Patrick Thompson is a postgraduate student at Queen’s University, specialising in Northern Irish and Labour politics
Last week a strange piece appeared on the news agency Bloomberg’s website about the Irish dimension of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It was titled ‘Irish Border Throws Unexpected Hurdle to Brexit’. The notion that there is an open question around what Brexit means for the UK’s only land border isn’t groundbreaking. But the idea that this is a surprise most definitely is. Either they haven’t been paying attention or someone needs to talk to the editors at Bloomberg about the meaning of the word ‘unexpected’.
Headlines aside, there has been plentiful coverage on the island of Ireland about what Brexit will mean for the border between the North and the Republic. In short, no one knows. However it has become apparent that the government in Westminster is only just waking up to existence of the border question.
From talk of ‘high tech’ solutions recent inflammatory comments from a Tory MP that there should be ‘no surrender’ on the border, the government’s approach swings between the ridiculous and the dangerous. A Hard Border is undesirable, but there has been precious little discussion of how to avoid it. Can a special status be secured for Northern Ireland? How will travel and trade between the North and the rest of the UK work? Could customs checks be applied at British ports but not at the Irish border? Questions such as these are barely being asked by politicians, let alone answered and it has come as a shock that the government of the Republic also have a stake in the border. Even without the South’s political investment in the EU project and ability to veto any potential deal, the idea that the Dublin government, and the people who elected them, don’t have a important stake in the border is absurd. Yet we find British MPs angry that the Taoiseach is willing to intervene.
The practicalities of administering a new border that is geographically inconsistent are complex. Talk of automated cameras on roads to track border crossings ignore the reality. This is a frontier that is crossed by rivers, gardens and even peoples houses. One that even at the height of British military presence in the North, could not be entirely secured. It has always been porous. Unlike many of the nations in mainland Europe, the UK has little experience dealing with land borders and should the threatened ‘no deal’ Brexit occur, there will be chaos.
At the same time, James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has spent much of 2017 in negotiations to restart power sharing at Stormont. The latest in a series of political lightweights to hold the role, Brokenshire has overseen months of deadlock as deadline after deadline has passed, culminating in a return to a form of Direct Rule this month when a new budget for Northern Ireland was rushed through Parliament. Clear, impartial leadership from Westminster has been lacking and again, that has been little concern about its absence.
As Gordon Brown writes in his recently published autobiography, ‘In spite of the peace settlement – or maybe because of it – Northern Ireland was on the Prime Minister’s desk every day, every week and every month, and even ten years on, it was never-ending negotiations’. He also points out that long cycles of negotiations and missed deadlines have not been uncommon since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. However the current crisis is different. In part this is because, with both Brexit and years of deadlock on the same issues, the political landscape has changed and Direct Rule is not the threat it once was. However the Westminster government’s failure to see either the collapse of power sharing or the border question as serious issues is damning. This is in stark contrast to the position of our neighbours in mainland Europe. A settlement is one of their primary concerns, alongside an agreement for the payment of the UK’s outstanding contributions to the EU.
It is as if we are returning to the hands off approach that Westminster took towards Northern Ireland in the 1920s and 30s. Once a Unionist government had been established in Belfast, there was little interest from Westminster, save for negotiations with the Treasury on matters of taxation, the ‘Imperial Contribution’ and the additional funding needed to keep the North afloat. Today in the House of Commons, Northern Ireland Questions only sees a packed chamber because it is normally directly before the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, which MPs want to be in their seats for. Since June the DUP have been the primary voice of the North in Westminster. A radical change in attitudes among MPs and the government is needed if the issues facing the North are to be solved.