Newton Emerson: We could not reinstate the Border even if we wanted to
Hysteria about a post-Brexit Border from the 1950s is in danger of tipping over into farce
A customs stop on the road from Belfast to Dublin. “So we are left to picture a vaguely 1950s netherworld of peak-capped inspectors in wooden huts, completely alien to the technology and practice of modern trade and travel.” Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images
I suppose, just for badness, I should welcome southern readers back inside the UK.
That was the implication of Fianna Fáil’s statement on Monday.
Responding to reports that the British and Irish governments hope to update the Common Travel Area (CTA), a party spokesperson said: “Any Brexit plan which included Ireland taking responsibility for the UK border should be a non-runner.”
How have the soldiers of Micheál Martin not noticed that Ireland has had responsibility for the UK border for 80 years? The CTA is operated as a shared external boundary for both states, with co-ordinated immigration policies.
As recently as 2009, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern was assuring the Dáil that a British review of the Common Travel Area would not mean Ireland losing this responsibility.
“All they are looking at is increased cross-Border co-operation,” he told TDs, and that is all anyone is looking at now.
Separate discussions on electronic customs have the same aim of a physically invisible frontier.
European institutions are often explained with Venn diagrams, showing the bewildering variety of overlapping memberships of the EU, Council of Europe, customs union, Schengen and so on.
Ireland and the UK always have a circle of their own, inside the EU but outside Schengen. Any response to Brexit other than via the CTA would mean moving one edge of that circle over the Border, apparently to the delight of partitionist Fianna Fáil.
Pretending that Ireland has sole responsibility for a standalone frontier requires appropriately Irish thinking – for example, making a fetish out of passport-free travel, although it is impossible to board almost any aircraft across the Irish Sea without one. Or empowering the Garda Immigration Bureau to check the papers of any non-Irish citizen anywhere, meaning Irish people may show a passport to prove they must not show one.
Or there is the simple fact that only non-white bus and train passengers ever seemed to get checked, which is not hard or racist at all.
Because the Border already exists in a state of plausible deniability, discussing its exact future is difficult. Hence everyone from Kenny to Theresa May has started promising “no return to the borders of the past”.
To what does this ingenious phrase refer?
It cannot mean the fortified border of the Troubles because the Troubles are over, and even those warning that Brexit threatens the peace process quickly add this does not imply a war process.
It cannot mean the customs posts that survived for 20 years after EEC accession, right up to 1993, because nationalists have carefully forgotten about that.
It cannot mean moving the Border between Britain and Ireland down the middle of the Irish Sea , as happened when the CTA was suspended for 13 years from the start of the second World War, because unionists have carefully forgotten about that.
So we are left to picture a vaguely 1950s netherworld of peak-capped inspectors in wooden huts, completely alien to the technology and practice of modern trade and travel.
Yet that is the spectre Sinn Féin was reduced to conjuring up last Saturday at its ‘Border Communities Against Brexit’ protest, which looked like a cross between a Mosney fancy dress parade and Britain’s Shed of the Year.
There is an assumption that Sinn Féin must be seeking to capitalise on chaos – that Brexit’s uncertainty is Ireland’s opportunity. However, a cynic might wonder if some of our more excitable republicans are just being given a straw bogeyman to distract from whatever political and technological fixes emerge.
Regardless of Sinn Féin’s Brexit grandstanding in the Dáil, it is striking how little pressure it has applied to its DUP partner at Stormont. Pro-Remain parties have brought a high-profile judicial review in Belfast, funded by the rights sector, but while the SDLP, Alliance and Greens have named their leaders in the action, Sinn Féin has only put forward a former minister.
Could the republican party sense that Brexit hysteria is already getting old, with years and years still to go?
I cannot help recalling tales of my great-grandfather’s caravan at Warrenpoint, converted from a bus, as was not uncommon in his day.
The appeal of its location was smuggling from Omeath, to beat postwar sweet rationing and toy shortages as much as to evade customs. On summer days, the little open ferry returned across Carlingford Lough loaded to the gunwales with Sherbet Dip-Dabs, Parma Violets, Meccano cranes and also, sadly, golliwogs. One sat in my grandmother’s house for years, its immigration status unresolved.
That was the Border of the past and we will never see its like again. Instead, we will show our passports at airports, where we would have shown them anyway, or tick one box instead of another on electronic shipping forms at work – and everyone who portrayed this as the end of the world is going to look pretty daft.