The Irish border is the canary in the Brexit coalmine

The Republic has hit back on the lack of clarity around border proposals. If the UK doesn't change its negotiating strategy, it won't be the last shock it gets

July 31, 2017
The Irish and EU flags fly outside Dublin's Custom House. Photo: PA
The Irish and EU flags fly outside Dublin's Custom House. Photo: PA

In rural Northern Ireland, miles of farmland stretch around the border with the Republic of Ireland. Normally an unremarkable area, inflected with small hillocks, smatterings of grazing cattle and the odd country road, the quiet land has been thrust into the spotlight in the last year as a key battleground in Brexit talks.

In the thirteen months since the fateful June referendum result, the UK government has insisted that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can remain unchanged, despite it becoming the UK’s new frontier with the EU. Indeed, the matter has been earmarked by Britain as one of its top three priorities for Brexit. Now, however, such hopes—or, perhaps more accurately, such hubris—has been dashed.

The Times reports that the Irish government has told the UK delegation in Brussels that they have rejected Britain’s calls for the border to remain as it is, after the latter failed to advance a credible or compelling case for it. Ireland is said to be insisting that it will accept no border on the island of Ireland and instead suggesting that the UK makes the border the Irish Sea.

The UK’s border with the EU was always going to be controversial, but the fact that it lies in Northern Ireland has only added to tensions due to the region’s unsettled constitutional status and post-conflict society. 

The UK had previously suggested that a seamless or invisible border could exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, insisting a high-tech and modern approach could see all cars electronically tagged as they pass the border by scanning their registration plates.

However, the Irish government has now reportedly rejected this outright, telling Theresa May’s delegation that the plan is “doomed and could jeopardize the peace process.”

Such a move could mean that people travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be treated the same as those travelling between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. This could include passports checks, or other documentation.  

A policy of this kind would effectively distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and mesh it further with its neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. This would inevitably cause anxiety Northern Ireland’s unionist and loyalist communities who consider themselves British and would see this as undermining their right to be as British as people living in England, Scotland or Wales. On the other hand, a physical barrier or border checks within the island of Ireland would not only be a logistical nightmare for those living there, but also a highly contentious political issue particularly among local Nationalist or Catholic communities, many of whom identify as Irish.

As news of Ireland’s decision broke, the Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Junior tweeted his rejection of the proposal, saying that “1 of 2 things will now happen 1. a very hard border 2. Ireland will wise up and leave the EU.” The notion that Ireland would also leave the EU is pure fantasy, as there is next to no public support for any such move. Instead, it now appears that the DUP will push for a hard border between north and south.

Normally, Northern Irish politicians’ thoughts and policies are of little concern to the central UK government, who have long ignored and sidelined the region when it comes to national political issues.

One of the most striking aspects of the Irish government’s decision is that the British delegation is said to be surprised by it. Such shock may be said to encapsulate the fundamental flaw in the UK’s approach to EU withdrawal thus far. The UK has been advancing the same naive and idealistic policies on Brexit, without providing much evidence or credibility as to their reasoning.

Over the last thirteen months, the Irish government has criticised the UK approach to the border, stating that the British suggestions could destabilise the peace process. Rather than take such criticism on board and alter their direction as a result, the UK has simply continued to repeat the same old adages, without improvement.

However, the DUP are now at the heart of the UK government due to the pact they have entered into with the Conservatives, agreeing to lend their 10 MPs’ support to prop up May’s minority government.  

It is likely that the DUP will now be pushing their pact partners in No 10 to reject any Irish Sea border and instead opt for the “very hard border” Iain Paisley Jnr described. Such a border is likely to test the peace process considerably as it will enrage nationalists and Republicans to be so shut off from the rest of the island of Ireland. It would also make Northern Ireland an economic dub, cut off from both the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland as an anomalous entity which would be highly undesirable for foreign investment or business. Ireland’s border policy may now cause considerable tensions within the DUP-Conservative pact.

It is fair and reasonable for EU member states to demand detailed and nuanced policies from the UK and reject those which are patently unworkable. Similarly, the Irish government’s rejection of a core UK Brexit policy is a timely and important reminder that these are negotiations which are occurring in Brussels. David Davis cannot merely issue a set list of demands, as though the other states involved have no power or right to refuse. The Irish government has a very clear and demonstrable interest in the Irish border, and if it feels its concerns are not being facilitated, it can reject the UK’s plans outright.

Brexit negotiations are still in their infancy and many more talks lie ahead in the coming months. The Irish government’s decision to dash the UK’s border plans are an all too timely reminder that the UK is there to negotiate not demand. Those who are shocked by their refusal to go along with half-baked and naive vagaries about the Irish border may find themselves in for more shocks from other EU countries if such a hubristic approach continues.