In the Brexit White Paper of February 2017, the British government stated that the ‘operational and practical cross-border cooperation [across the Irish border] exemplifies the sort of relationship we want to have with the EU post-exit’. From the perspective of the island of Ireland, such a statement can only be interpreted as, at best, ironic.
Cooperation across the Irish border has been painstakingly achieved against a myriad of obstacles – historical, political, economic, social and ideological – and this achievement is to a very large extent due to the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the European Union. Only with the prospect of disentangling the United Kingdom from the EU are people on the island beginning to appreciate the extent to which EU membership has made a positive difference to cross-border cooperation. It is worth outlining some of these achievements in order to understand the complexity of the task faced by the Brexit negotiators, notwithstanding the reality that the Irish border is not the highest priority of either Brussels or London.
The most obvious manifestation of EU membership at the Irish border is, in actual fact, an absence: the removal of customs posts from along the border with the expansion of the Single Market was a very significant change. Free movement of goods and services across the border, with no import duties payable, marked a step-change in the trading relationship between the two jurisdictions. This was particularly true for the smaller, underdeveloped economy of Northern Ireland, with the Republic of Ireland being responsible for c. 35% of its exports and c.25% of its imports. And this is not only important for Northern Ireland – the UK currently exports more to the Republic of Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined. Even if a free trade agreement is ultimately achieved between the EU and the UK, Brexit will mean the need for customs controls to enforce rules of origin and ensure payment of VAT, the reimposition of non-tariff barriers to trade (e.g. diverging standards in food or environmental protections), and the inevitability of duties on agricultural produce (with supply chains which currently cross the border several times) will mean the reappearance of very practical obstacles to cross-border trade.
The counties on either side of the border have benefited from the EU’s Cohesion Policy, which has sought to redress the problems of peripherality associated with border regions. The effects of common regulations and direct funding on improving infrastructure and connections across the border region are evident in such initiatives as the North West Gateway between Donegal and Derry/Londonderry, to the benefit of local people, public agencies and businesses alike. More broadly, at the moment, an estimated 14,000-30,000 people cross the Irish border for work or study; this is a sizeable figure bearing in mind the size of the population (Northern Ireland is 1.85m), and even so it excludes those who do so for business, leisure, shopping or family reasons. In fact, the range of civil society organisations that function on a cross-border basis – from sports clubs to the Churches – reflects the normalisation of crossing the Irish border. Such integration is facilitated by both the ‘invisibility’ of the border and by the existence of a complex framework of supranational legislation, rights and directives to ensure the protection and non-exploitation of workers, consumers, passengers, students, and EU citizens. This depoliticisation of cross-border movement has been invaluable in Northern Ireland; it is so much more than the Common Travel Area – which the UK government has vowed to protect after Brexit – because it is not merely about mobility but it is about protecting and enhancing myriad aspects of citizens’ everyday lives.
The 1998 British-Irish Agreement as part of the Good Friday Agreement committed the two governments to further development of their unique relationship ‘as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’. This partnership is built into the cross-border institutions established by the Agreement, including the North/South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council, not to mention the all-island bodies working to ensure fruitful coordination in areas such as food safety, trade and tourism. In some ways, these institutions could be considered to be ideally placed to help ameliorate some of the potential damage of Brexit to UK/Ireland cooperation. Unfortunately, the very prospect of Brexit has spurred the repoliticisation of cross-border relations and, with it, political sensitivities regarding such transnational forums.
From an all-island perspective, the greatest challenge of Brexit is to see the raising of the Irish land border to the status of an external frontier of the EU whilst keeping it as porous as possible for practical and operational purposes. The complexity of this challenge is greatly exacerbated by the lack of common ground among the political parties in Northern Ireland. The results of the snap election on 2 March 2017 saw two major changes to the makeup of the Northern Ireland Assembly: unionist parties no longer in the majority in Stormont and MLAs from Remain parties outnumber those from pro-Leave parties with a margin that better reflects the 56% Remain outcome in the Brexit referendum.
Nonetheless, even if agreement is found as a result of the current negotiations between the highly antagonistic parties, any Executive formed is likely to reflect the polarisation that exists in Northern Ireland on the topic (around 85% of Catholic/Irish/Nationalist voters supported Remain compared to c.38% of Protestant/British/Unionist voters). From the southern perspective, there is also significant political uncertainty, with the prospect of a new Taoiseach within the next few weeks and perhaps an early election. Added to this is the fact that Sinn Féin is a very credible political force in both jurisdictions, having recently outstripped the governing Fine Gael party in a public opinion poll to being the second most popular party behind Fianna Fáil. As long as Sinn Féin can be seen to demonstrate the success of the peace Agreement and the continued functioning of the all-island institutions, it is able to hold the support of its nationalist constituency base. However, this will be under pressure with any hardening of the Irish border – even in the form of the reappearance of customs posts – and the prospect of the re-emergence of republican paramilitary activity is not as unlikely a prospect as it had been prior to the Brexit vote.
In the current ‘phoney war’ of Brexit, unionist and nationalist parties on the island are forced to mimic the Conservative Party’s strategy of reassuring their supporters and feigning action and decisiveness through the use of increasingly hardline rhetoric. This makes for a particularly volatile environment and means that any agreement from the negotiations in Stormont and in Brussels will be all the more difficult to achieve, let alone ‘sell’ and implement.
About the author
Katy Hayward is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in Queen’s University Belfast. She holds a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from UU Magee and a PhD from University College Dublin. Her teaching and research use political sociology to explore key issues of conflict and change on the island of Ireland. Notable publications include Nationalism, Territory, and Organized Violence (with Niall Ó Dochartaigh, 2013), Political Discourse and Conflict Resolution (with Catherine O’Donnell, 2011), and Making and Breaking Ireland (with Elizabeth Meehan and Niall Ó Dochartaigh, forthcoming). Katy is particularly committed to fostering meaningful partnerships between universities and NGOs in the field of conflict transformation.