Having at first said she didn’t want “to return to the borders of the past” between the North and the South of Ireland, Theresa May now says that “when the UK leaves the EU we aim to have as seamless and frictionless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland.” What this means is that we will have a seam showing and lots of friction.
This is because, while Theresa May would like to portray the relationship as one between the North and South, the actual relationship is between the UK and the EU – this is the border that will exist post-Brexit. Formulations to the contrary are but one example of the Brexiteers hopes to divide the EU so that it can obtain concessions from particular member states, in this case it would be in the form of a special deal for Northern Ireland.
This can range from continuing EU membership for the North (although this would create unmanageable problems in relation to Scotland) to border controls at Liverpool or Cairnryan. This would then leave the need for potentially relatively minor checks at the Irish border itself. Of course, we could get these checks at Belfast or Larne instead.
It was interesting that immigration checks into the UK at Dublin airport on behalf of the British was floated as a story a few months ago and flew longer than it should have, before being shot down on the grounds that the Brits can do their own dirty work (I paraphrase). However, the Irish don’t mind the dirty work being done on their territory when it comes to the United States. When it was also floated that the Irish State would not cooperate with racist immigration controls introduced by Donald Trump, it was quickly squashed when it was revealed, or anyway declared, that the Irish could do nothing about the pre-clearance carried out by the US immigration service on Irish soil.
Controls at British ports is about as good as it would get but it would only reveal that the fixation on the line on the map is a diversion by everyone involved. Regardless of where the checks would take place they would be enforcing customs restrictions and any tariffs that have to be imposed. Much of the work at the ports would just be checking while the real imposition of trade restrictions would take place in offices all across the UK and Ireland, processing the necessary paperwork and money flows. It is these restrictions that would damage trade and thereby threaten employment.
The only point of checks on the border if they were already carried out at Liverpool or Larne would be if some smart ass thought they could avoid customs restrictions by siting themselves in Northern Ireland rather than in Britain, but if this happened to any extent the controls would move from Liverpool or Larne to Lifford, Dundalk and Newry.
Immigration and customs checks going into or out of the island might be sold as a special deal. The British nationalism that is driving the demands for Brexit doesn’t give a damn about the Irish in the north of Ireland, if they get in the way of what suits the real British in England, Wales and Scotland. The unionist supporters of Brexit in the North of Ireland might complain that they weren’t then being treated like the rest of her majesty’s subjects, but those of us old enough to remember the Belfast flight being off in some corner of the airport and having to fill in Prevention of Terrorism cards will have seen it before.
Besides checking on the import and export of goods, the other reason for border controls would be to check on people moving, so that those from the EU could not pass freely to the Irish State, then to the North and then to Britain. The British, Irish and the EU have all signalled appreciation of the importance of the Common Travel Area between the Irish State and the UK, under which Republic of Ireland born are treated entirely the same as UK passport holders under the Ireland Act 1949, but this is within the gift of the EU. Free entry, or looser entry from the island of Ireland would have to be compensated for by stricter controls within Britain itself, if it was believed that people from the EU were coming into Britain to get jobs through Ireland. Already we have had xenophobic statements from senior Tories calling for registers of EU citizens employed in the UK. This was rejected, but we haven’t gotten to the sharp end of the Brexit negotiations yet when the real aggro will start. Welcome to the nasty world of a hard Brexit – the one we’re going to face.
Irish citizens living in the UK have had rights to welfare for decades before both the UK and Irish states joined the EU but under Brexit they will be EU citizens when the UK is no longer an EU member. It cannot be assumed that the EU would be happy at discrimination against a majority of its citizens which favoured the Irish even if the British were happy to maintain these rights. And what of those with Irish passports in Northern Ireland? How are they to be identified, or rather identify themselves, to ensure that they don’t have second class rights as UK citizens?
All this explains the apparently surprising flurry of statements from Irish politicians talking about Brexit leading to a united Ireland – even from the most partitionist of sources. But what they fret about is the cost to their own business and state on their side of the border, not sudden awareness of the calamitous results of partition on democratic rights.
That some people have taken these statements as more than bullshit is testament to failure to realise that the effects of the border are not primarily felt on the border itself but in the politics of the two societies that lie behind each side of it. This is why much of the alarmist claims that Brexit will damage the peace process and/or will create conditions for a successful referendum to remove the border are so wide of the mark.
Everyone know the EU played a relatively minor role in the pacification of the North of Ireland. The rush for Irish passports after the referendum is not enough to signal any mass change in political identity but a sensible pragmatic decision, which those choosing hope won’t come back to bite them. They can, anyway, get two passports. Northern Ireland voted Remain but even this split was very much, although not to the usual extent, based on sectarian lines. Even where massive majorities of nationalists voted for Remain, such as in West Belfast, the turnout wasn’t great. I know unionists who voted Remain and they’re still unionists, and being unionist means being trapped into a sectarian political state because unionism demands it even if these people don’t.
There is going to be no return to political violence because of a hard border, even if it does cause significant inconvenience for those living along it, which is the most likely outcome. A bit of nationalist history is instructive here.
The recent ‘Troubles’ broke out not because of problems with the border – the IRA’s border campaign of 1956 to 1962 had achieved nothing and fizzled out. It followed an earlier bombing campaign in Britain and previous demise of the original raison d’être of the anti-Treaty IRA, which was fighting the treachery of the Free State forces, in other words fighting the Southern State. By the 1950s republicans had abandoned fighting the Free State and accepted it, so that now it is almost forgotten that this was the IRA’s primary purpose. Instead, what drove the IRA to its more recent prominence was what society inside the Northern Ireland border was like – its sectarianism and capacity for violence in defence of it, particularly by State forces.
In other words, what will, and currently is, causing the degeneration of the ‘peace process’ political arrangements are the internal contradictions within the process itself. This does not mean that external factors are unimportant. In fact, my own view is that such factors will be decisive in clearing away the political slum that is Northern Ireland. What it does mean is that the effects of Brexit will exacerbate the problems but not be their key cause.
It is not the erection of border posts that will matter, they will just be visible symbols of the changes occurring. The IRA, of whichever group, is not going to relaunch any significant armed struggle directed against the border. This border will be just as much an EU/Irish border as a British one and just as much, if not more, a requirement of the former as the latter, even if it is the British whose Brexit has brought it into a harder form.
What will matter is the damaging effects on the North and South of Ireland of Brexit and the competing demands of Britain, the US under Trump and the EU. In periods of relative geo-political stability small countries and regions can appear relatively stable and entertain illusions of sovereignty and autonomy. When big powers seek a reconfiguration of international structures they rarely give a f*** about the interests of small countries.
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