by John Doyle and Eileen Connolly (Dublin City University)
The question of the location of the de facto border between Ireland and the UK post Brexit has major significance for the future of peace and economic stability on the island of Ireland.
The issue of the border has not yet been resolved, nor is there any indication that there is an obvious preferred solution for the UK Government, although both the EU and the Irish Government and indeed the UK Government have stated a disinclination for a hard land border. It is feared that a hard land border will not only restrict trade on the island but also, and more importantly, destabilize the Good Friday peace process and lead to a new spiral of violence. This gloomy prediction is reinforced by the nature of the political division in Northern Ireland on the referendum.
While Northern Ireland as a region of the UK voted to remain within the European Union, the electorate was split on party lines that substantially reflected attitudes to the question of the long-term status of Northern Ireland. Exit polls suggest that 88% of self-defined Irish nationalists voted to remain in the EU, while 60% of self-defined unionists voted to leave. The two major parties reflect this division, with Sinn Féin supporting EU membership and the largest unionist party, the DUP, supporting Brexit.
Northern Ireland’s position in the Brexit process is distinct as it is a fragile post-conflict society, with unresolved issues relating to the conflict, and with an economy that has been weakened and distorted by conflict. As in many post conflict societies, the public sector is proportionally large, representing 60% of the local economy. There is a high level of dependency on external actors, with EU transfers making up over 8% of local GDP in the 6 years prior to 2013. The small, emerging, private sector in NI sends 60% of it exports to the EU making it more reliant on this market than the rest of the UK. 21% of all exports go to the Republic of Ireland – a market that has grown strongly during the peace process which opened the borders with the South.
In the likely event that the UK leaves the single market, the accession agreement for Cyprus offers a possible model to maintain the benefits of an open border. The Cyprus solution uses the WTO rules covering enclaves, to allow goods produced in non-EU ‘Northern’ Cyprus to enter the EU via the Republic of Cyprus as EU goods. NI produced goods could be treated similarly – with equal access to both the EU and the UK, based on certification that they are genuinely from the region. This would allow such goods to travel from NI to the Republic of Ireland across an open border. If the final EU deal (or absence of a deal) requires physical checks on goods, that could happen at seaports and airports, retaining for the small post-conflict NI private sector the benefits of EU single market membership.
This solution also has benefits from a security perspective, as managing illegal migration across the Irish Sea from airports and ports is more practical and avoids the need for a security apparatus on the land border. Post Brexit, NI will have the only UK land border with the EU – a border of almost 500km, which could not be successfully sealed even during the conflict. Illegal migration to NI itself is not currently a problem and in any case illegal migrants to NI, post Brexit, could not access welfare benefits and would face limited employment prospects. A sea ‘border’ is a solution that facilitates economic development and allows for the control of migration.
The strongest security threat from Brexit is its potential to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which supports North-South institutions and (by implication) an open Irish border – features that are central to the nationalist community’s support for it. The North-South institutions are predicated on the participation of both Ireland and the UK in EU policy frameworks, allowing these bodies to formulate an ‘all Ireland’ strategy. While the loss of these institutions would weaken the peace process, it is the creation of a physical infrastructure for customs and security checks necessary to a hard land border, that will present the biggest threat to peace. Such a customs and security presence will inevitably be a focus for dissident IRA groups who are currently politically marginal. It will provide them with a highly symbolic target, which can be attacked with a very low level of military capacity, giving them a new rallying point and an ability to present the peace process as a ‘failure’.
For unionists, having a de facto security and migration ‘border’ between Northern Ireland and Britain is ideologically difficult to accept and presents the major single obstacle to this solution to the border question. While Brexit will inevitably weaken the Good Friday Agreement it is the location of the de facto border that is likely to be the critical factor in post Brexit levels of violent conflict.