are implying that the Irish are a people who are simply waiting for any old excuse to start up the Troubles all over again. For example, Mr Schinas, someone who you might not have heard of, (but who is, in fact, a Europe Commission spokesman who has spent his entire career in the European Commission), has just stated:

If you like to push me on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it’s pretty obvious, you will have a hard Border. Our commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and everything that we have been doing for years with our tools, instruments and programmes will have to take inevitably into account this fact. So, of course, we are for peace, of course, we stand behind the Good Friday Agreement, but that’s what a no-deal scenario would entail.

In other words, he is saying that if there is a “hard Brexit”, there will have to be a “hard border”, and a “hard border” means an end to the Good Friday Agreement and, therefore, an end to peace between the North and South. Thank you Mr Schinas.

Related Article: The Government plans for a no-deal Brexit

Who are these Europeans who now claim to have been the upholders, in some form or other, of peace in Ireland?  And how do they have the ability to start raising the prospect of a new wave of unrest in order to threaten the UK into accepting their terms? Though, to be fair to Mr Schinas’ comments were in part an attempt to make it clear to the Irish Government that there might be a price to pay for sticking to their guns on the Backstop arrangement. In effect, he was saying that if you do not think about relaxing your demands, then be careful what you ask for as you might force a Hard Brexit with all that that entails in terms of the setting up of a hard border.

In fact, there is, as has been noted by many, no real need for any sort of border regulations between North and South. The UK has no intention (it seems) of setting up controls – and according to Irish statements, they are also not contemplating actually doing so. So where is the problem?

All sorts of VAT and related checks can be carried out electronically as they are today.  The other “routine” issue is that of criminality – but again, unless there are major differences between prices in the North and South, that issue is going to be no more of a problem that it is at present. The third item on the list is security, and there we have to be very honest about what might change and whether it might lead to increased threats to the UK.

Today, as the UK is not part of the Schengen area, you cannot travel from the UK to Europe (or back), without showing a passport or valid ID. However, neither is Ireland in the Schengen Area.  Within the island of Ireland, there is a Common Travel Area with passport-free travel between Southern Ireland and the UK, as well as the three British Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, which are also outside the European Union.

Irish border

Today, therefore, you do not need to show a passport to get on a ferry (for example), to Northern Ireland from England. And then you can go to the South freely and again without a passport. Conversely, someone in France could, say, fly to Southern Ireland, go through the somewhat informal checks upon landing, and then drive and ferry to anywhere in the UK. So what would change?

The answer has to be “not a lot” unless some bureaucrat or Euro-politician wants to make it unnecessarily difficult in order to make a point about Brexit. If the Europeans want to throw the Brits out of the pan-European effort to fight crime and terror, then there could conceivably be a reduction in liaison between the UK and Ireland which might give rise to a greater threat of that sort of activity. But, like the border issue, this would only arise if politicians (or those un-elected European bureaucrats), decided that they wanted to “punish” the UK in this way.

And let us be in no doubt about a major reason for wanting to keep those borders open: trade. A large proportion (almost 14%) of Irish exports come to the UK, worth over £20bn. But the UK exports considerably more (some £34bn, or about 5% of UK trade) to Southern Ireland, which is why we also want to keep the borders open and trade flowing across it. That is also why the Irish premier might be starting to sound a little more conciliatory as we approach the prospect of a No-Deal Exit with all that entails in terms of a diminution of trade between the two countries.

From the perspective of many TMT readers, and especially those who served in Northern Ireland, to watch European politicians riding in on the bandwagon of the Good Friday Agreement must be somewhat galling; people such as Schinas, or others of his ilk, a Greek national who possibly had minimal interest in the subject till it became a useful political football. Few of them will truly understand the sacrifices made by so many people in Northern Ireland as well as the Forces. So to hear them even suggesting we might return to the old times if we, the UK, do not tow the European party-line, just seems very irresponsible in so many ways.

Comments on That tricky Irish-border problem

There are 5 comments on That tricky Irish-border problem

  1. Comment by Dominik von Wolff Metternich

    Dominik von Wolff Metternich

    As a continental European reader of this highly esteemed website I entirely agree with the Irish border question being exclusively a bilateral issue for the British and the Irish government.

    Seemingly quite early in the process both governments identified the Impact of BREXIT on the Good Friday Agreement (as early as 2017) and tried but unfortunately failed to reach an agreement.

    Unfortunately the Art. 50 procedure requires the unanimous consent of all EU member states plus the European Parliament, including the Irish government and the Irish MP´s in the European Parliament. The failure to reach a bilateral solution allowed for the Irish government to raise the issue to the European level, causing the well known “Backstop” troubles.

