Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and European Union have been fraught by disagreement. However, negotiators publicly agree that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be avoided. Despite the conciliatory tones surrounding the debate on the Irish border, there exists an underlying paradox between Brexit and open borders.

The departure of the UK from the single market and customs union appears to be the most probable outcome of Brexit. In this situation, industrial and agricultural goods travelling between the UK and the EU will need to be monitored and regulated. This requires a system of checks across the island of Ireland, the only land border between the UK and the EU. The cross-party Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster recently stated that there are no technical solutions “beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border”.

An invisible border no more

The border between the north and south of Ireland has been invisible for years, due to economic alignment within the EU and a period of peace in the north of the island. However, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU necessitates a review of the Irish border. A mishandling of the delicate border issue could threaten the hard-earned and relative peace in Northern Ireland over the last two decades.

The border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland is currently invisible. Photo credit: Jonathan Billinger

Northern Ireland, separate from the rest of Ireland, came into being less than one hundred years ago. Over that time, it has experienced disproportionate amounts of hardship and conflict. Between 1969 and 1998, Northern Ireland was in a state of low-level civil war fought by local militant groups from each community and the British Army. During this period, known as the Troubles, 3,254 people were killed.

The conflict in Northern Ireland has been defined by the clash between two competing ethnic groups, Protestants and Catholics. Despite the use of religious labels, the conflict was largely fought on competing political aims around Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional status.

Generally, Protestants in the region identify as British and wish to retain Northern Ireland’s union with the rest of Great Britain. Alternatively, Catholics would be more likely to identify as Irish and wish to secede from the United Kingdom in favour of the Republic of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement

The decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland was brought to an official end by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. During previous decades, multiple attempts to broker peace in Northern Ireland had failed. The Good Friday Agreement, being ratified by all communities, was a historic success.

The text of the Good Friday Agreement committed “to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all”. This would be achieved through the cooperation of two conflict groups, unionists and nationalists, working together in local government and building a shared society for all in Northern Ireland.

It was hoped that future generations would define their political future on social and economic issues, rather than the ethnic issues of the past. In 1998, Northern Irish civil society sought to honour the legacy of those who suffered during the conflict, but also to turn their focus towards building a shared future for Northern Ireland.

While progress in Northern Ireland’s post-Agreement period has been erratic, significant instances of reconciliation have been achieved. Former enemies, such as Ian Paisley Sr. and Martin McGuinness, have governed alongside one another. Further, the violent incidents that defined the region for decades have lessened significantly.

Papering over the cracks

The events of recent months have left the Good Friday Agreement’s position looking as delicate as at any point in its 20 year history. It has recently been undermined in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Representatives of the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, are unable to form a cooperative and functioning government. The border issue looms over this local absence of leadership.

The Shankill Road in Belfast in 1970, festooned with loyalist banners and graffiti. Photo credit: Fribbler/Wikipedia Commons

Peace cannot be taken for granted in a region whose history has been dominated by violent outbursts. While the intensity of the conflict has faded, Protestant and Catholic communities remain largely segregated. The two communities often live and socialise in isolated spheres.

Housing estates are divided by towering ‘peace walls’ which nurture a sense of fear and distrust between communities. The majority of students are segregated too, in different strands of schools. In this context, only a sufficient inciting factor is needed for mutual mistrust to grow into a more active conflict.

The ramifications for Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU are becoming clearer. Proponents of a hard-Brexit have fixed their sights on the region. The Good Friday Agreement, with its all-Ireland institutions and fluid conception of identity, contrasts deeply with the desire to secure borders between the UK and the EU. Daniel Hannan, an influential British Eurosceptic, argued that the peace agreement had “failed”, arguing that it represented nothing more than “a bribe to two sets of hardliners who, having opposed power-sharing, came to support it when they realised that they would be the direct beneficiaries. For 20 years, Sinn Féin and the DUP have propped each other up like two exhausted boxers in a clinch.”

An uncertain future

Nevertheless, the UK government, tasked with implementing EU withdrawal, has publicly committed to upholding the Good Friday Agreement. This may be difficult; the psychological impacts of a hard border cannot be understated in the Northern Ireland context. Border fences, checkpoints, surveillance or the presence of officials on the border between north and south would trigger memories of the conflict which could echo through Northern Irish political culture.

Further, the logistical challenges presented by the border would be significant. Around 30,000 individuals cross the border to travel to work each day. The true impact of the border debate is not within its logistics, but in the psychological and emotional nature of the region’s political culture.

Some argue that one of the primary achievements of the Good Friday Agreement was its embrace of nuance and ambiguity. This allowed different groups to have different interpretations of post-conflict Northern Ireland. The Agreement recognised the right of all in the region “to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both”. In constitutional terms, the Agreement backs “whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.

The frictionless, fluid border between North and South reflected the Good Friday Agreement’s malleable narrative. Passing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has been an unremarkable event for years. Therefore, each individual was allowed to psychologically process and define the border, and Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, through their own interpretation. Once checkpoints and controls are placed on the border, however weak, it becomes less possible to envision a multi-layered settlement.

A fundamental tension exists between the wish to avoid a hard border in Ireland and to secure the UK’s borders with the EU after Brexit. A creative technological solution will not resolve this tension. Northern Ireland faces political uncertainty and, in a post-conflict context, uncertainty can be a dangerous force. 

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