Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Gibraltar's experience exposes British Brexit lies

The Spain-Gibraltar border shows what a customs-union divide looks like

Some of the titles still on the shelves of the old Garrison Library in Gibraltar: Charles Mayer's Jungle Beasts I Have Captured; GP Sanderson's Thirteen Years Among the Wild Beasts of India; the Maharajah of Cooch Behar's Shooting in Cooch Behar: A Record of Thirty-Seven Years of Sport and my favourite, Major AE Wardrop's Modern Pig-Sticking.

The library was founded in 1793 and remained as a refined retreat for the officers of the British military garrison until 2011. Inside the elegant Georgian building, there is a stellar gathering of historians at a conference called Bordering on Brexit, itself part of a wider project called "Embers of Empire".

Outside, looming above the lush back garden, is the massive Jurassic bulk of the Rock of Gibraltar surmounted by a huge union jack on which, I can report, the sun does actually set. Few places on Earth are at once so imposingly real and so utterly symbolic.

Gibraltar has some things to tell us about both the physical realities of Brexit and the complexities of the post-imperial Britishness that surround it

Gibraltar is, in a sense, all border. Its historic importance is that it marks and controls the border between the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. And its contemporary importance is that, along with the Irish Border, it will be, after Brexit, the other land frontier between the European Union and British territory.


In that regard, it has some things to tell us about both the physical realities of Brexit and the complexities of the post-imperial Britishness that surround it. For just as “no hard border” has entered our political phrasebook, the Gibraltarian government says of Brexit that its priority “will be to give people certainty on the fluidity of the frontier” with Spain.

In a sense, the Gibraltar border is a massively simplified version of our own. From the top of the Rock, you can look down and see it all laid out: the Spanish town of La Linea, the narrow isthmus, the border fence and the runway of the Gibraltar airport that almost immediately abuts it.

Politically, it is a frontier almost as fraught as our own: Spain does not accept long-term British sovereignty over the Rock and also disputes the area on which the airport was built. But geographically, it could not be more straightforward. It is 1.2km long compared to Ireland's 500km. It has a single, controlled crossing point, compared to 208 official crossings on our island and an infinite number of unofficial ones. If ours is the Finnegans Wake of frontiers, this is Borders for Dummies.

Border infrastructure

But even so, the first thing you see when you come out of Gibraltar airport is the very thing we never want to see again in Ireland: physical border infrastructure. It is relatively small and it is pleasantly topped on the southern side by the flags of the UK, Gibraltar and the EU but it is exactly what you would expect to see if you were crossing, for example, from the United States to Canada or from France to Switzerland: buildings, barriers, police, border guards.

This is striking because, for now, both sides of this border are in the EU. How can this be? The reason is highly significant from an Irish point of view: Gibraltar, when it joined the Common Market along with Britain and Ireland, stayed out of the customs union.

So what you’re seeing when you look at the Gibraltar border is exactly what the line between a member of the customs union (Spain) and a non-member looks like. You are not just looking at the present, you are looking at what, without a satisfactory deal on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, is Ireland’s future.

It is true, of course, that Gibraltar is not in the Schengen travel area while Spain is, so there are passport checks. Assuming, as everyone does, that the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland remains intact after Brexit, this will not be our problem.

But even if Gibraltar and Spain were not in different travel areas, they would still have to have the same infrastructure because of customs checks. Since the British government insists that Northern Ireland must leave the customs union, the situation will in this regard be the same.

And this raises a very stark question: if the British know of some magical technological way to have a customs frontier with no physical infrastructure, why have they not already applied it in Gibraltar?

If the British know of some magical technological way to have a customs frontier with no physical infrastructure, why have they not already applied it in Gibraltar?

The other obvious thing about the Gibraltar border is that it is inescapably political. In one sense, what has happened here in recent decades is very similar to what has happened on our island. This frontier was so bitterly contested that Spain, under General Franco, closed it entirely between 1969 and 1985, ironically solidifying the British identity of the enclave's indigenous people.

Enclave delays

It has since been, to use another current term, “de-dramatised”, just as ours was in the 1990s. Thousands of people move back and forth daily for work and pleasure. But what has been de-dramatised can always be re-dramatised at a moment’s notice.

