World View: Brexit may force re-evaluation of Irish unity

The return of a hard Border would have a devastating impact North and South

Taoiseach Enda Kenny  in Brussels: says keeping the Border open will be a political decision and not a technical one. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Brussels: says keeping the Border open will be a political decision and not a technical one. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

 

‘The Treaty of Rome, which we will celebrate on its 60th anniversary next month, is one of the greatest peace agreements in history. Without it, there could have been no Good Friday Agreement.’ Taoiseach Enda Kenny made this claim in his landmark speech on Brexit last month, arguing for the unique status of Ireland in those negotiations.

It is a strong and effectively made case which links two peace processes and their values. Common EU membership enabled the Irish and British governments to develop the respect and contacts necessary to reach agreement on Northern Ireland.

Irish-British reconciliation is embedded in joint EU membership. Without that condition the complex political and economic interdependence between the two states could unravel and would need to be replaced by new arrangements agreed within an EU setting.

EU support and funding have also been essential, especially in cross-Border areas. As the potential impact of a hard Brexit is better understood, these regions are insisting there must be no return to the previous hard Border regime. That is happening at local and regional levels with demonstrations, public meetings and new research. The issue vividly illustrates the multilevel nature of European politics.

The Donegal-Derry-Tyrone area typifies many of the problems involved. Over the last 20 years strong economic, educational, health and commercial relations have been developed across the Border within the setting of reduced security and political tensions and growing opportunities from the EU’s single market.

Peace process

As a joint scoping analysis just published by the Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council makes clear, a northwest city region has emerged from the peace process which must be protected from the potentially damaging effects of a hard Brexit (http://iti.ms/2lHafcd).

Speaking at the Colmcille Winter School in Donegal last weekend on Ireland and the EU after Brexit, Michael Gallagher, one of its authors, spoke of the interconnectedness which sees some 320,000 journeys across the Border every week on the three main crossings which connect 350,000 people. There are 52 crossings in Donegal, only 12 of which are approved.

Forty-eight per cent of Muff’s population now works in Northern Ireland. Some 1,800 Donegal students study there. A new cancer unit in Altnagelvin hospital services the whole region. Northern Ireland’s dairy industry is deeply embedded in the South for processing and the beef industry is similarly interdependent. But sheep are mostly exported to France and Spain.

The study gives details of consultations with educational, health, business, construction, retail, services, fishing, agriculture, voluntary and social enterprise sectors, highlighting questions asked and policies that should be pursued through the Brexit negotiations. It is an excellent evidence-based ongoing exercise which should be replicated in other cross-Border regions such as Newry-Dundalk and Armagh-Cavan-Monaghan.

Regional dynamics

What makes it especially interesting is that these regional dynamics have been enabled by the peace process and its EU dimensions and are therefore case studies of the damage which could happen and must be avoided in a hard Brexit. Projections to 2030 show lower job creation in Donegal and Derry-Strabane. To counter that a draft strategic growth plan emphasises increased educational resources, transport and investment opportunities.

Donegal people have long-standing complaints about their peripherality within the Republic and therefore value this new regional dynamic all the more. They are determined to protect it, emphasising how much the county depends on Northern Ireland for trade and tourism, a reality often unappreciated in Dublin.

British and Irish policy-makers are realising how important it will be to reassure local and regional actors and interests that the Border will remain open. The Irish-UK Common Travel Area makes it easier to do that for people. Goods will have to be checked for trade diversion and regulatory standards if the UK is outside the EU customs union.

Other speakers, including Edgar Morgenroth of the ESRI and MEP Mairead McGuinness, referred to the potentially devastating impact of 50-60 per cent WTO tariffs on meat and other agricultural products if no agreement is reached. These sectors would also be hit if the UK goes for a cheap food policy.

Ways of protecting against that under discussion include exempting sectoral cross-Border supply chains and Irish-EU land trade through the UK from customs controls and putting those controls at British entry points.

Enda Kenny says keeping the Border open will be a political decision and not a technical one. McGuinness added her voice to the growing number who say the Brexit issue has completely changed previously sceptical attitudes towards Irish unity.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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