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Vote on EU could result in return to a real frontier

David Cameron has painted himself into a corner with his tough talk about leaving the European Union. That corner is not a pleasant place and the Prime Minister hopes to escape from it today by means of a major speech setting out new terms of engagement. With one bound our hero will be free.

Those who care about the battered economy of Northern Ireland - be they in business or politics - will wish him well. For we are in the corner with Mr Cameron, facing a very uncertain future if he gets it wrong.

The Prime Minister wants a new deal on Britain's role in the EU. If he can't get it, he will call a referendum on UK membership. Indeed, he may call the referendum anyway, to secure a mandate for the deal.

It is clear, from his recent comments, that Mr Cameron has no wish to leave the EU. But it is equally clear, from all opinion polls, that the British electorate might well decide to call it quits.

That might, arguably, be bad news for Great Britain. But it would, beyond argument, be a worrying outcome for Northern Ireland.

We would share the pain created by any new barriers Brussels might erect between the UK and the EU. But our suffering would be greater for the reimposition of a land border splitting the province of Ulster and restricting our ease of access to the rest of the island of Ireland.

Older readers may remember it - younger readers will doubt if such a thing could ever have been permitted. But there was a time when the border that runs from Londonderry to Newry was a real frontier, enforced by tariff barriers and a rake of rules and regulations.

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It was not legal to simply drive across this border. You stopped at one of several customs posts, declared any goods you might want to bring into the foreign country that started a wee bit north of Dundalk and checked if your car insurance was compatible.

You then received a strange, triangular sticker called a triptyque, which you fixed to your windscreen to enable you to travel legally through this foreign land.

To take up a job on the other side of the border, you needed a work permit and businesses faced the barrier of different tax-codes and employment laws.

All this ended in 1973, when the UK and the Republic of Ireland joined what was then the European Economic Community. Could it all come back if Mr Cameron pulls us out of today's European Union?

One opinion says it won't. That, in the event of a UK exit, Mr Cameron, or his successor, could still achieve a deal allowing Britain most of the advantages of EU membership without the restrictions imposed by common employment laws and shared taxation rules.

But why should EU leaders take such a benevolent approach to a country intent on inflicting damage on their institution?

Until recently, Mr Cameron had treated Britain's relationship with the EU as a matter of short-term tactics, rather than long-term strategy.

He won the leadership of his party by making promises to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and to take the Conservatives out of the European People's Party.

That secured the support of the eurosceptic wing of his party. But, once elected, he swiftly reneged on his commitment to a referendum, removing an immediate headache, but earning him the enduring suspicion of Right-wingers. Those eurosceptics, themselves under pressure from Nigel Farage's Ukip, are now in a position to call the shots.

Mr Cameron has had to put up or shut up and face their wrath. Today, we see what he puts up.

He could offer an 'in-or-out' referendum - in on new terms, or out altogether. But there is no reason to suppose that generous new terms are on offer.

The leaders of the eurozone have problems of their own and Angela Merkel, in particular, has an electorate of her own to worry about. Until recently, German officials tended to play down differences with Britain but lately they have been making their irritation clear.

"If someone wants to leave, you can't stop them,'' Reuters quoted a senior German official as saying recently. The news agency interpreted this as "summing up a view in Berlin that the door is open if Britain really wants to quit the European Union".

So it's high-stakes poker Mr Cameron is playing. And, though we don't get to sit in on the game, the stakes are higher for Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK.

An exit would create even greater problems for the Republic, with its biggest trading partner outside the EU. But Dublin's difficulties will be no consolation to Northern Ireland.

We could find ourselves sharing a land border with a country that is still an active EU member; a country that would have different tax-codes and customs regulations and which might well operate different rules on immigration.

In the worst case, we might see reinstatement of border controls. We could even see tax discrepancies which would make the gap on corporation tax seem a minor matter.

In the worst case, we could see a new partition of Ireland.

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