Crossing the line
The Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, have been united for more than 100 years, entwined through trade and culture. Worried that Brexit might change this situation dramatically by reinstating border controls, Nessa Childers MEP, Vice-President of European Parliament’s MAC Group, argues that it would be a dramatic step backwards, in a practical and politically symbolic sense
Of the many aftershocks felt in Brussels after the Brexit vote, its implications for the future of the peace process in Northern Ireland and UK-Ireland relations are perhaps among the least noticed across the Channel. Yet, they must be carefully pondered and navigated as all the parties involved carve a new position for the United Kingdom in Europe.
As it happens, whatever you make of the promises made by the leading Leave voices, their clash against the realities of mutually incompatible trade-offs casts a dark cloud over the fragile peace that emerged from the Good Friday Agreement.
The breakdown of the votes immediately confirmed that the shared history and geography of these islands does not lend itself to straightforward solutions to respond to the narratives on offer.
From partition and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, citizens of both countries were allowed to travel back and forth without a passport, a state of affairs which was eventually enshrined in a Common Travel Area agreement in 1952.
It grants virtually equal treatment to citizens of either jurisdiction in the other country, including reciprocal access to the labour market, welfare benefits and the right to vote in national elections, which in some cases goes beyond EU citizenship rights, but this was by and large camouflaged against the latter EU rights for younger generations.
Indeed, prior to the question marks raised by Brexit, knowledge of the Common Travel Area had become a matter of academic interest.
When the UK decided to remain outside the Schengen area, the Republic of Ireland ensured the continuity of this arrangement by staying out of Schengen, and a protocol was added to the EU Treaties, to recognise the CTA’s arrangements concerning the movement of persons.
As David Cameron negotiated restrictions on welfare provision for EU migrants, the CTA was an obscure legal curiosity no more.
Experts cast doubt on his pre-referendum assurances to the Irish Government that Protocol 20 would cover their special welfare rights against challenges of discrimination on the grounds of nationality in the EU, which would dramatically affect the lives or prospects of about 600.000 Irish-born immigrants in the UK.
While Brexit rendered Cameron’s gambit null and void, the fate of the protocol is in question, adding to the uncertainty that reigns at the moment, especially in the absence of reassuring voices from the Conservative camp and the changed atmosphere in the wake of the strong focus on immigration we saw during the campaign.
Even more dramatically, at a first glance, in a scenario of outright UK withdrawal, the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland would become part of the European Union’s external borders.
All EU external borders are logically accompanied by border controls, but Brexit must lead to a rethink of this state of affairs in the case of the border with Northern Ireland, which is crossed daily, by roughly 15.000 and 25.000 commuters.
Today, that map line is virtually imperceptible when crossed on the ground, bar the proverbial change from metric to imperial system on the road signs.
But for the three decades of sectarian violence which claimed over 3.500 lives from the 1970s, the British military sealed the border and manned checkpoints, roadblocks and watchtowers at the crossings, where those coming through were routinely searched.
The reinstatement of border controls would be a dramatic step backwards, in a practical and politically symbolic sense, from the dividends of the tentative peace brought about by the Good Friday Agreement, which led to the complete dismantlement of the last military checkpoints by 2005.
An idea floated by David Cameron, which would allow for Brexit, without the reinstatement of passport controls along this border would in turn necessitate checks on those travelling from Northern Ireland into Great Britain.
A joint paper from the Universities of Newcastle and Durham, where the different post-Brexit scenarios are teased out, indicates that, apart from a Free Trade area solution, for which there is no EU precedent without freedom of movement, customs controls would be required, at a minimum, along this land border.
The sheer number of questions these uncharted paths are raising for individuals, families and communities whose lives and welfare are so inextricably entwined across these islands, has led to a first run for Irish passports for eligible UK citizens.No sooner did consular services run out of forms, than the Leave campaign ran out of leaders. We must now wait for Theresa May’s answers to start taking shape.
What we know for sure is that the economic and trade implications for Ireland and the UK, the loss of special, structural and cohesion funding in the Northern Ireland – not to mention the programmes jointly managed in the border regions – and the changes to bilateral relationship between both countries, must be handled with extreme care.