Brexit and “The Irish Problem”

Carrickcarnon is not exactly the centre of the universe. It is in fact a village, boasting a population in the hundreds, located about an hour’s drive from Dublin. It generated global headlines, however, when anti-Brexit campaigners took to the streets there in early October. They were protesting against the threat of a return to border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Mock checkpoints were erected at points along the boundary line, while in Carrickcarnon vehicles were held up while they were “inspected” by individuals pretending to be customs officers.

Even if it does not look that way today, Carrickcarnon still lies on an international boundary line, and it will soon be located on the outer edge of the European Union. Though the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the EU in June, Northern Ireland voted by a margin of 56 per cent to 44 to remain inside. In the constituencies located along the border, the percentages voting to “Remain” were even higher, hitting 78 per cent in the Foyle district which includes Northern Ireland’s second largest city.

People living in this region are worried that their freedom to travel and do business across the border will be hampered after the UK leaves the EU. These fears are stoked by memories of the hard border that existed between the Republic of Ireland and the UK during Northern Ireland’s long sectarian conflict in the second half of the twentieth century. Though the border has nominally been open for decades, free movement has only been a reality for the last twenty years.

Following the foundation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (which later became the Republic of Ireland) in the early 1920s, the British and Irish governments negotiated the introduction of a borderless Common Travel Area between the two countries. This allowed citizens of both countries to travel between the two without a passport. Although this agreement was contingent on both countries enforcing the same immigration policy, it did not stop the two governments maintaining customs checks on the internal border.

The border was not invisible, or even particularly porous in the twentieth century. Co-operation between the Dublin and Belfast governments was virtually non-existent until the 1960s: train lines that crossed the border had been neglected by both sides and all but one ultimately closed down. There were no scheduled flights between north and south until the 1970s. Towns along both sides of the border, having lost half their hinterlands, went into sharp economic decline.

With the outbreak in 1969 of the violent conflict known with characteristic understatement as “The Troubles”, military checkpoints became a reality along the border – a necessary move as border towns like Warrenpoint and Monaghan played host to notorious atrocities.

European integration played an important role in healing these divisions. The customs checkpoints disappeared with the introduction of the European Single Market in 1993, and the military checkpoints began to be dismantled following the onset of peace in 1998. Despite its historical significance, it is hard now to tell where the border sits. The opening of the border has allowed for a level of social and economic integration that is unprecedented in modern history. Nowadays, the only sign of an international border as you drive between the two countries is the change from imperial speed limits to metric.

One of the few remaining visible traces of the border are signposts like these, warning of a change to metric speed limits. (Picture: Dantadd; Wikimedia Commons)

The stakes are high for the border dwellers, then, and the Irish government has been left in a bind by the decision of UK voters to leave the EU. As it becomes increasingly likely that Britain will be leaving the Single Market in order to strengthen its immigration restrictions, the future of the Common Travel Area has come into question. “Hard Brexit” means a hard border, at least on paper, although the British government has consistently maintained its opposition to that. Indeed, it appears to be one of the few areas where we know exactly what Brexit means.

Negotiations between the two governments began in late summer. The most likely solution to the problem, it appears, is that passport checks will be put in place at air and sea ports on the island of Ireland, so that the border can be kept open. Administratively this is a simple solution, but its effect would be very limited – a great deal of undocumented migration involves overstayed visas, rather than individuals travelling without permission.

Such a solution would also require people in Northern Ireland to purchase passports to visit other parts of the UK, since neither Britain nor Ireland have national ID cards. This is hardly a victory for the Unionist majority in the region, which supports Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. Most Unionists voted for Brexit: did they really envisage a hard border between themselves and Great Britain being the result?

One alternative to this eventuality is what Jim Gallagher of the Financial Times describes as “point control of migration”: instead of having checks at the border, it will be up to employers, landlords and service providers to check the legality of those who are residing in the UK. Whether these groups will dutifully carry out the border control work that has been outsourced to them is, of course, another matter.

It is still early days, but the Irish government is not about to make waves on this issue. Brexit poses a real threat to the Republic’s economy and Dublin would gain nothing by grandstanding. “Extending” the UK border to Irish airports and ferry terminals is a simple, politically expedient and practically painless measure, and it seems very likely that this will happen. That it will not address British voters’ demand for meaningful immigration control is a truth that no-one profits from acknowledging, so nobody is likely to make a fuss about it.

The people of Carrickcarnon, it appears, are probably safe enough.

Joseph Aivalikli

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