Straddling an Irish Border of Tranquility

 Ed O\'Loughlin

DUBLIN — The boundary between the Republic of Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland is both random and elusive. Created in 1922, when the island was divided between a newly independent south and a British-ruled northeast, the border follows ancient county boundaries rather than any geographical, social or military logic.

For more than 300 miles it twists through farmland and heath and thousands of the steep, hump-backed little hills known as drumlins, crossed by hundreds of winding back roads bounded by hedgerows.

Few of these border crossings are formally marked, and none now guarded. So porous is this frontier, so free is the movement across it, that tens of thousands of local people work on one side and live on the other. Yet in the weeks and months ahead, as the United Kingdom tries to negotiate the terms of its exit from the European Union, this all-but forgotten frontier could, in the worst-case scenario, gravely destabilize Ireland and threaten the unity of the United Kingdom.

Even before the British voted narrowly for "Brexit" in June 2016, the southern government was flagging a problem that Brexit's supporters seemed to ignore. If the U.K. leaves Europe completely, with no deal to retain the present harmonization of customs, trade and economic regulations between it and the other 27 member states, then this obscure administrative boundary will become a real border again, with the likely reintroduction of customs checks, road blocks, red tape and possibly even immigration controls.

The immediate economic disruption alone would be "catastrophic," says George Fleming, chairman of the Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce in Northern Ireland. Like many business people in the border region, Fleming - who owns a major manufacturer of agricultural machinery - oversees staff and supply chains that cross freely back and forth from the Republic, where he was born.

"We have imports coming from Italy, Spain, Holland, the Republic of Ireland, all over Europe. If all our supplies have to start coming through customs that will add expense, problems and delays. We export 88 percent of our products by ship or across the border. That's going to cause massive problems."

The border is crossed by 1.85 million cars a month, as well as 177,000 trucks and 208,000 vans, according to the Dublin government. In terms of money, cross-border trade in 2015 was valued at 3.4 billion euros, or $4 billion.

Worse, many fear that the reintroduction of a "hard" border could reignite the Northern Ireland "Troubles," an armed struggle fought among those resisting and supporting British rule. The last round of this conflict, which started in 1969 and killed around 3,500 people, was effectively ended by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This eased objections to continued British rule by, among other things, guaranteeing dual citizenship rights, north-south cooperation, and all but erasing the border with the south.

Declan Power, a Dublin-based security expert, says that any new border installations, particularly on the U.K. side, would be tempting targets for dissident republicans, still present in the border areas, who oppose the rebel Irish Republican Army's decision to disband after the Good Friday Agreement.

"The dissidents don't yet have the capabilities of the old Provisional IRA, but a hard border would give them a rallying point and a recruiting tool, and a new source of income, too, from an increase in smuggling," he says. "You could end up with a resurgence of old-fashioned terrorist elements that have been almost completely contained at the present time by the Good Friday Agreement."

The difficult terrain along the border has in the past been a paradise for militants launching local attacks or lying in ambush; during the Troubles, the British Army had to stop openly patrolling on the ground and needed to use helicopters to supply its heavily fortified hilltop positions.

Professor Brigid Laffan, director of global governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, says the English in general, and supporters of Brexit in particular, failed to take these concerns into account before last year's referendum.

"I was engaged in a lot of events during the referendum campaign in the U.K., and frankly, Ireland did not figure at all," she says. The British government failed to factor in the effect of Brexit for Ireland, or even the U.K. itself, she adds.

"They just didn't do their homework. They didn't take it seriously."

The Dublin government, on the other hand, went into emergency mode as soon as the vote was passed. Not only would a hard Brexit threaten the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland but, by disrupting existing rules, exchange rates and supply chains, it could cripple the Republic of Ireland's trade with the U.K., its second biggest export market, after the U.S., and by far its greatest source of imports.

Following a flurry of diplomacy, Dublin won an agreement from the other EU states that, as a precondition for divorce talks with London, any final Brexit arrangement must not lead to a reintroduction of a hard border in Northern Ireland or otherwise threaten the Good Friday Agreement.

On Dec. 8, with her back to the wall, British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to this precondition. But doubts remain about how she (or any successor) can guarantee a promise which - if Northern Ireland is to remain fully aligned with the Republic, and therefore the EU - could pull that territory further away, economically and politically, from the rest of the U.K.

Any such divergence is vehemently opposed by the political representatives of Northern Ireland's mainly protestant majority, who are deeply loyal to union with Britain, and who currently hold a narrow balance of power in the London parliament. Meanwhile, the hard Brexiters in May's own Conservative Party, and in the ultra-nationalist right wing British press, are opposed to any compromise.

Paul Bew, the emeritus professor of politics at Queens University in Belfast, says the general unionist community, although suspicious of the south, is pragmatic about trade and therefore opposes the reintroduction of a hard border. Approximately 56 percent of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, including a majority of nationalists and a strong minority of unionists. Yet the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, campaigned in favor of leaving the EU, putting British nationalist sentiment ahead of the perceived threat to the Good Friday Agreement.

"One of the problems is that the Good Friday Agreement is now being discussed by the unionists as if it wasn't a two-way deal, but a win for the nationalists, though it was based on unionist consent," says Bew. "There is a part of their heads and their hearts which isn't quite with the Good Friday Agreement."

The hope now, on both sides of the border, is that May's Dec. 8 declaration can be transformed into the softest of Brexits (if Brexit ever happens at all), in which not only Northern Ireland but the "mainland" U.K. would stay in full alignment with the EU on customs and standards, thereby safeguarding current levels of trade and leaving the border as it is.

The only other alternative, says Laffan, would be for the U.K. to abandon the negotiations and renege on all its standing agreements with the rest of Europe.

"With the situation in Britain as volatile as it is, that could still happen. But it would have to be completely irrational. It would be a decision by a significant, large country to become a pariah state. If they walk away from the EU and all of their obligations there, will Japan then turn around and give them a good trade deal? Will the U.S.? It doesn't seem likely."

Views: 271
Domain: Afterhours
Category: Entertainment

Recent Presentations

Kevin Brown
20 January, 2019
Kevin Brown
20 January, 2019
Kevin Brown
19 January, 2019