Brexit and the Irish border

In front of me is a menu inviting me to choose which of several thousand of my own words I should be eating today. But I am not hungry, so I’ll eat what words I should on a future occasion. Instead, let us go somewhere else. Let us go to the Irish border.  

In a recent piece pondering why Jeremy Corbyn’s association with the IRA had appeared to do him so little political damage, Matthew Parris concluded: ‘In a strange way, and though all of us sincerely denounce terrorism, modern England (as opposed to its press and politicians) has never wholeheartedly taken sides over Ireland.’ I think he is right. In the years when terrorism disfigured Northern Ireland, I remember feeling embarrassed by association with the Ulster Unionists. I wished Northern Ireland was not part of my country.

For most people on the British mainland, the Good Friday agreement has been a double blessing: it has brought relative peace and stability to Northern Ireland, and it has saved us from agonising over the province any longer. To our relief, the issue of Ireland has been relegated to the far recesses of our minds.

No longer. The Ulster Unionists are not only part of our country, but may temporarily be part of our Government. All sorts of problems that we half-hoped were resolved, but knew were not because they couldn’t be, are likely to come crawling back to confront us. There will be a focus on Ireland, north and south, that there has not been for nearly 20 years. Prime amongst them is the issue of the border.

There was an immediate recognition after the Brexit vote that the implications for the Irish border were immense. Yet, astonishingly, these implications have received almost no detailed scrutiny since by politicians, the media or anyone else. Instead, there have been the most generalised of platitudes. All British political parties, including the DUP, are opposed in principle to the return of a hard border. So is the EU, which – like everyone else – is proceeding in the hope that, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I do not doubt that there is a will. But, on an issue like this, willpower is inadequate. This is an intensely detailed and pragmatic question. It cannot be resolved by goodwill alone.

Most newspaper comment on the problem has concerned its commercial aspects. How do you have a land border between two trading blocs, each with different tariffs and customs regulations, without some form of effective border control? How, indeed?

But the issue of people raises problems that are just as intractable, and a great deal more emotional than the issue of goods. And there’s been hardly a word said or written about it.

After Brexit, citizens of the EU will continue to have free, unrestricted right of access to the Irish Republic. What is then to stop them crossing into Northern Ireland? Once there, what is to stop them travelling to London or Liverpool, and thence throughout mainline Britain, and staying there? A passport? How does anyone distinguish between the passport of someone who came legitimately to Britain before the end of March 2019 and one who came later, illegally? And how, in any case, can you have passport control without a hard border?

Some may hope that an influx from the EU will not happen on a significant scale. This would surely be wishful thinking. All recent experience, whether migration within the EU, or from the Middle East to Europe, or from Mexico to the US, says that when people want to move to another country, they will find a way of doing so, if there is one.

In the case of Ireland, it is unlikely that any form of border control will prevent this. The border runs for 310 miles, much of it through remote countryside. The weight of the British Army failed to seal it effectively during the Troubles. Border control will fare no better in the future. The Government will be forced to revisit the question of identity cards, to establish who has a right to live in Britain and who does not. At present, foreign nationals from outside the EU require an ID card, but those from within the EU do not. Nor, of course, do British citizens. Remembering the storm of protest that greeted the Identity Cards Act of 2006 and that ultimately forced its abandonment, will any political party think it wise to resurrect this plan, and would the country tolerate it if it did?

(The views on this of Brexit Secretary, David Davis, would be especially interesting. He vigorously opposed the Identity Cards Bill in Parliament and later sued the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, over data retention powers.)

The more one considers the problem, the more one is forced to the conclusion that, in order to enforce border control, there would need to be both a return to a heavily policed Irish border and the introduction of identity cards in the UK.

So where does this leave the Brexit strategy?

Let us put to one side two large sections of opinion in Britain: those who hate the EU and all its works, and those who worship the EU and all its works. Let us consider everyone in-between, probably a majority, who may have voted either way, but who now hope for an exit from the EU that is calm, harmonious and non-ideological.

Most of these people would probably choose, if possible, to retain access to the single market for goods and services. The more time goes by, the less appealing a future largely cut off from EU markets appears to be. But we have been told that the Brexit vote was primarily a vote against uncontrolled immigration, against free movement. And that, because free movement is a prerequisite for access to the single market, we must therefore also leave the single market. In other words, the starting point of the Government’s Brexit strategy is an end to free movement. All else follows from that. Leaving the single market is not an objective, but a consequence.

But what if an end to free movement is a mirage, as the logic above suggests? What if our entire Brexit strategy is based on a policy that is, in practice, impossible? What if we have been persuaded to sacrifice things we know to be important on the altar of a myth?

Under no circumstances should any of us wish to see a hard border reimposed between the north and south of Ireland: a soft border was paid for by the lives of hundreds, and by untold misery over many years. Under no circumstances should any of us wish to see the British security services scouring the Ulster (or the mainland) countryside, asking us to produce our identity cards, in a futile attempt to control the uncontrollable.

In which case, we should accept that freedom of movement is a reality, not a choice. And, if we accept that, we can negotiate continued access to the single market.

At the very least, the British public, politicians of all parties and the media should insist that this issue is placed at the top of the Brexit agenda. We must demand practical, detailed and unambiguous answers from the Government as to what Brexit will mean for the Irish border. From where I’m sitting, I can’t see an alternative to there being an open border, whether deliberate or accidental. In which case, we should accept the fact. Which means accepting freedom of movement. Which means having the option of single market access.