I was horrified by the lack of attention that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland received throughout the EU Referendum campaign. My cracking point was when Theresa Villers publicly stated that there would not be an issue, and assumed that all could continue as normal. Now, I am used to people brushing over Northern Ireland, or not understanding, but this was the Northern Irish Secretary. I was appalled that the ignorance ran so deep.
But it wasn’t just about ignorance of Northern Ireland. When it came to the Referendum, emotions and political positioning became much more important than arguments. People picked their side, and made the facts fit in.
The problem is, now that we’re actually leaving, some of the facts won’t fit in neatly. Coming up with a solution to the Northern Irish border is beginning to feel like fitting a square peg into a non-existent hole. Many people are avoiding the question completely. I was particularly concerned by the lack of mention of the Northern Irish border question in the deal with the Tories. In the lead up to the discussions, the DUP stuck their heels in the ground, stating that they would force May to keep a soft border. Why was something so key dropped in the final document?
Northern Irish Politics are messy. Brexit politics are messy. Emotions are running high on all sides, but this cannot be an excuse to avoid such an important question. Yes, the agreements with Ireland pre-date the agreements with the EU, but having no border solution at all will create problems. Assuming over the years, the UK wants to diverge from the EU on laws regarding trade, immigration etc (after all, we’re ‘taking back control’), an open border around Northern Ireland leaves a back door open. The EU also requires guardianship of external borders as a requirement of membership. It’s what delayed access and full rights of many of the Central and Eastern European states. Keeping things as they are simply can’t work.
On the other hand, a hard border would be disastrous for the work that has been done in the Peace Process, and the progress of the rights of people living in Northern Ireland. It would also end almost a century of the Common Travel Area which has done great work in UK-Ireland relations.
So we look for something in between. Move the border? An invisible border? Flexible checks? So many ideas have been put forward, but shot down by at least one of the stakeholders in the debates.
I’m not denying that (almost) everyone wants there to be a workable solution to the Northern Irish border, I’m just saying that wanting something does not make it so. I’ve been wishing unicorns were real since I was 4, but sticking a horn on a horse just won’t cut it. Maybe there is a perfect solution out there, but I haven’t heard anyone get even close.
I am fearful of the Tory rhetoric that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. A hard border in Northern Ireland would result in much collateral damage, and this mindset was not one which seemed to care. Thankfully, there appears to be some shift away from this staunch position. I am also concerned that the main parties in Northern Ireland are both setting down red lines, preventing the formation of an Assembly, which is a necessary forum to discuss these issues.
I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that this requires a long boring exercise of modelling out all scenarios, and working out which one will be the least harmful. I think we need to bring back those experts we all said we were sick of and get some real facts on the table. Ireland has started to do this from their side, and the UK needs to step up. It’s not the most exciting solution, but I’m not willing to put up my 1.5million countrymen as collateral damage to flatter the Tories’ egos. People who live on the border are already becoming fearful of what may come. These people need to be reassured now. Politicians, put your egos and preconceptions away and get around the table.