Notions of a high-tech unseen border are a pipe dream or smokescreen, Brexiteer promises of a soft border almost worthless. British prime minister Theresa May has other priorities. Anyway it depends on negotiations involving 27 other states and on what people in Ireland North and South do – or fail to do. A 56 per cent Northern Ireland majority, including many unionists, voted Remain; few Leavers want a hard border and most in the South are strongly opposed. But there will be a hard border. The only question is where?
The land Border between North and South leaks like a sieve. It meanders for 499 contorted kilometres through towns, villages, local communities, farms and occasionally houses – front door in one state, back door in the other. Even during the Troubles, when highly militarised and with 200 cross-Border roads closed, it was leaky. It is virtually useless for stopping an inflow of immigrants, the main reason behind Brexit.
So the real or hard border will actually be the sea around the island of Britain and the ports and airports connecting with the island of Ireland.
Controlling freight depends on whether free trade continues between North and South under some hybrid EU arrangement such as the North remaining in the customs union. That would limit Brexit’s damage to two substantially integrated economies and also locates the hard border for goods at the ports and airports connecting Ireland and Britain. These already have physical infrastructures for controlling freight separate from people. Not so the land Border where controls would mean costly delays and clog up Border roads for the thousands who regularly criss-cross to work, study, shop and socialise, living their lives on both sides. And it would still be leaky for goods as well as people with the South getting smuggled food and other commodities not up to EU standards. Only smugglers benefit from borders that are leaky and uncontrollable. Functionally having the real border at the ports and airports makes sense within Ireland and for Britain and the EU.
Any attempt to re-impose a hard Border would be highly disruptive and extremely unpopular, not only in local Border communities but across the island. There would inevitably be widespread popular resistance and civil disobedience.
IRA Border campaign
More ominously, it would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a peace process built on cross-Border institutions and minimising the Border. Re-imposing a hard border would wreck the strategy, with only the paramilitaries benefiting. Building Border installations would be an open invitation for the Republican dissidents to copy the IRA’s 1950s Border campaign of attacking Border posts. That could increase their support and in turn increase loyalist paramilitarism, conceivably reigniting at least a mini-version of the Troubles.
Avoiding all the various threats by displacing the hard border to ports and airports won't be easy. Defining and achieving the crucial hybrid EU arrangement for North-South relations faces substantial problems. The administrations in Belfast and Dublin are problematical, not to mention the one in London. Northern powersharing has collapsed and the leading unionist party, the DUP, is pro-Brexit and out-of-step with the majority. The Irish Government has dismissed special EU status for Northern Ireland, possibly in mistaken deference to British Brexiteers, on the peculiar grounds that it would deflect from Ireland's uniqueness.
This uniqueness demands a hybrid solution as the EU is well aware, having poured millions into the cross-Border peace process. It is well used to hybrids and anomalies: EU member-state Denmark contains Greenland which is not in the EU, while other countries outside the EU are in the EU's single market or its Schengen travel area.
The Government must be directly involved in Brexit negotiations. While the EU does not owe Britain any favours, it certainly owes the Republic. It has been EU loyal to a fault. It is the only EU state sharing a land border with British territory and will suffer more from Brexit than other EU states. Northern Ireland will have a major concentration of EU citizens living outside the EU and they can demand to be taken into consideration. If the EU is politically smart – always a question – it will reward its supporters.
If Irish nationalists were smart – another big if – they’d avoid the usual reheated rhetoric about a Border poll. It’s a premature distraction and would simply alienate unionists. The new and immediate challenge of stopping a hard land border needs the support of unionists and others as well as nationalists.
James Anderson is emeritus professor of political geography in the Mitchell Institute and a founder-member of the Centre for International Borders Research at Queen's University Belfast.