How Brexit could create a crisis at the Irish border


As part of the European Union, the United
Kingdom’s borders have been relatively open for years. Trade’s carried out freely with other member
countries and people coming through only need to show their EU passport. But in June 2016, the UK voted to leave the
EU so that it could reassert control on its own borders – and decide who and what it wanted
to let through. Imagine these boundaries turning into hard
borders. The impact of that on these maritime borders
is complicated in terms of trade, but it could have serious implications for
the people living along the UK’s only overland border — here. This border, between Northern Ireland and
the Republic of Ireland, is one of the reasons why Brexit negotiations continue to reach
a deadlock. That’s because this isn’t just a boundary
between two countries… It’s also a compromise. A symbol of identity. A solution to a troubled history. And it’s been keeping the peace in Northern
Ireland for 20 years. Hardening this border could put one of Europe’s
greatest success stories in jeopardy. This border was first drawn in 1920 by the British, who had ruled over the island for
centuries. The Irish had rebelled several times, but not everyone wanted the British to leave. So, eventually the UK divided the island into
two states based on its population. Most people in this part were historically
Catholic, and identified as Irish, and wanted independence. They were known as Nationalists. But in the North, many people were
Protestant, identified more closely as British and wanted to stay in the UK. They were called Unionists. After the partition, this part remained in
the UK as Northern Ireland. We made that decision as a people quite freely, and for very definite reasons. Reasons that are historical, reasons that are cultural, and reasons that are economic. The south continued to move away from
the UK until it gained complete independence and became a new country — the Republic of
Ireland. At first, this 499 kilometer border was pretty
porous. But the UK and Ireland continued to be hostile. Over time, customs checks were set up at the border
crossings and the two countries descended into a trade war – tariffs were placed on agricultural
produce and goods like steel and coal. By the late 1960s, things turned violent. Violence like this hit Northern Ireland after years of simmering bitterness between the Catholic minority and the ruling Protestant regime. In Northern Ireland, fierce conflict broke
out between extremist groups. Nationalist paramilitaries, like the Irish
Republican Army, believed that Northern Ireland was rightfully part of Ireland and that the
British were oppressors of Northern Ireland’s Nationalist population. Unionist paramilitaries fought back; defending
their place in the UK. Both groups blew up buildings, set off car
bombs, and engaged in bloody street fighting. The UK deployed thousands of troops to Northern
Ireland during this time; and became a common target of Nationalist paramilitary attacks. Especially at the border, which for Nationalists
was the ultimate symbol of British occupation. “Welsh fuseliers who patrol this stretch of the border described in court as the main battle line between the IRA and the army, have suffered repeated attacks.” As violence surged, the UK military tried
to secure the border with walls, towers, heavy guns, and patrols. They tightly controlled the 20 official crossings and screened people and vehicles passing through. The conflict over Northern Ireland turned
this into a hard border. The violence lasted for more than 30 years,
killed over 3,600 people and came to be known as The Troubles. It came to end in 1998, when Nationalist
and Unionist Party leaders came together for a historic peace deal. They reached a compromise: Northern Ireland
would remain in the UK but people would be eligible for both Irish and UK citizenships. And in the future, Northern Ireland could
vote to join Ireland. This deal came to be known as the Good Friday
Agreement. It allowed Nationalists in Northern Ireland
to be part of the Republic of Ireland while the Unionists remained part of the UK. Which meant this hard border wasn’t needed
anymore. So, the British military left. The watchtowers came down. And more roads opened. There are now around 270 official crossings
– most of which are completely invisible. And they’re all part of a border that stands
as a symbol of the compromise that ended decades of conflict. “The British people have voted to leave the European Union.” “Reignited a fierce debate over Northern Ireland’s future.” “Because both are members of the European Union. But when Britain pulls out of the EU,” “it’s now an outer-EU border and the question is, do we put up barbed wire again? Soldiers? There’ll be a custom borders at the very least.” In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU, even
though Northern Ireland was overwhelmingly in favor of remaining. The UK’s argument in favor of Brexit was
to control its own national borders — but there was little mention of its Irish border
at the time. That changed when the UK and EU started negotiations
— the status of the Irish border became one of the first three things to figure out. Now, more than a year later, it’s still
unresolved. But there are a few options:
The UK could reimpose a hard border by bringing back the police and the walls. But that would isolate the population of Nationalists
in Northern Ireland. Alternatively, they could put the border here,
leaving Northern Ireland in the EU Customs Union, but separating it from the UK mainland. But this would betray the Unionists. See, either way, both these options risk
violating the Good Friday Agreement. A third option is for the UK to stay in the
EU Customs Union meaning it wouldn’t need a customs border, but that’s unacceptable
for Brexiters in the UK government, who specifically want control over their own borders. The UK needs to put a border somewhere but
just can’t decide where. “On relation to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, we will not return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland”. “But the suggestion that there should be a border down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom is completely unacceptable.” “We are not going to
be in a customs union, we’re not going to be in the Customs Union, because if we were, that would prevent us from being able to follow an independent trade policy.” Now, there’s a fourth option that would be in
line with the Good Friday Agreement — it’s the idea of reunification. In the past when both Ireland and the UK were
in the EU and the borders were open; there was little incentive for Northern Ireland
to vote to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. But if the UK went with the option of hard
borders, Northern Ireland would be isolated and the only way to rejoin the EU would be
through reunification. Typically, this would be an overwhelming victory
for the Nationalists and a loss for the Unionists. But Brexit seems to have changed some opinions. A recent poll found that 28% of the respondents
who supported Northern Ireland’s place in the UK would now vote to join the Republic
of Ireland. While not a perfect solution, it would give
Northern Ireland a voice about its own place in Europe; a voice that’s barely been heard
so far.