Northern Ireland and Brexit – how to avoid a mess
Last Wednesday the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin had invited to a round table with the harmless title: „The European Union – forgotten guarantor of Peace and Prosperity in (Northern) Ireland“ moderated by Philip Oltermann from „The Guardian“ – – on the panel were Dave Anderson, Labour shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, Dominic Hannigan, former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Labour Party in the Republic of Ireland and Katy Hayward from Queen’s University in Belfast.
The debate about the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland is amazingly low key up to now. But if this question is not handled with utmost care, new troubles could end the peace process in Northern Ireland. The fact that the European Union is one of the guarantors of the peace process should be taken for serious – it is much more than a formality.
The last time I came to Northern Ireland was in 2011 with a delegation of German business people. On invitation of the then Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson we had the great privilege to sleep in Hillsborough castle, the official residence of the Queen in Northern Ireland. At formal receptions both parts of the new political establishment stressed their commitment to the peace process, but day-to-day government was still characterized by deep mistrust between the two parts of the government. However it was seen as a good sign that members of the Sinn Fein Party did come to our reception at the castle so symbolic for the British rule.
Travelling in the countryside showed how precarious the peace still is. The wall in the middle of Belfast is still there, when you drive through Londonderry/Derry or through villages near the North-South border you can see the sectarian border street by street where all houses fly either the Union Jack or the flag of the Irish Republic.
However the border between Eire and Northern Ireland is absolutely invisible. Streets sometimes cross the border several times, the main difference being that on one side of the border speed limits are shown in Miles per hour, on the other side in Kilometers per hour.
Will this now change after Brexit ? When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the border inside Ireland will become an outside border of the EU – and that in principle means a hard and visible border theoretically with strict passport and customs controls.
The debate at the Ebert Foundation showed clearly that the assessment of most participants was that such a hard border could become a real threat to the peace process. There are still a number of so-called independent IRA terrorists around who could benefit from the unrest, which would follow, if free movement on both sides of the border is no longer possible. The EU as a guarantor of peace should think more intensely about the responsibility following from a new border regime. And the British government should be aware that this question needs much more attention. Otherwise it may end up in a mess in addition to all the other damage the Brexiteeers are inflicting on the UK.
But is such a hard border really a necessity ? Yes and NO ! Yes, at least for goods passing the border, because even if a free trade agreement would finally (and after long negotiations) be concluded there will be contingents, certificates of origin, and other bureaucratic procedures that exist at all borders of the world outside the only functioning single market which is the EU. All this red tape will be done at customs offices.
NO, at least for individuals crossing the border. Even countries outside the EU like Norway and Switzerland renounce on controlling individuals because they joined the Schengen Treaty which is also open to members of the EEA (the European Economic Area). Schengen is closely linked to the freedom of work and immigration for EU-citizens. Since Britain will obviously not join Schengen (it even did not when a member of EU. Britain always had its own border controls – there was no control to get back, because it was never given away!), this is no solution – at least not now.
But let us look back to the border regime in place before Britin joined the European Economic Community: then any citizen from the continent could enter the UK showing the passport or the identity card. No difference to how it is handled now. The only difference after Brexit may be that EU-citizens without a special permit are only allowed to stay for 3 months and not allowed to work without a working permit. I do not suppose that Britain wants to fall back behind the civilized standards which were in place before the EU even existed.
The word „immigration“ is not a very precise word in English, because it is used for just crossing the border as well as for settling in the country and work there. So even in the worst case of no UK-EU agreement at all, I expect that European citizens will cross the British borders without any problems showing their passports or identity cards. Border controls may be a bit more unfriendly – but this seems to me rather un-British, there could be the obligatory question „what is the purpose of your travel?“ – a silly question, because those who plan to do any illegal things, will certainly not tell the officer at the border control, only harmless people may be embarrassed by being questioned like a criminal.
Immigration meaning staying in the country will only become obvious when somebody is overstaying the three months limit or working illegally without a working permit. This is something which even today can happen in Britain every day, because there is no registration of where people live, no identity cards and very few controls of illegal workers from non-EU-countries. So the British authorities would certainly need to step up controls of work permits in the companies and street controls for suspect people if they want to control overstay or illegal work. If this is really wanted ? I have my doubts.
Actually the Republic of Ireland is not part of the Schengen system, just because it wants to keep the border to Northern Ireland open. So the border between the UK and the Schengen area has already for years been controlled at Dublin airport. There is no need to change that. After Brexit there will only be a difference in the status of EU citizens: they continue to be allowed to settle and to work in the Republic of Ireland, they will not be allowed to do so in Northern Ireland. But still they will be allowed to go to Northern Ireland as normal tourists.
There is no necessity to change anything at the border to keep any EU citizen from coming to Britain with the purpose to stay or to work. If an EU citizen is overstaying in Northern Ireland or working illegally it is the duty of the British authorities to find out and stop it. But neither Eire nor any eventual border police could do that – it has to be done inside Britain and is a problem for British authorities only.
For the other way round Ireland could give the necessary permits to all Northern Irish people coming to the south on the basis of national permits excluding that they go on to settle in other EU countries.
The big problem for the peace problem would be a VISIBLE hard border. As I said there is no reason to change anything for individuals crossing the border. It could stay open without really changing anything compared to the actual situation – if Polish plumbers or Romanian nannies sneak in it is an issue for controls inside Britain – not at the border. By the way: practically all travellers at the airports and many going by ship are already asked to produce a piece of identity today – this may be an element of internal control without constituting a „border“ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
But what about the customs border ? When a big container shall be sent into the EU (or the other way from the EU into Britain) there have to be quite tedious customs procedures. But there is no need to have those controls at the border. There are other borders where a lorry-driver can drive a long way with a plumbed container to a customs office at any place near enough to the destination to open the plumb and fulfil all customs regulations. This would make any visible customs offices at the border unnecessary.
This leaves open what to do with the small smugglers who come up immediately if you introduce customs duties for small things like cigarettes or liquor. The solution is easy: abandon all duties for what an individual can have with him or her, allow duty free travel in the border zone and concentrate on bigger things for customs procedures. If London would be willing to do this on all British borders – let us say: no customs controls for tourists with less than 4 pieces of luggage, and doing customs procedures for bigger deliveries in some centres near the point of delivery, then the hard border could be invisible. That should be thoroughly thought through in the interest of peace in Northern Ireland.