In the multi-faceted Brexit discussions one area which has been largely overlooked, in England at least, is what happens over the Irish border. With Theresa May signalling that she aims to take Britain out of not only the single market but customs union also, it leaves the border between Northern Ireland, out of the EU, and Republic of Ireland, in the EU, in a difficult and potentially untenable position.
In May 2016 European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, said; “The fear in Dublin is that our border towns would become a backdoor into the UK. In that instance what sort of fortress would the Northern Ireland border have to become to close that backdoor?”
This question is placed in even greater significance after the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ that Theresa May has indicated. In this event what are the options and what could it mean for the peace process in Ireland?
Currently despite there being a land border between two regions there are no passport checks or stopping points on the border due to an EU agreement called the common travel area. At the minute although there are no passports required to go between Republic and Northern Ireland, in an agreement called ‘Operation Gull’ immigration officers check passports on air and sea routes between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland.
As a result of Theresa May’s emphasis on controlling immigration these current arrangements may have to change. With Ireland currently accepting basic free movement of people and the UK looking at rejecting it, there could be increased pressure on the land border which could in turn lead to increased focus on the controls in place. Northern Irish politicians have suggested an increased passport security at ports and airports would be preferred to any checks at the land border but this could still prove problematic.
Any border checks would also be a security risk given a static police stop and Ireland’s not-too-distant past. These worries were raised only last week on Newsnight by former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern who warned dissident Irish republicans could use the re-introduction of border checks to justify violent acts. Mr Ahern feared; "They would see checks on the border, and customs officers on the border, and the identification of the border, as in some way justifying the kind of things that they always have in their mind."
Trade and Customs
“No deal would be better than a bad deal,” has been the government’s mantra on entering Brexit negotiations however this would prove hugely problematic for Ireland. If the UK were to agree to no deal or to leave without any access to the single market or customs union, any trade leaving across the Irish border would need to be checked and any taxes calculated. This would involve a stopping point for lorries or vehicles on the land border between an EU country and a non-EU country, which would cause multiple inconveniences, not least traffic, as in 2014 £2.5bn of trade crossed the Irish border.
Theresa May attempted to allay fears in late January by insisting she wanted a, “seamless, frictionless border,” but offered little concrete information on how this might be done or if it was even possible. This idea was soon derided as, “nice words,” by Michael Lux, the former head of the European Commission's customs procedures, who told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that, “If Northern Ireland is not part of the EU customs territory then there is a customs border.”
In the debate over the Article 50 bill in the House of Lords many peers including former Northern Ireland Secretary, Lord Hain warned the Prime Minister about the potential difficulties. Lord Hain warned during the debate that, "If we get this wrong, for the UK, it may be perilous. For Northern Ireland it could be politically lethal," adding that any checkpoints along the border would sew division and could cause profound damage to the peace process. Only last month it was reported that the Irish government were in the process of identifying potential checkpoints along the border in the anticipation of a ‘hard Brexit’ and the customs problems that would cause.
Theresa May’s tough, Britain first approach to negotiations and intent on ditching any link to Europe places the Irish peace process under increased pressure. Sinn Féin MLA, John O'Dowd, reacted to Theresa May’s Brexit speech in January by saying: "Exiting the single European market, exiting the customs union, creates a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
With the recent dissolution of the Stormont assembly and the continuing uncertainty after last week’s election results there remains few Northern Irish voices in the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May’s answer to the fears and worries is an intention to maintain the Common Travel Area between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland. This does not answer the questions over trade however and also relies on an agreement over immigration, free trade and a customs deal being agreed before the short two year deadline expires.
Although the Irish government welcomed the commitment to the Common Travel Area, this agreement is designed mainly to cover movement of people. Should the UK leave the customs union, as it has suggested, this increases the prospect of tariffs on Irish goods crossing the Border into the UK which would therefore demand border controls and checks on goods.
Irish businesses have, perhaps unsurprisingly, expressed concerns with Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy stating that; “The possibility of the UK leaving both the single market and the customs union raises fundamental questions about Ireland’s future trading relations with the UK. This is an aggressive move by the UK, showing little regard for our trading relationship and for relations with other EU member states.”
As with many areas surrounding Brexit there are huge doubts about what the future holds and a lot hinges on how negotiations with the EU go and how much can be agreed in a short period. If Theresa May holds true to leaving the customs union and single market or leaving without a deal, it will almost certainly mean checks on goods travelling from EU Ireland to non-EU Northern Ireland, at the very least. This could spell major problems for Ireland, its relations with the UK and the peace process in general.