With Brexit looming, Ireland’s once-disputed border is again contentious

A British army sapper carries out demolition work at the border.
A British army sapper carries out demolition work at the border.
Image: Reuters/Paul McErlane
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The border that separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland was a flashpoint during the decades of violence that claimed over 3,600 lives. Watch towers and heavily militarized patrols were the grim reality for those living or working near the border that separates British-controlled Northern Ireland from rest of the island, spanning 499 km (310 miles).

Now that border is barely noticeable, says Cathal McCall, a politics and international studies professor at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. When his students cross into the Republic, he tells them to look out for the border. “They can never find it,” he says.

This progress at the border has come to symbolize the peace process that ended The Troubles, as the period of violence is known, in Northern Ireland in 1998. Security checkpoints and armed British security forces were dismantled following the Good Friday Agreement, which ended direct rule from London as Republicans and Unionists agreed to a power-sharing assembly.

The Irish border was slowly transformed by the Irish peace process and the launch of the single market. Goods and people now flow freely from Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, a European Union (EU) member state. The Common Travel Area, which facilitates this soft border, sees the UK and Ireland work closely together to maintain peace.

A Brexit conundrum

This soft border is now in jeopardy, McCall, who has done extensive research on European borders and cross-border cooperation, explains. Despite voting to remain within the EU, Northern Ireland will have to leave along with the rest of the UK. With the border between Northern and the rest of Ireland now an external frontier of the EU, some fear that Brexit and the bid to “take back control” of the UK’s borders could see a return to a hard border, inflaming old tensions and destabilizing the 20-year peace process.

British prime minister Theresa May has recognized these risks and reiterated the government’s commitment to avoid any return to the “borders of the past” in a speech that laid out her Brexit plan. Though the UK will be leaving the single market and negotiating a new customs agreement, May insisted her government would work to “deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the UK’s immigration system.”

May’s speech presented the clearest vision yet of what Brexit will look like, but it provided little clarity on how the government would end the free travel of EU nationals—a key tenant of Brexit—and still preserve the CTA.

“There will have to be some policing of the border,” says professor Feargal Cochrane, the deputy head of school and director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre at the University of Kent. “It may be a matter of how much and how this impacts political and economic issues in Ireland and UK.”

“Frictionless” border control

May could have been hinting at using new technologies to police the border when she called for “frictionless” controls. Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster floated a similar idea last year, suggesting data could be “sent to the cloud and tracked,” and adding, “It’s not beyond the boundaries of possibility that we deal with the realities of the situation of today using new technologies.” The UK already has digital systems that allow officers to identify and stop individuals traveling to the UK.

McCall isn’t convinced a border “can be wholly technological reinforced.” Some human presence will be necessary, but stationing British officers at the Irish border is, he says, “really problematic.”

McCall suggests an alternative: Instead of trying to border the UK, which includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the government could just border the island of Britain, which doesn’t include Northern Ireland. “It’s much easier to govern and implement that type of policy,” McCall says, as it would be cheaper to put checks in the ports in Britain.

Still, he admits that there is a significant drawback to this alternative bordering: “Unionists in Northern Ireland consider themselves to be British and really hold onto this idea of the United Kingdom,” McCall says, “They would feel that this is them being cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom and by inference forced into some sort of united Ireland regime.”

Carving out a compromise

While some Brexiters have shown a disregard for the issues surrounding the border—Paul Nuttal, now the leader of UKIP, once remarked, “If there’s a hard border, there’s a hard border…I personally wouldn’t have a problem if there was one”—political leaders in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Britain, have been clear that they want to find a solution that is sensitive to all sides of the conflict.

“Squaring the circle between maintaining a common travel area while being out of the Customs Union cannot be done unilaterally by the UK,” Cochrane says, “Ultimately they will need co-operation from the EU to allow for some alternative arrangement.”

The former head of the European Commission’s customs procedure has said that some border controls would return at the Irish border after Brexit, but suggested these border checks could be minimized if Ireland and Northern Ireland could recreate the unique border agreement at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Traffic into Norway is checked once by Norwegian customs, while Swedish customs officials check traffic in Sweden. This border agreement is largely possible, however, because Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), a membership which the British government is currently not pursuing.

While McCall said he doesn’t believe Brexit poses an immediate threat to the peace process, he argues, “the very symbolism of border guards back on the Irish border again is not good.” He warns it could feed dissident groups who are against the peace process.

As Ireland, the EU, and the UK scramble to deal with this Brexit headache, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing agreement has been plunged into another crisis. The deputy minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, resigned from his post, which put first minister Arlene Foster out of a job (the power-sharing agreement means one minister cannot work in isolation). McGuinness’s resignation follows a row over a green energy scheme, which is now projected to cost £490 million ($609 million) over budget. His resignation letter also touched on a number of other disagreements between the two parties, from same-sex marriage to how killings from the Troubles should be investigated.

Northern Ireland is now heading into new elections, with Brexit looming over it and no real plan to maintain the status quo at the border. May wants to make a success of Brexit and lead a “global Britain.” It’s unclear how exactly Northern Ireland will fit into that vision.