We are traveling in the Republic of Ireland this week while the UK House of Commons is mired in Brexit controversy. To provide a view of the complexities of Brexit from the Irish perspective, I’ll detail what I see and hear here.
In the first place, the Republic of Ireland is a part of the EU and will remain so after Brexit takes effect. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is a part of the UK and will be subject to the same rules as the UK. If Brexit takes effect, that will not be EU rules and regulations. The border between the two Irelands is long and circuitous. At one time—during the violent times of “The Troubles”--this was a hard border and a dangerous place. Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement reached in April 1998, which brokered peace between the Irelands, there is a requirement for a “soft” border.
Currently, this border is simply a line on the map and people and goods travel freely back and forth. Northern Ireland demands and UK law requires that this freedom continues, but that’s a problem if the UK (and hence Northern Ireland) withdraw from the EU. To keep an open border means that the UK would have to abide by all the EU customs/trade/immigration rules, which is not acceptable to hard-line Brexiters—nor to the hard-line DUP Northern Ireland party that sustains the current British government, run by PM Theresa May.
A line must be drawn somewhere if the UK is not part of the EU and the Republic of Ireland is (which it will remain)--and that is the source of enormous difficulty. In fact, it’s likely to be an impossibility. If the line is drawn between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, it would mean border checks and collection of tariffs at this long and circuitous border. That is totally unacceptable to Northern Irelanders and violates the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish on both sides recognize this could lead to a resurgence of “The Troubles” and that the border would be a target for violence once again. If the line is drawn between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it would mean that Northern Ireland would have to abide by EU rules--and that is totally unacceptable to Northern Ireland.
In an attempt to finesse this very difficult situation, Teresa May negotiated a transition period of several years during which EU rules would continue while the parties work out the details of how to handle the Irish border. If they have not worked it out by the end of the transition, then EU rules would continue until they are able to work it out. This so-called “backstop” arrangement is not acceptable to most MPs, who realize this could leave the UK locked in a non-negotiable relationship with the EU rather than an exit from the relationship, so May’s deal has gone down in defeat three times. In point of fact, there may not be an arrangement that will be acceptable to all parties—or that would be legal.
We have heard a lot of anxiety and various horror stories while traveling in Ireland. For example, some businesses have employees who live on both sides of the border; they would have to commute daily across the border. Our Dublin taxi driver explained that he was told he would need to tell his insurance company and apply for a special “green card” permit to take passengers across the border, and that permit would need to be obtained a month in advance of the actual trip. Another taxi driver said that he was a veteran retired from the Republic of Ireland army. He had been stationed on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, and it was a dangerous posting because of “the Troubles” between the Catholics and the Protestants in the north. Re-establishing a “hard border” would not only cause numerous delays, impact the price of goods because of different tariffs, promote smuggling—it would also be a target for violence on the part of clandestine militia groups.
Now that the “deal” has gone down in defeat for the third time, it is uncertain what the UK can do other than rescind Article 50 (the technical name for the legislation that exits the UK from the EU) and stay in the EU. That is what one million people marched for a few days ago in London. But there are hard Brexiters who also protested, wanting an immediate hard Brexit—in other words, “just get out!” with no trading arrangements, treaties in place, etc.
The implications of leaving with no deal will be very bad for the people of the Republic of Ireland, which exports much of its dairy and meat products to the UK. There are no options that won’t create havoc here in Ireland. Watching BBC News interviews and talk show pundits, I have never heard Ireland even mentioned—except by the Northern Irish politicians who voted against the deal—and it is apparent that the MPs (and general public) have no sense of the nearly unsurmountable difficulties that Brexit will bring to Ireland. Actually, I do now remember one pro-Brexit MP dismissing the Border difficulties as a mere nuisance and asserting that some kind of technological solution would be easily found. Sounds like magical thinking to me!
Will a no-deal Brexit trigger a move to unify Ireland? That could be a real possibility, although our Dublin taxi driver thought that would never happen because of the cultural, social, and religious differences between the two Irelands. And will Scotland vote to leave the UK? That is also being talked about. The UK could end up much smaller than it is now. Interesting times.