Belfast Telegraph

Why the solution to Brexit is not to have one border, but two

A single 'hard' frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic is a multi-faceted disaster waiting to happen, writes Queen's University academic James Anderson

The DUP objects to a "sea border" as the answer to the problem of a "hard" land border, but provides no coherent solution of its own. If the UK leaves the EU and customs union, a hard border is inevitable as the EU's new frontier. The key question is: where?

Borders around the island of Ireland are the only genuine answer. But if a proper UK-EU deal is not reached the default answer will be the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic - and that's a disaster waiting to happen.

Predictably, there were knee-jerk nationalist calls for a border poll - unlikely to go ahead and, given present uncertainties, even less likely to get majorities north and south for political reunification.

Similarly, some unionists wrongly see the problem as the familiar "constitutional" sovereignty issue of political union with Britain. But dreaming of, or dreading, a "united Ireland" in the future is a distraction from dealing with the real and present danger of a new threat that would be damaging for most people north and south, unionist, nationalist and neither. It can only be prevented by their combined action.

Most are strongly opposed to Brexit; the 56% northern majority against included about a third of unionist voters; and few pro-Brexit voters want a hard land border.

It would disrupt, or sever, our now substantially integrated all-island economy, its border-crossing production processes, shared facilities, trade, commuting, socialising and shopping links and the cross-border funding and functional bodies which underpin the peace process. It would provoke mass demonstrations.

More ominously, new border posts would be attractive targets for dissident republican paramilitaries, also jeopardising the peace process. And this supposedly hard border would leak like a sieve - it did so even when militarised in the Troubles.

It would give illegal access to the single market to exploit price differentials, greatly magnified in size and number, making Ireland a smugglers' bonanza for paramilitary and criminal gangs.

For their own protection, Britain and the EU would need to have customs checks at their own ports and airports on goods and people coming from Ireland.

Rather than desperately trying to confine a multi-faceted disaster to Ireland, it would obviously be much better for all concerned if the island's borders were part of a proper solution.

Instead of the EU and the UK being separated by a single, supposedly hard (but leaky and insecure) border, they'd be better separated by two relatively "soft" borders, with Ireland benefiting from being in between them.

The island's position would be comparable to the "intermediate space" between the double security doors for entering and exiting banks, except here one "door" links Ireland with Britain, the other with the EU.

This would safeguard the all-island economy and place it in two partly-overlapping trade zones - with Britain and with the Continent (elsewhere these zones would be separated by the single hard border which Britain and the EU want for themselves, most notably the English Channel).

The north, as part of Ireland's all-island economy along with the south (a full EU member), would retain its trading access to the Continent; and the south, along with the north (politically in the UK), would retain access to vital markets in Britain, especially for its agricultural products, parts of which originated in the north anyway.

This damage-limitation solution can turn around the very real threat of Ireland being worst affected by Brexit - Northern Ireland much more than the other regions of the UK, the Republic more than any of the other 26 remaining EU countries.

Selective controls at the two soft borders surrounding Ireland would mostly enable the continuing free entry of people and goods from Britain and from the EU, and continuing free entry to both of them for goods made in Ireland and for people travelling from Ireland who have, or qualify for, Irish citizenship (and, hence, also for EU citizenship - ie, including all Northern Ireland's British citizens).

However, continuing free movement would not apply to people and goods which originated outside Ireland.

There is no "back-door" for non-Irish immigrants to Britain or to the Continent, where they may be denied entry at their ports and airports.

Likewise, non-Irish goods imported into Ireland from elsewhere can be denied entry to the EU or to Britain.

This "double doors" scheme ensures minimum change, minimum disruption.

But trade patterns will change over time, including with the rest of the world, and sometimes in threatening ways (eg importing sub-standard food). Furthermore, EU regulations and any UK-EU deal must be administered in changing circumstances.

Therefore, an all-island customs authority is also needed. Just as ports and airports already have appropriate physical infrastructures for handling freight and travellers, so Ireland (courtesy of the peace process) already has the political infrastructures - the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference - with which to construct a customs authority and ensure it is democratically accountable to the two political jurisdictions, north and south.

If or when the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU and customs union, the solution requires that Northern Ireland then gets single market access, perhaps by joining the European Economic Area, or via a customs union.

This is not some special favour for Northern Ireland, but a necessary arrangement for the whole all-island economy, which also minimises the knock-on damage to Britain and the Continent.

The Republic's new Foreign Minister Simon Coveney recognised this in a significant policy shift when he suggested the new "bottom line" is maintaining the present invisible Irish border.

He (rightly) rejected the completely misleading notion (propagated by British Brexiteers) that a "frictionless" border could be achieved by technology (a non-solution, which often forgets the smuggler threat).

Instead, he called for a political solution, a "unique status connecting Northern Ireland to the customs union" (Irish Times, June 23) - adding, for good measure, that Michel Barnier is "on board".

DUP leader Arlene Foster (in an interview with Reuters, October 29, 2016) did state: "Northern Ireland could have a different relationship to the EU's single market, or customs union, from the rest of the UK following its exit from the EU".

And any such differential relationship to EU institutions inevitably requires sea borders of some sort.

Some unionists may oppose a "border down the Irish Sea", but we saw that's precisely what they'll get - and more - if there's a default leaky land border on which Britain cannot depend.

Anyway, many travelling from Northern Ireland to Britain already have to show ID (driver's licence, or passport). Reflecting unionist ambivalence, there are clearly contradictions in the DUP's position(s), but in a fluid situation it is perhaps politic to accept its stated preference for a soft border and hold the DUP to it, along with all the other politicians in Brussels, London and Dublin who claim to oppose a hard border.

It's disingenuous of the Irish Government to pretend it doesn't want a sea border and also incorrect to suggest a solution is only Britain's responsibility, for the EU needs secure borders as much, if not more. Who knows how it will all end?

But if the UK leaves the EU and customs union, a hard land border will only be prevented if the main socio-economic borders are somewhere else.

Campaigning should start immediately. The only genuine answer is island borders and some version of a "double doors" solution.

  • James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography in the Mitchell Institute and a founder-member of the Centre for International Borders Research at Queen's University, Belfast

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