Brexit and the Irish border, Put Simply

By Senior Campaign Agent Guinevere Poncia

Since the events of 23rd June 2016, one of the most pressing issues that has come to the political fore is the challenge Brexit presents to the Irish border. The principal issue at stake is the possibility of a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or, more specifically, the avoidance of a hard border. Such a border is possible because Irish economy is closely integrated with that of the UK, and if and when the UK leaves the EU, it will also be leaving a trade agreement (or customs union), which will likely require physical border checks to be introduced. Issues regarding freedom of movement are also a contributory factor to present concerns.

The last time there was a hard broader between Northern Ireland and the Republic was during the three decades of ‘Troubles’ between the late 1960s and 1998. Broadly speaking, the Troubles were a territorial conflict, but also had important political and religious dimensions. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland was the focus of the conflict. The overwhelmingly Protestant Unionists wanted continued union with the UK, whilst the minority Republicans, primarily Catholics, wished for independence from British rule and union with the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) remains the most notorious Republican group, alongside its (disputably) political wing, Sinn Féin. The IRA led a sustained bombing campaign in both Ireland and Britain that ended with a ceasefire in 1994. Escalation of violence caused the British government to send troops to Ireland in 1969, and impose direct rule in 1972. A particularly scarring incident during the troubles was Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when British troops opened fire on peaceful civil rights protesters in Derry, killing thirteen people. The conflict was brought to an end on 10th April 1998 with the Good Friday, or Belfast, Agreement, which established a power-sharing assembly to govern Northern Ireland.

During the Troubles, border checkpoints were physical manifestations of a conflict that claimed thousands of lives. Although any signs of the physical border have all but disappeared today, becoming instead simply “a legal and political fact”, the violent memories of the Troubles endure. For many, if physical borders were set up again in the wake of Brexit it would represent negligence, or downright dismissal of both the scarring legacy of the Troubles, and the progress that has been made since 1998. Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair termed the prospect of a hard border a “disaster”, and many fear the repercussions of a hard Brexit on Ireland’s political stability.

Accordingly, one of the most pressing issues of the Brexit negotiations is maintaining both a peaceful and economically viable frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. This requires a bespoke arrangement that maintains the so-called “invisible border”, which David Davis claimed would be “technically difficult, but doable”. Michel Barnier has also established this one of his top priorities. Pre-vetting those engaging in cross-border trading, or tagging containers, are just two solutions that have so far been posited, both to avoid the possibility of a hard border, and to cause as little disruption as possible to the trade flow that currently exists.

To make the situation more complex is the Conservative coalition with the DUP. The recent deal represents a shift from policy of the 1990s, in which the British government remained neutral in Northern Irish politics, backing neither nationalist or unionist parties. Said neutrality contributed significantly to the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement, in which Britain acted as a mediator. The new deal in Westminster is bound to increase tensions within the power-sharing arrangement that has held the Northern Irish Assembly together since 1998. Such is the uncertainty, that the possibility of a re-unification of Ireland now also exists.

Amidst all the uncertainty, however, one thing remains clear. The changes the Irish border has undergone in the past two decades represents marked reconciliation on the part of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Such progress should not be taken for granted, and as its border enters a new phase as a frontier not only between two nations, but two unions, Ireland’s long and complex history will undoubtedly come to play a pivotal role deciding its future.

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