An earlier version of this article was first published with the Montesquieu Instituut. Following the results of the Northern Irish Assembly elections, it has been updated.
Of all the complicated consequences of Brexit that have been analyzed at length in European and British media, one issue is often brushed aside as a detail. The island of Ireland is to become home to the EU and UK’s only land border, potentially upending two economies and threatening a fragile peace between Unionist and Nationalist extremists. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have long enjoyed an open border as members of a UK-Ireland Common Trade Area, and since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 all Northern Irish citizens have been able to avail of Irish and British nationality, bringing stability to a region once afflicted by intense religious and ethnic violence.
However, to paraphrase Irish poet WB Yeats, the situation after Brexit is changed utterly. Already, in emergency elections being held on 3 March in NI due to a whistleblower scandal, the Irish nationalist party seeking unity with Ireland, Sinn Fein (SF) has managed a dramatic surge in support at the expense of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by highlighting the DUP’s support of Brexit and their role in a whistleblower controversy that revealed tax payers money was misspent on an ill-conceived incentive system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by paying companies to turn green. The former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, has come under especially severe criticism for her role in the controversy. SF has managed to get within a single seat of the DUP, and Unionists for the first time ever have lost an outright majority in Northern Ireland, although they still remain the largest political force as a whole. With the outright Unionist majority gone, the political balance that has been maintained since Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s has been destroyed. Under the Good Friday Agreement, SF and the DUP must now enter negotiations to restore government. These contentious negotiations could elapse the set period of time, triggering fresh elections, or more likely, lead to the reinstatement of direct control from the UK parliament in Westminster, a situation that would certainly hurt Northern Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations. Negotiations that already hold direct dangers for Northern Ireland and Ireland’s open border.
The media have been happy to suggest that some sort of deal can be struck to keep the border open, although Kevin O’Rourke’s recent article in the Irish Times has acknowledged how difficult this could prove. In the case of the “hard Brexit” promised by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK will be out of the EU’s customs union. To avoid tariff cheating between the EU and UK and by other trading partners seeking to exploit Europe’s single market or the UK’s favorable rates, both the EU and UK will likely have to insist on a customs check on the island.
Likewise, as long as people can travel into the UK through the North’s open door, Ireland, without needing an ID, May can’t curb EU migration into the UK, a central pledge of the Brexit campaign. This leads to the conclusion that a so-called “hard border” will be the inevitable consequence of Brexit in Ireland.
Nevertheless, with peace and the economy on the line, it is not impossible that May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who have promised to keep the border invisible, might be able to find an innovative solution to the border problem.
Some solutions to this border problem can be dismissed quickly. For instance, a “United Ireland” approach where NI merges with Ireland has, despite what the recent election might suggest, little popular support in NI or political capital in Ireland. Similarly, while the DUP’s Foster, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, have suggested a soft border based on “new technology”, this concept has remained vague, and unrealistic in light of the customs and immigration issues.
More likely is the “All Ireland” solution, suggested by the UK, where Ireland would be allowed to take over maintenance of the borders of the island of Ireland, pushing British border control back to the island of Britain but leaving NI and Ireland politically distinct. If a special customs deal could be reached so that EU goods can move freely into NI, this could be a potential compromise. Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, NI citizens would also have EU citizenship, allowing them to retain many of the privileges of full EU membership.
However, this option could face significant resistance from NI’s Unionist majority, who would face border checks when entering other regions of the UK, but not gain many of the benefits of the EU in return, such as EU subsidies or freedom of movement for work in Europe. Unionists, often fearful that they may be “abandoned” by the UK, could see this as the first step towards a United Ireland, making it a politically toxic strategy, and an unlikely resolution to the border issue.
One way of getting Unionists to agree to the “All Ireland” strategy might be the so-called “reverse Greenland” proposal. Proposed by Scotland, this is the idea that individual UK regions, such as Scotland and NI, could be allowed to retain their membership of the EU or the EEA even as other regions, like England and Wales leave. This model is based on the Danish territory, Greenland, which left the EU in 1985 while remaining a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
For NI this option might offer the most promising outcome, although NI would require far more autonomy from the UK for it to be possible. As with the “All Ireland” solution, the UK border would be pushed back to Britain, granting NI, as an EU member, access to the customs union and the single market, while limiting EU immigration to Britain. For Unionists a major attraction would be access to EU subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy and EU structural development funding, vital lines of funding for NI’s economy, while retaining all the benefits of being a part of the UK.
Assuming the DUP, who voted for Brexit, is won over, a “reverse Greenland” for NI would face several other obstacles. The main would be UK reluctance to grant Scotland a similar deal, as it might encourage an independence campaign that has picked up steam in the wake of the Brexit referendum. While the UK as a whole might not be affected by NI adopting this unique position, a border between Scotland and England would be unthinkable economically and politically. Coupled with the difficulties in negotiating such a bespoke arrangement, the chances of this approach being implemented are slim.
Hard Brexit, Hard Border
The options outlined above constitute a wish list, not a likely reality. The real shape of the future border is dependent on more than innovative options. It depends on some of the most complex divorce proceedings ever undertaken, the disentangling of thousands of laws, economic relationships and partnerships. It depends on this not just going well, but going amicably, with the UK and EU being able to find common ground. It depends on the EU making exceptions to some of its most dogmatic rules, and the UK softening the blow of its Brexit. For now, with everything as it stands, with an end to free movement and the UK’s membership of the common market, a hard Brexit means a hard border.