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Why does the Irish border matter?
It has been a rip-snorter of a week in UK-Irish relations, centred around the Brexit negotiations and the potential political and economic impact on Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. Over recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that Ireland (and specifically the Irish border) is preventing the UK from progressing Brexit negotiations until satisfactory details of how its aspiration to maintain a ‘frictionless’ border, can be met in practice.
While the Brexit negotiations have become something of a soap-opera –the outcome matters hugely for Ireland and not just for the region’s exposed economy. The future of Northern Ireland’s peace process and the devolved institutions that took so long to establish after the multi-party talks of 1997-98, are also at stake. 10 April next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and Brexit risks turning that into a retrospective commemoration, rather than a 20th birthday likely to be succeeded by a 21st.
While there is a robust debate over the terms of Brexit and the extent to which a frictionless border in Ireland can be engineered to take the sting out of things after the UK leaves the EU, this misses the broader point. The GFA is facing a crisis beyond the border issue –linked to the fact that issues that had been anaesthetised by the 1998 settlement (and further iterations such as St Andrews in 2006) have been revived by the Brexit process. In particular, questions about territorial sovereignty that had been blurred by the GFA, (literally in the sense that cross border co-operation made it difficult to work out where the North stopped and the South began,) have been thrown into a more harsh and unforgiving light by Brexit.
Clearly the prospect of a hard border returning to Ireland is anathema to nationalists on the island and risks remilitarising the conflict –this would be mana from heaven for the remaining militants within republican circles, as well as those interested in smuggling opportunities.
However, ‘the border’, amounts to more than simply physical infrastructure, or even associated dimensions such as the possibility of customs checks, traffic delays, smuggling activity or economic disadvantage to businesses across both jurisdictions. While the territorial border may be its most visible manifestation, it is far from being its only politically sensitive dimension. The idea that technology could provide the answer for cross border trade has been welcomed by unionists but is not accepted by either the SDLP or Sinn Fein –and the Irish government has also voiced its skepticism and has worked long and hard to agree the phrase ‘contined regulatory alignment’ with the UK government, revealed (though not agreed) on 4th December. Given how hard this was to wrestle out of the UK, it is highly unlikely that the Irish government will now accept an alternative form of words that waters this down, just because it was vetoed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
As if it wasn’t clear already, this seemingly unremarkable phrase, indicates that Northern Ireland is not quite as British as Finchley, as Margaret Thatcher once inferred. It is a special case, requiring bespoke political arrangements, not least a form of power-sharing not seen elsewhere in the UK and a definition of political sovereignty based on the ‘consent principle’. Nowhere else in the UK has the British government committed to divesting itself of a region if 50% +1 of the electorate express a desire to unite with another country.
Northern Ireland is also the only region of the UK to have EU human rights norms (specifically the European Convention on Human Rights) woven into its domestic political agreements –through the text of the GFA in 1998. Some nationalist politicians, including former leader of the SDLP Mark Durkan, have already claimed that Brexit potentially tears at the political fabric of the peace process and its political engineering, as defined through the GFA.
In addition, the ratification of the GFA through parallel referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in May 1998, was an important exercise of Irish self-determination, which Brexit potentially disrupts by re-emphasising the sovereignty of the UK. There is an argument to be made, that it undermines the duel referendum process that ratified the GFA in 1998, as the removal of NI from the EU and the removal of UK legal obligations to the EU that were written into the GFA – alters the basis upon which voters in both parts of Ireland cast their ballot in those referendums in 1998.
The crucial question for many of those who don’t have a specialist interest in Irish politics, is does Brexit have the potential to re-energise violent political conflict in Northern Ireland? Answers to this are of course speculative, but a reasonable argument could be developed that Brexit is a game-changer of such proportions, that scenarios thought to be far-fetched, are now much more conceivable. There is certainly potential for the Brexit process to destabilise political relations in Northern Ireland to a point where uncertainty over the outcome creates new points of disagreement and conflict. As has already been pointed out, Brexit has the capacity to re-open debates that plagued NI for generations in relation to ethnonational identity, which were successfully mediated by the GFA and the establishment of political institutions in subsequent years.
This risk is compounded by the current parlous state of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. The absence of a functioning Executive since last January has allowed minds to wander away from socio-economic issues and onto more existential identity related worries. The changing of the political guard on the republican side is a further concern here as the resignation and subsequent death of former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the imminent retirement of SF President Gerry Adams, potentially reduces the soft power leverage that has been so vital to the republication movement in avoiding splits since Adams and McGuinness wrestled control of the party in 1986 and gradually ended the party’s abstentionist policy.
Worries over the imminent security threat posed by Brexit are probably over-stated –it is highly unlikely that the Provisional IRA will re-emerge or that the various splinter organisations known as republican dissidents’ would be capable of mounting a significant armed struggle against the British State. It is also a very remote possibility that it could acquire sufficient political support within the nationalist /republican community to gain significant political traction for ultra-republican goals. However, undoubtedly, a soft Brexit and the restoration of viable political institutions at Stormont would significantly help the broader security situation.
Brexit represents the biggest challenge for Ireland North and South for at least a generation. Perhaps this is why the Irish seem to have a much clearer vision of what they want coming out of it than the British.
Feargal Cochrane is Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. He tweets @fecochrane1.
Photo by André Bandarra