Hard borders, harder questions
This is not something that can be trivialised. This is not something we can dismiss and sort out at the last minute. This is not something that you can lie about and hope no one will notice. This is a fiery, divisive, potentially violence inviting problem that the UK government (and all other parties involved in the Brexit negotiations) need to be truly honest about.
Right now, there is a level of ambivalence and arrogance about the issue of the Irish Border that almost defies belief. As a Northern Irish citizen, it is consistently both frustrating and baffling to watch the willful misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of how volatile the political climate is here, what issues are at stake in the negotiations, and the options that are available moving forward.
If the UK chooses to have a hard border at the channel with France, there must be a hard border dividing Ireland or separating Ireland from the UK. There is no magical solution in which the Brexiteers can have their cake and eat it. There is no technology that allows a “frictionless border” unless we remain in the single market, then perhaps we can keep this seamless border, but that is not the deal that is being proposed now. There cannot be a hard border at Calais and a soft border in Ireland and until people can admit that this issue must be dealt with, there can be no serious discussion of a solution to the problem.
The political fallout that could result from a hard border is not just scare-mongering tactic being used by the Irish government, the EU, or ‘remoaners’ who haven’t got their way. This could be a spark for further politically motivated violence in a country that has seen far too much already.
Look at the results of removing the Union flag from Belfast City Hall just a few years back, there were months of ongoing protests, clashes with police, and wholly unwelcome violence over the symbolism of a flag. For those not familiar with the issue (or those who need a refresher) the flag was set to be flown only on designated days, just as the policy is in the rest of the UK. This sparked weeks of violence which included a death threat against East Belfast MP Naomi Long and councillors’ homes being attacked in Bangor and Newtownards.
Now please tell me that the prospect of either a hard border internally or externally isn’t enough to set off more violence in a country whose politicians can’t even agree to govern together. The toxic political climate that emanates from Stormont has been worsened by the prospect of a newly enforced border. Tensions that lay ever dormant in Northern Ireland have been reawakened as we are forced to confront the idea that Northern Ireland as a state may be about to fundamentally change.
It isn’t even just the politicians trotting out this divisive, poorly considered rhetoric. The right-wing print media in Britain continuously echo these sentiments to their readers, dismissing the idea that this is a serious and legitimate concern. The Telegraph wrote in a recent Op-Ed that,
“the EU and Dublin seem determined to use the border as a stick to beat the Government with, as a demonstration of European solidarity and a crude negotiating tactic in the Brexit talks. That this performance is dressed up as some crusade to protect the peace process is particularly tasteless.”
Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, recently reacted to the Irish government threat to prevent any deal being approved by the EU unless progress is made on the future of the Irish border. She told the DUP conference she wanted a “sensible Brexit” with a seamless Irish border, but said Northern Ireland could not operate under different rules to the rest of the UK.
“We will not support any arrangements that create barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom or any suggestion that Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, will have to mirror European regulations.”
This is fine, a perfectly reasonable position in fact. Northern Ireland is a part of the UK and should remain so (until such time as a border poll finds that the majority of the population wants to return to a United Ireland). But, this cannot be reconciled logically with Theresa May’s desire to create a hard border with Europe – the two simply cannot work in tandem.
Any suggestion otherwise either compromises on the fundamental idea of leaving the EU with few tethers or ties (part of the hard-Brexit mantra espoused by the Cabinet) or compromises on the idea of an open and “frictionless border”. The two ideas cannot exist simultaneously in reality and until we see politicians admit that, there can be no progress, no solutions, no way forward, and yet that sort of admission looks no closer than it did 12 months ago.
I know politicians aren’t exactly known for their honesty when presenting issues that may harm them, but this is going to cause potentially irreversible harm to Northern Ireland’s social and political climate. Until we have an honest discussion about how we want the border to look, we cannot move past where we are now and begin to look for solutions to our priorities.