The threat of a hard border in Ireland is not a side issue in the Brexit debate, but a looming catastrophe for us all
Cards on the table. We run an organisation called Open Britain but we both have a strong personal interest in what happens in Ireland. We are two of the estimated six million Brits with family links close enough to make us eligible for an Irish passport. But the relationship between Britain and Ireland should not just concern those of us with Irish heritage.
Ireland is the only country with which the United Kingdom shares a land border and a billion pounds of trade passes every day across the Irish Sea. Britain exports far more to Ireland than we do to much larger economies like India. The close friendship between our two countries has been fostered by trade, language, culture and history.
Given this context, it is incredible that the Anglo-Irish relationship, and the wellbeing of Northern Ireland, has not played a bigger role in the Brexit debate. It arguably poses bigger challenges to Northern Ireland than to any other part of the United Kingdom. This week, a House of Lords report made clear that on the economy, the border, and free movement, Hard Brexit is a real threat to Northern Ireland. It is essential that any Brexit deal works for Northern Ireland and for UK-Ireland relations.
The biggest Brexit challenge facing Northern Ireland is the status of its border with the Republic. This border is free both for people and for goods, and both are crucial. It is also a relatively new and extremely welcome development. We are old enough to remember Ireland with the hardest of hard borders – an island cut in two by checkpoints manned by armed soldiers.
The contrast today could not be starker. Every day, 30,000 people commute across the border to work. Driving from south to north, the only change any driver will notice is the speed limits changing from kilometres to miles per hour. There are no immigration checks whatsoever. This is economically important, for businesses and workers both sides of the border. It is also a powerful symbol of recent progress.
Even more important economically than the lack of immigration checks, is the lack of customs checks. A lorry driver carrying goods between the UK and the Republic of Ireland does not need to stop to have his cargo inspected. He need not pay any import tariffs. He does not need to sign any forms. The bureaucracy and cost all this red tape can create for companies trying to export and import goods across borders simply does not exist in Ireland. It is partly for this reason that 38% of Northern Irish exports are sold just across the border in the Republic. The lack of a hard border not only helps people, it is a primary driver of trade between the UK and Ireland.
Leave campaigners airily say that it will all be fine. They say the Common Travel Area was created in 1923, long before the European Union. The problem is that throughout our history, Britain and Ireland have simultaneously been either out of or in the European Union. The UK and Ireland joined the old EEC on the very same day. The situation we are about to find ourselves in – of Britain being outside the EU at the same time as Ireland is a member – is unprecedented.
If Britain leaves the customs union – and indeed the single market – the border between Ireland and the UK will surely have to be toughened up. There will inevitably have to be some form of customs and immigration checks. In a worst case scenario, goods exported across could be subject to tariffs, which would be particularly problematic for the agricultural goods that are so important to Northern Ireland’s economy.
What is the solution to this dilemma? The House of Lords Committee recommends bilateral UK-Ireland talks to find a special solution between the two countries. They are right about the need for communication and for special efforts to be made to find some sort of unique solution. But this is fraught with difficulty. If the UK were to leave the Single Market and cut down on immigration, yet have an open border with the Republic, people wishing to come to the UK could simply fly to Dublin, take the bus to Belfast and then cross the sea to Britain. The UK Border Agency would have no way of stopping them.
Likewise, on customs issues, for Britain to leave the customs union but have a separate agreement with another EU member state, in the form of Ireland, could be unworkable. Because to enforce complex laws on rules of origin, there might need to be checks on Irish goods being sold to other EU countries.
Wherever the Government plans to go on this issue, it is crucial that they consult closely with the Northern Irish Executive, and with parties and stakeholders representing all communities in Northern Ireland. The eventual deal must have the buy-in of the Northern Irish people, who after all, backed Remain at the referendum.
And the Government must keep a strong line of communication running with the Irish government in Dublin, on a bilateral basis. Both the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enshrined the principle that the Republic has a right to have its say. And every step must be taken to protect trade between the UK and Ireland.
But we do not have much time. The particular problems Brexit has posed for Northern Ireland are highly complicated. In the two years of the Article 50 process, it might not be possible to agree a special deal between the UK and Ireland, with the consent of the rest of the EU, that would retain the current relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic. To prevent the catastrophe of a hard border, Hard Brexit must be rejected.
Britain needs to stay in the single market, avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater on immigration, and undertake proper analysis of the costs of leaving the customs union.
The present closeness between Britain and Ireland, and between the north and south of Ireland, has been hard-won and a very long time coming. In the Open Britain campaign, we utterly reject the idea that any Leave voter supported a more difficult relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland. After all, Vote Leave denied that there could be any problems at all created by Brexit.
Nothing should be allowed to destabilise the delicate and precious balance that has emerged in the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Northern Ireland should no longer be a side-issue in this debate. It should be front and centre, as both politicians and the public grapple with the difficult realities of Brexit. This is not just an issue for the people of Ireland – north and south – or for the millions of people of Irish heritage living in Britain. It is vital to the future economic prosperity of the UK and Ireland. A hard and destructive Brexit would be lose-lose-lose – for Ireland, for Northern Ireland, and for the UK as a whole.
Joe Carberry and James McGrory are the co-Executive Directors of Open Britain