Brexit and the border

10 Jun 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Debate around the EU referendum has long since fallen down the rabbit hole. Scope takes a look at the issue of the Irish border and comes to a calm if uncertain conclusion.

Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major came to Northern Ireland this week to offer a bleak assessment of the consequences of Brexit.

In particular, they warned of the re-emergence of controls along the Irish border. They are not alone in this view.

Chancellor George Osborne – alongside other public figures speaking out against Brexit – said this week that there would need to be a “hardening” along the border, that a vague allusion some problematic situation. Perhaps vagueness represents the best analysis in this debate.

On the other hand, both Boris Johnson and local secretary of State Theresa Villiers, senior Brexit figures, have said nothing whatsoever will change if the UK leaves the European Union.

So, if we do leave the EU, will something change, or not? What will happen to the Northern Irish border?

Public debate on the referendum, as exercised by senior figures in both official campaigns, has been problematic, with both consistently applying as much disingenuity and false certitude as they feel appropriate to sugarcoat their arguments.

In many ways it has become as much about the political ambitions of the central protagonists as it has about the future of the country. On any single issue the side for whom a sober analysis is less convenient – sometimes Brexit, sometimes Bremain – has consistently pushed the big red button marked hysteria and made bold, mad claims of doom.

The Leave Campaign has successfully dubbed the Remain camp Project Fear, which is ironic because they have used ludicrous hyperbole just as well as their opponents, but nonetheless strikes a true note because David Cameron has focused on the possible negatives of leaving the EU much more than addressing the positives we get from the existing relationship.

At the same time, the Brexiteers have been remarkably chipper about what would at best be a short- and medium-term period of significant uncertainty and, likely, insecurity.

Border the debate

"Let's be clear, if we quit the EU then this is going to be the border with the European Union,” said the Chancellor, of the Irish border, adding, "And all the things that those that want to quit the EU claim would happen – i.e. new immigration checkpoints, border controls and an end to free movement - that has a real consequence, and there would have to be a real hardening of the border imposed either by the British government or indeed by the Irish government.”

This makes a certain sense. Leave the EU and it’s the end of free movement. The Irish border would one union’s border with another, two separate entities, and therefore checks would and should be applied.

But the Leave Campaign has long argued these fears are a chimera, with Theresa Villiers saying previously: “It is the clear position of the Leave campaign that we would not reintroduce border checks.”

Putting aside the fact that Ms Villiers appears to think that if the UK exits the EU then the Leave Campaign gets to run the country, there are reasons behind this line of thinking.

The UK and Ireland entered into a Common Travel Area agreement in 1923, an informal waiver of passport controls.

However, think back to the Troubles and you can see that this agreement is not gospel. Moreover, the UK and Ireland joined the EU at the same time, so the CTA has never been tested with one side of the line part of the EU and the other not.

Less relevant, but also notable, is the fact that RoI is not itself a member of the Schengen group, an area including 26 EU countries that has abolished passport patrols at border between member nations.

Taken altogether, the Chancellor’s warnings – similar to those of Major and Blair - sound more probable than the assertions of the Leave Campaign. However, this back and forth about what policy was signed when and by whom, while a discussion of relevant topics, misses the point to some degree.

Back in the real world

If in two weeks the nation votes to leave the EU we then face two years of decoupling the relationship, during which much will be decided – including the new nature, if any, of the Irish border.

That is the defining aspect of any current assessment of a post-EU future for the UK: uncertainty.

On some of the broader issues, like the economy and trade and foreign policy, this uncertainty should be much more worrying as we would be altering the effect of global market and social forces on ourselves in an uncertain way.

Perhaps the overall effect would be positive, perhaps not.

Next to all that, the Irish border is a remarkably simple issue. Pre-existing arrangements would be reviewed and a new policy will be devised.

A complication is that the EU itself might (indeed, will) have a significant say in these arrangements – and it is unlikely, for a whole raft of reasons, that they would want the border to stay as it is.

The final answer is maybe things will change, and maybe they won’t. The former seems more likely than the latter, but then the question is one of extent.

For most people in Northern Ireland, and the rest of the UK and Ireland, the effect on their lives should be minimal (unless this all somehow does derail the peace process). It seems extraordinarily unlikely that a Trumpian wall will appear from Carlingford to Foyle.

This does not mean that there are not people susceptible to relatively small changes in process. As it stands the border exists more conceptually than physically. For people in the border towns, particularly those with business interests that traverse the thin red line on the map, even a meagre amount of extra bureaucracy could bring costs, in one way or another.

Per the Chancellor, just this week: “"I was just talking to a guy who drives a truck - he remembers when it used to take two hours to get across the border and, as a result, business wouldn't come here, jobs wouldn't come here, people would trade directly with the Republic.”

It is understandable they should worry, and this should be taken into consideration by anyone casting their vote. But, whatever way you are thinking in this debate, it’s important to keep your feet somewhere close to reality, even as the main protagonists of the debate fly ever further into fantasy.

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