I’m one of the fortunate members of the generation who have no memory of the “borders of the past”, whose only experience with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is as a seamless one, almost invisible to an unsuspecting tourist. Nevertheless, I had always been aware of it, almost subconsciously. Both my parents and grandparents would share stories of the former difficulties in crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic. As a child, I would watch out the window of the car impatiently to see the lines at the side of the road change from white to yellow, and for the signposts to change to display the Irish translation of towns and villages alongside their English version. Now, the face of this border will undoubtedly be changed once again.
David Davis, during his statement on the Brexit Bill in the House of Common, emphasised that Northern Ireland had made a “serious and significant” contribution to the talks on departing the European Union. He later added during the same session that the government was taking Northern Ireland “incredibly seriously” in negotiations and in their plans for Brexit. While Stormont itself is facing its own political earthquake, having collapsed after weeks of tension between DUP and Sinn Fein, the failure of the Assembly to propose their own plans for the border is unsettling. Nicola Sturgeon has been vocal since day one about her proposals for how Scotland should be handled during the exit from the European Union, yet the Executive in Northern Ireland has failed to follow her lead. Furthermore, it appears as though the SNP press the issue of Northern Ireland in Brexit more in the House of Commons than some of the Northern Ireland MPs. Nicola Sturgeon published her proposed plan, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, in December while Stormont remained silent in comparison.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was largely ignored throughout the debates prior to the referendum in June 2016, with the position of Northern Ireland itself being largely unheard. Perhaps the unlikely outcome of the referendum left the Brexiters grossly underprepared for dealing with the issue of Northern Ireland, while the Remain camp had seen it as being unnecessary to use Northern Ireland as a vehicle to paint Brexit as uncharted, dangerous territory for the UK as a whole. However, it’s impossible to tell if more attention to the Northern Irish issue would have swung votes in England or Wales, where those who have never experienced the culture of Northern Ireland would have been able to turn a blind eye to the consequences of Brexit.
The Prime Minister, and her Ministers in charge of overseeing the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, have voiced the phrase “borders of the past” repeatedly when trying to reassure both the media and politicians that they can maintain the common travel area between both parts of Ireland. Theresa May’s Brexit plan, a fuller version of the twelve point plan that had earlier been introduced, appeared to downgrade the importance of maintaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, citing it as being an ‘aim’ of the government.
A “return to the borders of the past” could send Northern Ireland itself back into the years of the troubles. There is no doubt that a physical border would become a target for republican groups, and bring a halt to trade and tourism between the two respective sides of the border. How would such a border be regulated? Which police force would be in charge of overseeing its protection? Such a border between the European Union and the United Kingdom could become a headache for people living on both sides of the border, attempting to travel from one to the other.
The Belfast Telegraph reported in May 2016, that 34% of exports from Northern Ireland go to the Republic, with 61% going to the EU as a whole. In a time when Northern Ireland has been attempting to find its footing in the international trading environment, it cannot afford to lose its single primary export market. Northern Ireland has no true ‘natural resources’ that are financially viable, thus its export market is essential for the stability of the market. The construction market in Northern Ireland took a heavy hit during the global financial crisis, and only now Belfast appears to have become a heartland of expertise once again.
The current border is practically non-existent, to the extent that it is difficult to tell exactly when you cross out of UK territory and into the territory of the Republic of Ireland. How the border will look post-Brexit is difficult to predict. A physical border would no doubt echo the troubles of the past and cause discomfort for the nationalist side of the community, as well as hindering trade and tourism. An ‘invisible’ border could be difficult to police, and would need to be strong enough to act as a UK/EU border, the only one that would actual meet on land between the two.
The Northern Ireland Assembly Election will be held on the 2nd March, the same month Theresa May intends to trigger Article 50. Regardless of the makeup of the Assembly and Executive following the election next month, the parties must put their differences aside, if be it for this single issue, to propose a united solution to the issue of the border that would work both in the interest of the people of Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s place in the economic market.