Post-Brexit Border issue requires a ‘double-doors’ solution

To safeguard the all-island economy, Ireland needs two partly overlapping trade zones

A former Border post between the Republic and Northern Ireland, in Carrickarnon. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/The New York Times

A former Border post between the Republic and Northern Ireland, in Carrickarnon. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/The New York Times

 

If the UK leaves the EU a “hard” Border is inevitable. The key question is where? The Democratic Unionist Party objects to it being “in the Irish Sea” but provides no coherent solution of its own. “Sea borders” for the whole island are the only genuine answer.

Without a proper UK-EU-Irish Republic deal, the default answer is the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The now substantially integrated all-island economy, its Border-crossing production processes, trade, commuting, shopping and socialising links, and the cross-Border bodies underpinning the peace process would be disrupted or severed. Border posts would attract “dissident republican” paramilitaries.

This supposedly “hard” Border would leak like a sieve – it did so even when militarised in the Troubles – providing illegal access to the single market and making Ireland a smuggling bonanza for paramilitary and criminal gangs.

Britain and the continental EU, unable to rely on Ireland’s insecure land border, would have to protect themselves with customs checks on traffic from Ireland at their own ports and airports.

‘Intermediate space’

It would be so much better for all concerned if the island’s borders instead became part of a proper solution. Rather than the EU and the UK being separated by a single, supposedly “hard” Border, they could be separated by two relatively “soft” ones, with Ireland benefiting in between them.

Its position would be comparable to the “intermediate space” between the double security doors for entering and exiting banks, except here one “door” links Ireland with Britain, the other with the continent.

This damage-limitation solution would safeguard the all-island economy and place it in two partly overlapping trade zones, with Britain and with the continent (elsewhere these zones are separated by the single hard border Britain and the continental EU want for themselves, most notably the English Channel).

This free movement would not apply to people and goods which originated outside Ireland

The North along with the South (a full EU member) retains trading access to the continent; and the South along with the North (part of the UK) retains access to its vital British markets for agricultural products, parts of which originated in the North anyway.

Selective controls at the two “soft” borders surrounding Ireland enable the continuing free entry of people and goods from Britain and from the continental EU; and continuing free entry into both of them for goods made in Ireland and for residents with or qualifying for Irish (including those who also have British) citizenship.

However, this free movement would not apply to people and goods which originated outside Ireland. There’s no “back-door” for non-Irish immigrants to Britain, or to the continent – they may be denied entry at their ports and airports. Likewise, non-Irish goods imported into Ireland could be denied entry to the continental EU or Britain.

Minimum disruption

This “double doors” scheme ensures minimum disruption. However, trade patterns will change, including with the rest of the world; the UK-EU deal and EU regulations have to be administered in changing circumstances; and there therefore needs to be an all-island customs authority.

And just as ports and airports already have necessary physical infrastructures, so Ireland (because of the peace process) already has the political infrastructures (eg, the North-South Ministerial Council, British-Irish Council) on which to construct a Border management authority democratically accountable to the two political jurisdictions, North and South.

When the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland needs single market access, perhaps by joining the European Economic Area or via a customs union. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney recognised this when, in a significant policy shift, he favoured a “unique status” which “connects Northern Ireland to the customs union” (The Irish Times, June 23rd), adding that Michel Barnier was “on board”.

The DUP leader Arlene Foster (in an interview with Amanda Ferguson for Reuters, October 29th, 2016) stated that “Northern Ireland could have a different relationship to the EU’s single market or customs union from the rest of the UK following its exit from the EU”.

Coveney rightly rejected the notion that technology could provide an “invisible” land border; and any differential EU relationship as suggested by Foster inevitably requires “sea borders” of some sort.

Some unionists object, wrongly seeing it as a constitutional issue (as did some nationalists who immediately called for a Border poll).

But the 56 per cent northern majority against Brexit already includes about one-third of unionist voters, and very few pro-Brexit voters want a “hard” land Border. It would damage most people – North and South, nationalist, unionist and neither.

A “double-doors” solution seems the only genuine alternative. Campaigning for it should start now.

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

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