    Would`nt it be better for the PM, rather than wasting time in Bruxelles, to push for a bilateral understanding with Dublin, so the entire “Backstop chapter” can be deleted from the Withdrawal Agreement? To reiterate the author´s point: Yes, this is a bilateral issue, but then, please, solve it bilaterally.

    I don´t think that anyone in Europe wants “to throw the Brits out of the pan” (quote from above article). As a German who grew up in “BFG” and served as a soldier side by side with British comrades I regret this step, but I also respect the will of the British People to leave the EU expressed in the 2016 Referendum. So if everyone does his homework we can finish this process in dignity without damaging the close ties which have grown over the decades.

  2. Comment by Murray Hammick

    Murray Hammick

    Thank you for your comments, Dominik. I think most of us find the whole situation too ridiculous to be credible. How are we in a situation where all sides profess to be against a hard border, and yet are all sitting in a train which is slowly but inevitably steaming towards that destination.

    The Irish border question also raises an interesting principle of democracy. Consider for a moment that the interests of some 4.5m people in the Republic of Ireland, and 1.9m in Northern Ireland are considered to be paramount with regard to the future trading relationship between Europe and the UK as a whole, with a combined population of some 512 millions.

    If one then considers that there are probably many in both North and Southern Ireland who would be content to see the border problem solved quickly and amicably rather than risk a UK hard exit and subsequent “hard border” in Ireland, then the numbers are even more starkly contrasting.

    This is either an amazing example of peaceful democracy at work, or a somewhat less edifying case of disingenuous political manoeuvring. Or it is a bit of both, with the wider population showing considerable forbearance in the face of some questionable grandstanding and provocation on the part of the political classes of all countries involved.

  3. Comment by Michael Murnemann

    Michael Murnemann

    Let me add another German perspective here:

    There’s many a thing that could change when a border, hard or soft, is set up between the UK and the RoI. First and foremost, the good Friday agreement explicitly mentions the EU membership of both partners, so taking things literally you could already call Brexit a violation of the GFA. Furthermore, it mentions the European Court of Human Rights as the last instance to resolve conflicts. If the UK does not recognize the ECHR any more, the agreement is void.

    These are the real concerns about the GFA, which in fact does not mention anything about how hard or soft the border has to be. However it’s clear that the Irish are no less stubborn than hardcore brexiteers, and threats like “If I see a drone round here, I’ll shoot it down” have already been voiced. And be reminded that this border, especially in case of a “no-deal” exit becomes comparable to some others of which very few exist in Europe today: Belorus-Poland is another one between a no-deal non-member and the EU. Not many more exist.

    And why would the British, for whom an overwhelming motive to vote for Brexit was “control our border!” not actually do what was voted for? How do you plan to control immigration, if any Polish hairdresser could simply pass the as you say informal checks in Dublin and then enter the UK the same way as before? All it takes is a detour of a few hours. If the UK wants to effectively control the UK’s borders, it has to do so also in Ireland.

    Moreover, smuggling will soon become an issue, probably in both directions depending on how things evolve. I’m not saying that the British or the Irish will all become smugglers, but if there is an uncontrolled border that allows entering the UK and/or the EU, many people in the world will jump at the opportunity. And things will, as usual, not be organized by the kind of people you usually want to see around your neighbourhood!

    So to me, the northern Irish border is a prefect example of how the peace project EU has succeeded in resolving conflict. Sadly, Brexit will render the success a temporary one. At least I can’t see a possible way out, backstop or not.

  4. Comment by Murray Hammick

    Murray Hammick

    Everything you say makes very good sense, Michael. However, it might well be that the things that make a border attractive for smugglers or other like-minded people are mainly to do with differences in markets. And so, if the UK were to adopt largely similar or identical systems and processes to those of the EU, there would no more reason to have major market divergence than there is today under the current system. It follows, albeit simplistically, that the smugglers would have no more reason to exist than they do at present – and we have to be realistic and accept that they are everywhere in today’s world.

    Your points about the European Court of Justice being the ultimate arbitrator in the event of a dispute is well made. Perhaps there is no legal reason why that should not remain the case after Brexit.

    The control of UK borders is going to be more of a problem. For example, as has been shown recently, the English Channel is no longer a major deterrent to would-be illegal migrants who would in any case have quite possibly already made an earlier sea crossing under worse circumstances. So how would “they” control the border, regardless of the type of agreement struck?

    At the end of the day, the devilish details were always going to emerge at the eleventh hour and make this a real headache for the bureaucrats involved in the negotiations. All that we, the spectating public, can hope is that both sides are negotiating in good faith and that the good of the majority is the main consideration rather than the aims of smaller groups and especially those with limited self-interests at heart.

    1. Comment by Michael Murnemann

      Michael Murnemann

      Thank you Murray,

      it’s always good to see that things can still be discussed seriously and reasonably. I wish such dialogues would occur more frequently in today’s heated discussion.

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