Talks in Dublin this week underline the fact that Brexit has a number of wide-ranging implications beyond the question of terms of access to the EU market. In particular, it raises some difficult questions about the status of the border between the two parts of Ireland, and how that will be managed. The UK Government finds itself potentially between a rock and a hard place in trying to balance its different priorities.
On the one hand, the open border and freedom of movement between the Republic and the UK has been a vital element of building a lasting peace settlement on the island. The consequences of reverting to a hard, controlled border are essentially unknowable, but it would be a brave person who gambled that the peace process is by now so well-established that it could survive such a step. It seems inevitable that the two governments will seek a way forward which maintains the status quo as far as the land border is concerned.
On the other hand, given that the UK Government has chosen to interpret the referendum result as a vote, first and foremost, for control over entry to the UK, an open land border with a territory which is itself open for freedom of movement from the other 26 remaining members of the EU leaves a very large back door into the UK. It’s a roundabout route, of course; but if it becomes the easiest route…
One suggestion put forward has been that border controls should be imposed between Ireland as a whole and the UK mainland. Essentially, that would mean establishing hard border controls in places like Holyhead and Fishguard. Those who simply want jobs at any price might see this as an advantage, of course; but from a unionist perspective in the north of Ireland it might look like treating them as some sort of ‘semi-foreigners’ – not likely to go down well.
Another has been that the UK should simply sub-contract its border control to the Republic. Under this scenario, people entering the Republic would be subject to UK border controls, carried out by the staff of the Republic. Why the Republic would ever want to agree to that is beyond me; and why anyone in London would think it was ever likely to happen is even more so. It betrays an attitude which suggests that ‘London’ has never really accepted the idea that the Republic isn’t still part of ‘Britain’ in some sense which goes beyond the geographical, and as such, they will do what ‘we’ want.
In essence, nationalists will insist on free movement between the north and the republic; unionists will insist on free movement between the north and the rest of the UK; and the Irish Government will insist that the republic is an independent state, not part of the UK, and that it is not willing to be treated as the latter and make itself semi-detached from the rest of the EU as a result. In the meantime, the UK Government is looking for a way to change nothing whilst changing everything.
There is a potential solution to all this, of course, which maintains the status quo. Using Orwellian newspeak, the UK Government could simply declare that “Brexit means Remain”. If that’s a step too far at this stage, how about an interim position of stating simply that “Status quo means status quo”? Stranger things have happened.