Belfast Telegraph

Why hard Brexit would be like the repartition of Ireland (and we all know how that worked out)

Northern Ireland needs special status within the EU to protect against our uncertain future, writes Alban Maginness

In a week when Sinn Fein were still refusing to take their seats in the Westminster parliament, purportedly because of the oath of allegiance to the monarch, it was reassuring to see that party leader Gerry Adams was still able to greet Prince Charles, the future heir to the throne in Dublin, without blushing, or having to brush aside any suggestion of double standards.

The visit of Prince Charles to Ireland as a whole, though not unprecedented, was a reaffirmation of the very obvious affection that he has for all the people of Ireland. His tireless message of reconciliation between Britain and Ireland is something that Irish politicians should emulate in their own roles, whether it be in the Assembly or Dail Eireann.

The fact that he could, once again, greet with goodwill and ease of manner Gerry Adams is an enormous act of generosity, given the cruel murder by the IRA of his uncle, the Earl Mountbatten, in Co Sligo in 1979. The cowardly murder of Mountbatten was, without doubt, a grave personal blow to Prince Charles. That he could meet and exchange pleasantries with someone so closely associated with the IRA is a truly remarkable continuing act of public forgiveness.

Symbolically important though that Royal visit was, the visit to Ireland of Michel Barnier, also last week, was even more important in political terms. Barnier is the chief negotiator for the EU with the UK in the Brexit negotiations and came to Ireland to see and hear from a wide range of people the unique problems for this island associated with Britain's disastrous decision to leave the European Union.

What he was seeking was advice on how to assist getting Ireland and the EU through one of the most difficult processes in our modern history.

Barnier is an experienced politician and does not regard himself as a mere European civil servant. He is a doer, not a theorist, and is intent on trying to achieve practical solutions to the damaging and complex consequences of Brexit, not least the re-emerged issue of the land border between north and south, as well as the sea border between Ireland and Britain.

One possible solution is that Britain remains part of the EU customs union, though leaves the single market. While this could address the problem of free access of goods and services, it would not solve the problem of the free movement of people - especially migrants - which is conditional on Britain continuing to be a member of the single market.

While this would not solve all the problems of Brexit, it could mitigate a number of them and remove the need for a hard border.

Whether the problem of the border arising from Brexit is solved or not, one obvious and negative political consequence is the re-emergence of the border in itself as a separate issue in bold and disturbing terms.

The recreation of a physical border, soft or hard, on this island has reawakened the slumbering giant that has been tranquillised for the past 25 years, since the establishment of the European single market in 1993.

With the ending of the disastrous IRA campaign in 1994, the residual physical 'security' border became redundant and a seamless and invisible border appeared.

People got used to this and were content. Tourists visiting here would remark on how difficult it was for them to determine whether they had entered the north, or the south. Both nationalist and unionist sensitivities were appeased.

But the re-imposition of the border as a physical divide will simply not be tolerated and any such attempt to do so will provoke great outrage among border communities and beyond.

It will be a constant pressure point in our politics and yet another undesirable destabilising factor.

Imaginative technological solutions will need to be found to mitigate the emergence of any new physical border.

A hard border would be akin to a contemporary repartition of the island, a hugely backward and provocative step to take.

In a timely and authoritative intervention last week, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was absolutely right to point out in his address to a European People's Party conference in Wicklow that a hard border would be a disaster and should be avoided.

His call for Northern Ireland to be treated as a special case within the EU and to make sure that the common travel area is kept so that people can move freely across the border, was a weighty contribution to the continuing Brexit debate and is to be welcomed.

So, when you're voting in the forthcoming General Election, carefully scrutinise your candidates to see what they will do to advance the establishment of special status for Northern Ireland within the EU to safeguard our uncertain future.

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