As the policy challenges brought forward by Brexit loom, representatives and citizens in Northern Ireland have begun to call attention to the importance of the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the economic and social health of the region.
While British and Irish officials have made clear their commitment to minimal change in the current border conditions, EU figures have been far more reticent, casting the future of the important and controversial Irish frontier into question.
As it stands, the current Irish border falls within a Common Travel Area between Great Britain and Ireland which functions more or less along the lines of the Schengen Agreement which extends throughout much of Continental Europe. It allows for the free movement of people and goods between the two countries with little immigration or customs checks except in certain air travel cases. As a result, both individuals and freight travel freely between the two countries, making the Common Travel Area a lynchpin feature in the Northern Irish and Irish economies, particularly along border areas.
It is very unlikely that the Common Travel Area will survive Brexit as the Northern Irish border will become a frontier of the EU. A German MEP of the European People’s Party which controls more than a quarter of EU parliament seats, Manfred Weber, stated recently that “it’s not acceptable for lorries to be able to circulate freely on our motorways, but for our citizens to be stuck in front of barriers. That’s very important.” His statement highlights both the challenges and the opportunity that persists along the border. The political divorce that goes along with Brexit likely needn’t be absolute. Weber’s comment, while presenting harsh prospects for the status quo, points to the opportunity for an alternative arrangement to be made which maintains trade reciprocity along a soft border.
More decisively, Mark Rutte, PM of the Netherlands and President of the EU at the time of the Brexit referendum, spoke out concerning the message sent by British citizens. Speaking in Strasbourg, he noted that the EU should resist the urge to push towards greater integration in the face of heightening feelings of alienation by European citizens towards the EU bureaucracy. His own nation has historically been opposed to European centralization, having rejected the European Constitution in 2006 and is currently host to one of the stronger anti-European movements. So while Rutte rejected the continuation of “business as usual” with the UK after Brexit, he also created space ideologically for the independence of EU member states to make decisions as to how their nations are run. As such, the Dutch may side ideologically with the cause of the Irish Republic, should it seek to maintain some border fluidity with Britain.
Of course, borders travel goes in two directions and for the Northern Irish, compromise on this front by Brexit supporters will likely be expected. The country voted decisively to remain within the EU and in margins greater than 50% in certain constituencies along the border with the Irish Republic. Their local economies have become deeply intertwined with those of Ireland, and the upset posed by a reimposition could have dire effects on those areas’ economic health. Already, some slowdown in the Northern Irish economy has been noted by the Ulster Bank, although representatives note that “we shouldn't read too much into one month's survey.” It is a degree of economic instability that will prove unwelcome in Northern Ireland, particularly among parties which continue their scepticism of the still ongoing reconciliation process.
It is a conversation that no one wants to have, but it must be noted that the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) has consolidated some of its strength after its break with the Provisional Irish Republican Army during ceasefire negotiations in 1998 and has made particular gains in the past few years reaching an estimated £38.4 million in annual cash flow. Now, Brexit introduces instability and feeds resentment in Northern Ireland, particularly among Sinn Fein voters whose representative and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has characterized Brexit as a move which will “drag Northern Ireland out of the EU” and has called for a referendum on Irish Unification. If the RIRA wishes to reignite conflict in Northern Ireland, it has been presented with the most troubled conditions in more than a decade in which to do so.
In fact, the terrorist organization and its two smaller partners, the Continuity IRA and the New IRA, may have already begun testing the waters for a campaign of violence. Republican militants have conducted an estimated 52 bomb attacks in the past year including a car bomb which killed a prison officer in March. Just last Sunday, they claimed credit for the murder of a former Ulster Defense Army (UDA) soldier. Armed with modern weapons purchased from the Balkans and well-funded from both American sympathizers and illegal fuel trafficking operations, Republican paramilitaries are the most dangerous they have been in more than a decade; MI5 recently upgraded the risk of domestic terror in Northern Ireland to severe.
Counter-intuitively, this increase in violent tension may serve to resolve some of the instability in Northern Ireland by pressuring EU officials to accept compromise on the Northern Irish border. The EU currently commits resources to a Northern Ireland Task Force aimed at continuing the reconciliation process and will not likely completely abandon interest in that project as Britain leaves the EU. Further, the risk of conflict spillover into the Republic of Ireland, still an EU member state, is significant enough to make the IRA an EU problem even with Northern Ireland absent. With terror attacks by ISIS continuing in frequency and intensity, a well-considered EU response will hardly allow for the opening of a second terrorist front within on its borders.
For the sake of all those affected, the EU will likely be forced by real world conditions to compromise on the Northern Irish border. This isn’t to say that Britain will not also be forced to make compromises, but that for the sake of continued peace and integration in and on the border of Northern Ireland, candour and willingness to put aside the prospect of a hard international border will likely be required.
Jonathan Morris is a student at the University of Chicago and an intern at the Bow Group