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Brexit: Why being an island might just help us to dodge a hard border

QUB's Professor James Anderson explains case for a 'hybrid solution' to the Brexit dilemmas facing Ireland north and south

Few people, even among pro-Brexit voters, want a 'hard' border. In Northern Ireland, 56%, including a sizeable minority of unionists, voted Remain. But contrary to Brexiteer promises of an electronic or 'soft' border, there will be a hard border. The question is where?

The North-South land border leaks like a sieve. It wanders through towns, local communities, farms and, occasionally, houses. Even when militarised in the Troubles with 200 cross-border roads closed it was leaky. It will not stop immigrants entering the UK - the main motivation for Brexit. Here, the real, hard border will be the sea around the island of Britain, and the ports and airports connecting with the island of Ireland (though an independent Scotland within the EU would modify that).

There are similarly strong reasons for locating the hard border for freight at the ports and airports. Retaining our island-wide free trade area also limits the Brexit damage to the substantially integrated but fragile economies of North and South.

A land border would leak for goods as well as for people. For example, cheap US hormone-saturated beef imported into the UK, which contravenes EU health standards, could easily be smuggled into the South. The ports and airports already have more secure infrastructures for handling freight, whereas a leaky land border would still cause costly delays and clog up border roads for the roughly 30,000 commuters who cross the border to work and all the others who cross to shop, socialise, or use shared services.

Re-imposing a hard border would be extremely disruptive and widely unpopular, provoking mass protests and civil disobedience.

More ominously, it would undermine the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement and a peace process based on cross-border institutions and minimising the border. A hard border would simply wreck the strategy. Here, only the paramilitaries would benefit. Constructing land border installations would be an open invitation for the dissident republicans to copy the IRA's 1950s' 'Border Campaign' against border posts and personnel. That could boost their presently small numbers, in turn boosting opposing unionist paramilitaries and conceivably re-igniting at least a mini-version of the Troubles.

Avoiding all these dangers won't be easy. Mrs May's priorities lie elsewhere. The DUP is pro-Brexit and out-of-step with the majority; and there has always been a sizeable right-wing fringe of unionists who prefer nationalistic fantasies of British sovereignty to actually dealing with the economic and social problems which confront us.

But there are good omens for a hybrid solution which retains our island-wide free trade and avoids a hard land border. The EU is committed to sorting this out before the start of trade talks with Britain (which could fail). It has poured millions into the cross-border peace process and knows a hybrid solution is needed.

Ireland, partly thanks to the EU, has already pioneered hybrid border-crossing innovations to deal with practical problems of conventional sovereignty. It already has institutional infrastructures (e.g., a North-South Ministerial Council and a British-Irish Council) on which to develop the shared management of the island's borders.

The call for 'special EU status' for Northern Ireland is only shorthand for some wider UK-EU arrangement to retain the present island-wide free-trade area. It has to include all the island's borders, and being an island makes it easier - as the song says, "Thank God we're surrounded by water"! It involves customs arrangements not only with 'the rest of the UK', (i.e., Britain, with or without Scotland), but also with 'the rest of the (continental) EU', and with 'the rest of the world'.

Princeton Professor Philip Pettit has proposed an imaginative 'shared-space' model for how this might work. It safeguards the South's crucial access to Britain's markets and the North's to EU markets. Ireland would simultaneously be in a free-trade zone with Britain, and in one with the continental EU. These larger zones would overlap in Ireland but would otherwise be separated from each other by the hard borders which Britain and the continental EU want for themselves. Ireland could go from being potentially the worst hit by Brexit to being comparatively advantaged.

The entry and exit customs regulations are typically complex, but Pettit's main points are: they stay as at present for the entry of people and goods from the continental EU and from Britain; exit to them would also follow the existing rules of free-movement for people and goods originating in Ireland; but not for those originating outside Ireland (e.g., non-Irish EU citizens can be denied entry to Britain; and non-Irish goods, such as US hormoned-beef, can be denied entry to the continent).

This solution's great strength is that much remains the same, but this is also a weakness. The customs authorities North and South would mostly operate as presently for things entering and exiting the island, but there is no acknowledgement that their 'shared-space' needs shared management - even if it annoys a right-wing unionist fringe. Shared border management democratically accountable to both political jurisdictions North and South is absolutely essential. Existing trade patterns, far from remaining the same, will change in new and threatening ways, and Ireland's border management must be able to respond. Take the dreaded US hormoned-beef: the UK might import it, but Ireland's customs might be instructed to stop it entering.

The reasons for avoiding a hard land border are compelling, but we cannot rely on 'reason' or the official Brexit negotiators. Popular pressure is needed. The Dublin Government must be directly involved - the EU may not owe Britain any favours but it certainly owes the vulnerable Irish Republic, 'EU loyal' to a fault. Northern Ireland, likewise vulnerable, will have a major concentration of EU/Irish citizens living outside the EU who can demand their rights. If the EU is politically smart - always a question - it will reward its supporters (including Scotland where 62% opposed Brexit).

And if Irish nationalists were smart - sometimes another big 'if' - they would avoid the usual re-heated rhetoric about a border poll on politically re-uniting Ireland. Some assume this will be boosted by a reckless Brexit, and they might eventually be proved right. It's even conceivable that Brexit could ultimately result in a united federal Ireland in a confederation with Scotland and both in the EU.

But all this is unpredictable, long-run speculation.

Meanwhile, here and now, the nationalists demanding a border poll are perhaps losing the run of themselves. Brexit could actually undermine it, especially if the effects across Ireland are very damaging. The late Martin McGuinness, who knew a thing or two, was reportedly more concerned about Brexit's damage to the 'peace process'. But either way, given the deep-seated opposition to political re-unification from most Northern unionists, and the South's reluctance (increased by Brexit uncertainties) to take over the annual £9bn British subsidy to the North's economy, a border poll seems unlikely to achieve the majorities required North and South.

It's actually a confusing distraction which could alienate unionists from the new and immediate challenge of stopping a hard land border. Stopping it needs support from unionists and others as well as nationalists.

James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and a founder-member of the Centre for International Borders Research at Queen's University Belfast.

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