The Irish concern that, post-Brexit, we will no longer be able to speak of “our unfenced country” is well-voiced. The soft border has become a symbol of reconciliation and peace following the Troubles. The implications of a change to freedom of movement would be wide-ranging and deeply felt, economically, politically and personally.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”
A return to a ‘hard border’ is the most publicised potential change to Common Travel Area arrangements, and would be the most discernible. The dilemma of a potential hard border is highly political and politicised – yet it is largely unrecognised that a post-Brexit border would in some regards have to be even more strictly manned and monitored than that of the Troubles era. Border controls were previously implemented only during particularly unstable periods of the Troubles. Border checkpoints were therefore concerned with terrorism alone, not with customs and immigration, as would be the case following Brexit.
On the face of it, such a situation may seem unsavoury and complicated, but not impossible. It is estimated that approximately 30,000 people currently commute cross-border. The border is punctuated at 257 points (a substantial figure, given that there are 137 crossing points on the eastern EU frontier from Finland to Greece). While the UK has tabled a proposal for a ‘frictionless border’ which would possibly be controlled technologically, the realistic viability of such a plan is highly contested. The necessary infrastructure to establish an operational customs border would be conspicuous, expensive and inconvenient, and the potential for smuggling immense.
“Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”
A further potential effect would be the reemergence of a ‘psychological border’ between Northern communities, and between both parts of the island. There is a real risk that, should a visible border reemerge on the island of Ireland, a politics of history and identity would become potent once more. EU membership provided an umbrella identity which both encompassed and transcended the politics of belonging and identity which had dominated Northern Irish politics and society for decades. Without the buffer of a common, uncontentious EU identity, and with a physical border as an inescapable reminder of partition, old questions of belonging could become relevant once more.
Were relations with the South to become less fluent and more distant, a sense of alienation would likely emerge amongst the 25% of Northern Irish citizens who identified themselves as Irish only at the time of the 2011 census.
This could undermine Northern Ireland’s efforts become more self-sufficient politically and economically. A strengthened sense of Northern Irishness, a centre-ground where both groups can meet, is the region’s best hope for future cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Traditional Unionist-Nationalist identities were binary and mutually exclusive, whereas the term ‘Northern Irish’ is nonexclusive and neutral.
United we stand, divided we fall
It is for that reason that the UK government ought to give serious consideration to the EU Parliament’s suggestion that Northern Ireland remain in the customs union, or to other suggestions that it obtain some form of ‘special status’. Not only would the soft border be protected and economic upset minimised, but the political dynamic could also be favourably and fundamentally changed.
An awareness of Northern Irish interests separate to those of the rest of the UK would foster greater cohesion amongst Northern Irish communities and would require internal politics of the past to be put aside in favour of a common vision for the future. Economic and logistical cooperation in areas such as dairy processing and the Integrated Single Electricity Market could continue with the rest of the island of Ireland, while cross-border communities could maintain their current work and living arrangements relatively unimpeded.
Ties with mainland Britain would be somewhat loosened, in that customs checks would be relegated to passage between the Isles. At the same time however, political Union with the rest of the UK would be preserved and supported. While a ‘United’ Ireland promoted by the Nationalist community refers to the merging of two parts, the ‘United’ Kingdom refers to a political union of distinct entities. Therefore, current political arrangements could theoretically continue unproblematically. Furthermore, Unionists may seek comfort in the fact that a soft border is a more resilient one.
“There is no road that is right entirely”
There is no simple answer to the ‘Northern Irish question’ – that much at least is obvious. The flexibility and imagination proffered by both sides must be actually substantiated aspirations of soft border maintenance to be realised. With regard to Brexit, change is the only certainty, and therefore cooperation and concessions from all sides will be necessary. The positive side of such uncertainty is that there is no place for fatalism – nothing is predetermined. Were political will to be harnessed, there is no reason why obstacles cannot be overcome. “[I]n brute reality there is no road that is right entirely”, but all parties agree that a road without a hard border is a step in the right direction.
Grace McLoughlin is a student of English Literature at Trinity College Dublin. She spent last year in Berlin, where she was an active member of Agora’s sister think tank, Polis180.