Brexit and The Irish Border

If there is one political story that is rarely off the front pages, it’s Brexit. It’s everywhere. It’s the first question on every political show, and rightly so. After all it’s outcome will affect us all for decades to come. “OK”, I hear you say. “How do you know this when we don’t know the detail of what is on offer?” True enough, we don’t know what the deal will be, or even if there’ll be a deal. Here’s the thing though. Regardless of whether we have a deal with the European Union or not, the political landscape will be significantly different for better or worse.

A year ago, the topic of conversation over Brexit coffee tables was the three main problem areas of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Namely:

  • The rights of citizens of European Union countries who already live in the UK to remain here.
  • Trade negotiations.
  • The Irish border.

The first was fairly easily resolved. There was never any real desire from anyone to throw people out of the country that were legally here. It is undeniable that immigration played a part in the Brexit vote, but that was about reducing the number coming here, not exporting those already here.

Trade negotiations is a little more difficult. Will we still be part of the customs union and have a tariff free agreement? Or will we follow the Norway model of being part of the European single market. This would allow us to have broadly the same tariffs as the custom union, but also allow us to negotiate our own trade agreements with non-EU countries. Lastly there’s the no deal option, where we’d have to negotiate all trade agreements under World Trade Organisation rules.

If there’s no deal on trade, it could well be because of the final issue. There’s been a border in Ireland since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1920. What was later to become what is now known as Ireland, consists of 26 counties. It’s a separate independent country. The other six counties make up Northern Ireland, which form part of the United Kingdom.

So trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a big issue if there are different rules between the two constituent parts. The problem would be made worse by the total lack of any border controls. When “The Troubles” were at their height, there were border points, mainly manned by the military, on major transport routes. This was mainly aimed at ensuring would be terrorists couldn’t get in to the north from the south, and to prevent them from escaping to the south once they’d committed an atrocity.

There were also customs checks back in the day. Cross border smuggling was big business with petrol, booze, and cigarettes being top of the list of items smuggled. The problem was the border goes across some of the remotest parts of Ireland. There are hundreds of crossings, some little more than thin dirt tracks, making it virtually impossible to control. Logistically things haven’t changed. The military border points may have gone, but the myriad of border crossing remain. Should there be different trade rules between the two constituent parts of Ireland, it will equally difficult to police and enforce.

You can understand why all the talk is about trade, but there’s one aspect of the Irish border issue that gets very little coverage. Whisper this quietly; it’s the possibility of a united Ireland. This gets little media coverage because it’s a bigger problem than post Brexit border trade. The two topics are inextricably linked. If we want to remain part of the customs union, the European Union say we must be part of their club. Therefore if we want to leave, different trade rules apply. Neither Ireland or the UK want that.

No matter how unlikely that may seem, a united Ireland of 32 counties would solve the trade issue at one fell swoop. It would create a plethora of other seemingly intractable issues though. Logistical issues like what flag the country would use, or what national anthem they’d sing. The Irish government has stated that should a united Ireland ever come into existence, that nothing would be ruled out. Perhaps that’s more of a politician’s  answer, as they know that such small scale decisions are fraught with historical and jingoistic significance.

Agreeing to a united Ireland may be the easy part. Deciding on changing the wording of the Irish national anthem, agreeing on the colours and design of a flag, now there’s a discussion bound to bring out all the old arguments.

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