Those pesky Paddies. Just as the sunny Brexit uplands were coming into view, the Irish have thrown a spanner in the works. Dublin’s demands for a soft border have, variously, thrown ‘chaos’ and an ‘unexpected’ hurdle into the Brexit talks,‘blindsiding’ British officials.
Pity the Brexiteers. Who could have foreseen that wanting to impose different regulatory regimes on either side of a 310-mile long, undulating border through one of the politically delicate pieces of land in Europe might prove so problematic?
Thankfully help is at hand.
DExEU minister David Davis has ruled out the need for a ‘new border’in Ireland. (That’s the same David Davis who, last year, seemed to think Ireland was still part of the UK.)
On Twitter, author David Goodhart – well kent in UK government circles for his broadsides on metropolitan latte drinkers – assured his followers that the Irish border was an ‘internal one’ posing ‘mainly a technical problem’ that could be easily solved.
It’s striking that Brexit is being delivered by politicians who ‘have had enough of experts’ – except when it comes to the Irish border.
There, it seems, no problem is so big that it can’t be solved by a sprinkling of expertise and the warm glow of technology’s white heat. Fuel laundering? There’s an app to stop that. Cattle smuggling? Sure a simple tag system will make that impossible.
The Brexit ministries’ favourite ‘think tank’ Legatum – which is funded largely by a New Zealand-born, Dubai-based disaster capitalist – has suggested drones would solve the border problem and that the UK government “should consider giving a prize for technological solutions to incentivise the development of innovative solutions’ to the Irish border post-Brexit.
Actual experts on the Irish border dismissed this idea as ‘highly problematic’ – but as I discovered during the summer, the UK government isn’t actually talking to any experts about the Irish border.
The on-going failures over universal credit have, apparently, done little to erode the UK government’s faith in technology. Leaving aside the problems with the various fuzzy notions around ‘technological solutions’ to the Irish border proposed by the UK government and its janissaries – more on that here – the over-riding sense is that most British politicians and commentator just don’t get the Irish border.
Seen from Whitehall, the border might look quite straightforward. A squiggly line carved primarily by expediency in the early 1920s, the border separates the UK and the ‘not UK’. All that needs to be done is to set up a regime that allows the UK to fulfil the lofty ambitions of Liam Fox et al – ambitious trade deals with far flung nations etc etc – while ensuring the minimum level of disruption for those unfortunate enough to live on the edge of the British frontier. If that means a few customs posts here and there, so be it.
But there’s a problem: the Irish border is not just a line on the map, it’s a social, psychological construct that has, effectively, been rendered invisible. With both the UK and Ireland in the European Union, and the end of any territorial claim from Dublin with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the border has withered away.
I grew up on the southern side of the border. Where once checkpoints manned by the British army used to tell me I had crossed into Northern Ireland, now it can be very hard to tell what jurisdiction you are in. Sure the road signs are different but many of the 300 roads that crisscross the border are rural back roads with precious few markings.
The border region remains the poorest, least developed part of Ireland. This isn’t a co-incidence. Even with both UK and Ireland in the EU, the very fact that there are two jurisdictions – and a dark history – brings economic cost.
But over the last two decades, life has improved noticeably. Tens of thousands live on one side of the border and work on the other. For those living on the border, any change is a step backwards for peace.
So far Theresa May and her colleagues have shown little appreciation for the reality of border life. That your children might be born on a hospital on one side of the border, but go to school on another. You might – as my brother did – learn to drive in the Republic but take your rest in Northern Ireland, where waiting times are shorter.
Brexiteers adduce the Common Travel Area to argue that there is no need to restrict freedom of movement. That’s true, but there will likely be some form of customs checks if – as they say – the UK leaves the Single Market and the Customs Union. That will require road closures and lengthy delays on even the most quotidian journey. If you’re stuck in a two-hour tail back crossing from Derry into Donegal, it doesn’t much matter whether or not you have to produce a passport. You’ll still have to wait while the lorries at the front of the queue are checked.
Ardent Brexiteers – inside and outside Westminster – tell themselves that the Irish will blame the EU for any border difficulties. Common sense, and history, suggests that’s wishful thinking. During the
Brexit campaign no less than the UK secretary of state promised Northern Irish voters that there would be no border controls.
Any change at the border will likely be blamed on Brexit, and the British.
There’s a definite whiff of condescension about the British elite’s current attitude to Ireland. Nothing new in that, you might say. Churchill’s clichéd quips about the ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and
Tyrone’ have been matched by myriad UK politicians over the years.
But there is something particularly revealing in the failure of British political leaders to understand Dublin’s position, or the sensitivities of a part of the UK itself. As is so often the case, borders are places where grand colonial ambitions begin to fall apart, where restless natives and inclement conditions play havoc with even the best laid plans.
Brexit is not a well laid plan. Indeed, it is hardly a plan at all. The Irish border is the most obvious place where the easy logic of ‘take back control’ breaks up on contact with complex realities, but
it will not be the only one.