Hugh Orde: Return of Border controls after Brexit is inevitable

If you shut the front door, leaving the back door open would be stupid

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers continues to keep her head firmly stuck in a peat bog. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers continues to keep her head firmly stuck in a peat bog. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

When I became chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2002, I remember walking into my new office and seeing an impressive array of phones. One I was told was a secure line direct to the Garda commissioner’s office in Dublin.

It was but one example of how our two services worked closely together. However, telecoms aside, close co-operation between all European police agencies is now the norm, backed up by agreements and protocols to help us keep citizens safe.

It means that when pursuing criminals and terrorists across the distance that divides us, both sides can with the minimum of bureaucracy and in quick time have them arrested under a European arrest warrant.

This is a critical tool in modern policing that we have used to great effect. Add to this all the intelligence-sharing agreements and technology the UK and Ireland have invested millions in over many years.

Europol and Eurojust – the EU agencies dealing with co-operation in criminal and judicial matters – aid cross-border investigations. Leaving the EU – a decision that will face UK voters on June 23rd – becomes all the more problematic from a safety and security point of view when judged against that background.

The Schengen Information Systems (SIS) not only tell us who is wanted, they identify the vulnerable, the missing, stolen property and those of concern. Indeed, Europol is currently led by a UK policing professional.

All that (including our influence) goes if the UK leaves. I do not want to be on the outside of an organisation that has recently created an anti-terror hub to combat the new threats we all face that pay little attention to borders.

On the subject of borders, I find the Leave arguments both extraordinary and confused. It seems the main argument is we can pull up the good old drawbridge and keep everyone we do not want out.

Immigration has brought many benefits to the UK. In addition, people still require passports entering the UK and will continue to do so. But even with that, it is impossible to secure our coastline.

Terrorism and crime

Europe

In terms of the Border that divides the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland the argument to leave becomes farcical. It is inevitable that Border controls would have to return – the whole Brexit argument is around this very point. If you shut the front door, leaving the back door open would be stupid. Indeed, serious players such as Lord Nigel Lawson and UK justice minister Dominic Raab have acknowledged this fact. Yet Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers continues to keep her head firmly stuck in a peat bog.

Recently , she reminded us of the long history of our relationship, asserting no control would be necessary. She needs to clarify in very simple terms her position – currently it is at right angles to others in the Leave campaign.

It is not right or fair to the citizen. Villiers has as a simple question to answer: leading figures in the Leave campaign and in the British government have all said the Border would be reinstated if Britain leaves the EU. Only you disagree. Will you admit there is a serious, likelihood a hard Border would be reinstated?

The position in the South seems clearer, Taoiseach Enda Kenny observes that Border controls would have to be looked at if the UK leaves. Views on the impact of leaving Europe in terms of the residual terrorist threat in Northern Ireland are more complex.

Commentators with a good knowledge of the issues have observed an exit could be detrimental, and I agree. American diplomat Richard Haass, who I knew and respected when I was chief constable, has observed it would “add to tensions”.

The Taoiseach has commented on the “guns being silent” and we “should not put anything like that at risk”. Anything that suggests an increased division in Northern Ireland and between the North and the Republic is a bad thing.

The vision of Border controls plays into the hands of those who have yet to realise the armed struggle is over. I remember just how important “demilitarisation” was in terms of policing and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The removal of the towers along the Border was a significant event. It represented a shift to civilian policing, and a recognition that significant political achievements had created the conditions that allowed it to happen.

Any step backwards is a really bad idea, which is why Villiers’s position is close to untenable. My time in Northern Ireland was the most challenging and most satisfying of my 38-year career in policing.

I had the privilege of working with some of the most outstanding police officers and staff members who worked tirelessly to keep citizens safe. Likewise, my relationship with An Garda Síochána was another highlight.

Intelligence sharing

But post-Brexit, if it happens, the police across the UK will be on the outside looking in, benefiting from what others choose to share, not being front and centre, leading and influencing the agenda and contributing our expertise.

That in my judgment is a risky place to be in the new world of terrorism where dying is part of the plan. When that direct line to Dublin rang in my office in Belfast, our conversations were underpinned by the knowledge that EU membership helped give us the tools we needed.

If a fugitive needed to be arrested, the European arrest warrant gave us the power we needed. If we needed to mount a joint investigation team, Eurojust would assist (and fund it). Without access to these, the citizen will be less safe.

Sir Hugh Orde was chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) between 2002 and 2009

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