When I drove out of Gibraltar last Sunday afternoon, passport at the ready, there were actually no checks at all. But the driver, Chris, an English expat who lives on the Costa del Sol and ferries passengers to and from the enclave all the time, said that there have been times when he has been delayed for 5½ hours at the border and the queues of cars and trucks have snaked all the way around the Rock.

As recently as 2013, there was a serous diplomatic incident when the British government accused Spain of conducting “excessive” searches of vehicles at the Gibraltar border and “torturing” travellers. Contested borders will never be entirely “frictionless”. They will always be political pressure points.

The other way in which Gibraltar resonates with Northern Ireland is, of course, in its Britishness and more specifically in what it says about the relationship between Britishness and Brexitness. The DUP and many of its supporters would undoubtedly see the Gibraltarians as political kith and kin: doughty defenders of a British identity under siege.

But while the DUP not only campaigned for Brexit but has aligned itself with the Rees-Moggian ultras, the Gibraltarians take a radically different view of their interests. A Soviet-style 96 per cent of them voted against it in the 2016 referendum. And the tone you hear from Gibraltar’s government and officials is calm, pragmatic, carefully focused on limiting the damage and getting the best possible outcome.

Joe Bossano, aka Sir Joseph Bossano KCMG, is probably one of the best negotiators alive. He has been a huge figure in the life of Gibraltar for the last 50 years, first as a ferocious labour organiser, agitator and founder of the Socialist Labour Party, and later as chief minister of the territory.

He led dockworkers and seamen to victory in a four-year-long campaign of strikes and blockades to win pay parity with their British counterparts. He has dealt with successive British governments, with Spanish antagonism, and with the EU. He is a dedicated Marxist who negotiated with international capitalists to turn Gibraltar into a haven for their money and used the proceeds to subside public housing and free university education.

‘Three possibilities’

At 79, he is still minister for economic development and when I had dinner with him last Saturday night he said he plans to stand for re-election next year.

Given all of this, I asked him what he thought about the Brexit negotiations. His answer is the best short summary I’ve yet heard: “There were only three possibilities. One was the status quo, which the British have decided they don’t want.

“The second is something better than the status quo, which the EU can’t possibly give them. And the third is something worse than the status quo, but since the status quo was not acceptable to you, something worse than the status quo couldn’t be acceptable either.

“It is quite simple: if you enter into a negotiation in which all of your options are impossible, you can’t win.”

If you leave aside his Marxism and his atheism – admittedly rather a lot for the DUP to leave aside – Bossano has much in common with the DUP. Gibraltar is an iconic outpost of Britishness, and he is one of the people who have fought to keep it that way. Like the DUP, he has often been more British than British governments, driving them crazy with his hardline resistance to any compromise with Spain on the issue of sovereignty. Like the DUP, he has also insisted on local self-government.

It is quite simple: if you enter into a negotiation in which all of your options are impossible, you can't win

When you see the steps of the main passageway up the Rock from the old town of Gibraltar painted in the colours and form of the union jack, like kerbstones in loyalist estates, you don’t have to stretch too far for the connections.

Room to retreat

And, astonishingly, Joe Bossano tells me that he spent his early childhood in, of all places, the Paisleyite heartland of Ballymena. During the second World War, the British rather ruthlessly evacuated the civilian population of Gibraltar to Britain. Joe’s family ended up living in a Nissen hut in what was effectively a refugee camp in Co Antrim. Back in Gibraltar, he was briefly educated by the Irish Christian Brothers before, as he puts it, “we parted by mutual agreement”.

He became a deckhand in the merchant navy, moved to West Ham in London’s East End and joined the Seaman’s Union. He learned his negotiating skills the hard way, dealing with ship owners in a very rough industry.

Which brings us back to Brexit. “When you are going in to a negotiation,” he says, “the most important thing you need to know is: what happens if I fail? You must have a way out – you try to get what you want but if that’s not possible, you have to be able to retreat and fight another day.”

In a week when the Irish Border continued to bedevil Brexit and British politics was resounding with the drama of “humiliation” and demands for “respect”, it was all the more poignant, watching the sun go down over the Rock, to be reminded of such solid advice from a veteran fighter for Britishness: don’t go into talks when there is no good outcome and always leave yourself a way out.

In this outpost of empire, the natives knew something the mother country had forgotten.