Much of the debate around Brexit thus far has rightly centred on the government’s shambolic handling of the process, and its cavalier attitude to the potentially disastrous impacts on the UK economy. However on the rather serious constitutional question of Ireland, the Leavers’ astounding recklessness has gone almost unnoticed.
It is abundantly clear that the Leavers have absolutely no clue about how the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will operate in practice in the event of Brexit. They also seem blithely unaware of the history and ongoing political sensitivities around contested national identities on the island of Ireland, particularly, of course, in Northern Ireland.
If Brexit leads to the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with control systems in place to monitor the movement of people and/or goods and services between a non-EU and an EU country, it will have major economic and personal consequences. A quarter of Northern Irish businesses have employees who live on the other side of the border, so any strict restrictions would cause havoc. Cross-border trade on the island is worth £2.2bn per year and there are numerous cross-border production chains, not least in agriculture. Moreover, trade between the Republic of Ireland and the UK as a whole is worth as much as Britain’s trade with China.
In political terms, a hard border would seriously undermine the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This landmark treaty is enshrined in international law and was based on the UK and the Republic of Ireland being members of the European Union. Even if the Common Travel Area is maintained between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, there will be customs and passport checks along the border if the UK leaves the Customs Union, which looks increasingly likely as the government veers towards a hard Brexit.
This is a particularly sensitive border that was of great concern to the British and Irish governments during the Troubles. At best, these problems will upset the political equilibrium in Ireland, raising all the old arguments over Irish unity and thus damaging relations between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland, and between the administrations in Belfast, Dublin and London. At worst, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that militant republicans will use Brexit, and even the faintest sign of a hard border, to renew agitation for Irish unity by violent means. Indeed, this was one of the main concerns raised by the Deputy Leader of Sinn Féin and then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, in his meeting with the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, in Brussels before Christmas.
These concerns are not far-fetched and should not be dismissed as ‘scaremongering’, as the Leave campaign glibly did during the referendum.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, Martin McGuinness called for a ‘border poll’ on unification, arguing that the ‘dangers’ posed by Brexit needed ‘all-Ireland solutions’. He has since toned down the rhetoric, but unification remains the raison d’etre of Sinn Féin and they will naturally make the most of any political situation that provides, in their minds, the slightest opportunity to move this agenda forward. Brexit will almost certainly fuel this agenda given that the majority of nationalists, and Northern Ireland as a whole, voted to Remain.
Not surprisingly, Arlene Foster – the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and First Minister of Northern Ireland who campaigned to leave – has dismissed the idea of a border poll and argued that Northern Ireland’s vote to Remain in the EU must play second fiddle to the overall UK vote to leave.
To make matters worse, the Northern Ireland Executive has just collapsed due to Martin McGuinness’s resignation over Arlene Foster’s involvement in the highly controversial ‘cash for ash’ Renewable Heat Scheme. This could see the Northern Ireland Assembly going into abeyance for the next few months, leaving Theresa May’s Brexit schedule in disarray if the Supreme Court rules that the devolved administrations must be consulted before the UK government triggers article 50.
May and her government had known about the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland for weeks but, characteristically, failed to act. Indeed, Naomi Long, the Alliance Party MLA for East Belfast, has revealed that her letters to the Prime Minister, warning of the imminent collapse of the power-sharing institutions, were ignored. Long is firmly of the view that May and her government have ‘neither the experience nor frankly the interest to recognise the political sensitivities’ in Northern Ireland. A damning indictment to say to the least.
But leaving aside the unionist-nationalist hot potato and the crisis of government in Northern Ireland, the leaders of the traditional parties in the Republic of Ireland – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party – have all explicitly stated that Brexit has re-opened the question of Irish unity.
In particular, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny has described Brexit as ‘an all-Ireland issue’, arguing that ‘the possibility of [Irish] unity by consent’, permissible under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, must remain an option in a post-Brexit world. Meanwhile, the leader of the main opposition party, Micháel Martin, has gone one step further, saying that he hopes Brexit ‘moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum.’
So, notwithstanding all the economic complications of a hard border as a result of a hard Brexit, the political stakes are very high indeed. But the Leavers do not seem to realise or even care about this.
We should not, however, be surprised by their reckless attitude towards Ireland. Right-wing Tories (some now in UKIP of course) never did, and never would have done, anything to work towards building peace in Northern Ireland. Nostalgic for an England that no longer exists, they are completely uninterested in Britain’s historic responsibility for helping to maintain peace and stability on the island of Ireland.