Brexit poses the greatest threat to the Northern Irish Peace Process since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. The question of the future status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been shrugged away by Brexiteers throughout the referendum campaign, as though it is of little significance. The proponents of Leave refuse to explain precisely how they will achieve their stated objective of “taking back control of our borders” and restricting access to the United Kingdom for non-nationals, while at the same time casually claiming that there will be no change to the free flow of people across the island of Ireland. They refuse to explain, because of course both outcomes are mutually exclusive.
The British Government simply cannot restrict access of migrants to the UK, while operating an open border policy with the Republic of Ireland, a country which is a fully-fledged member of the European Union, applying faithfully all aspects of the principle of free movement of people as member states (and non EU members of the Single Market – but that’s another story) must. If border controls are not implemented between the North and the Republic, then the UK will have a 370km unrestricted entry point from the rest of the EU, which I suspect might prove quite a surprise to the many hundreds of thousands of voters who plan to vote for Brexit precisely so that immigration can be dramatically limited.
This blatant contradiction in the argument of the Leave campaign goes largely unchallenged. The response of some advocates of Brexit to the likelihood of border controls is to pooh-pooh it and claim that checks may be introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom instead. So these advocates wish to replace the shared external border of the European Union with an internal border within the United Kingdom. Are these the same people who opposed Scottish independence last year? The arguments seem to become increasingly schizophrenic.
Let there be no mistake, the re-introduction of passport checks and potential customs controls between the north and south of Ireland (or indeed this bizarre notion of border controls between Northern Ireland and Britain) will certainly have a significant impact on peace on our island. As an Irish citizen, it angers me that Brexit campaigners have not addressed this. All British citizens should be aware of just how fragile peace in the North is. It cannot be taken for granted and those who wilfully and recklessly threaten it, should be held accountable. Reinstating the border controls will increase tensions between communities in Northern Ireland and will create new challenges for the political parties there. Even the parties themselves concede they are ill-equipped to deal with such turmoil.
Crucially, border controls will have a direct impact on the economic fortunes of Northern Ireland. The development of strong trading links between the north and south has been a positive development since the early 2000s and in many ways has helped anchor peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The so-called ‘All Island Economy’ has benefitted citizens both north and south of the border, but has been particularly important for the economic development of the North. A number of studies carried out by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and the Irish Business Employers Confederation, amongst others, have all set out the inevitable economic consequences of Brexit on the Northern Irish economy in particular.
Those politicians who ignore these economic effects deliberately ignore the fact that negative economic effects do not occur in a vacuum. Job losses, company relocations and the overall decline in the economic fortunes of citizens lead to political unrest. Given the violent and volatile history of Northern Ireland, it is a form of treachery for political “leaders” to ignore all of these enormous risks in the pursuit of some ideological fantasy land which simply does not exist.
It may be tempting to see Northern Ireland as a bit of an outpost, or somehow not the concern of those living in mainland Britain. We should all cast our minds back to the bleak days of the 70s, the 80s and the 90s when the consequences of war in the North were not isolated events in Northern Ireland. The whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as the wider continent of Europe, were rocked by devastating attacks in Birmingham, Guilford, Warrington and Manchester to name but a few.
A vote to leave the UK may not trigger a breakdown of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, but it will increase tensions and destabilise an already fragile situation. The consequence of that is anybody’s guess. The EU has been a critical lynchpin of peace in Northern Ireland and a vote to leave will eliminate a critical partner from the Peace Process.
Again and again we hear the “It will be all right on the night” line being trotted out by Brexiteers when they are challenged on the actual implications of an exit from the European Union. I don’t believe them, and when it comes to peace in Northern Ireland I am certainly not prepared to take a leap into the unknown, and nor should voters in next Thursday’s referendum.