The truth about Northern Ireland’s borders after Brexit – passports and customs - and how demographic shifts will hugely alter political balance. Comment after keynote.

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29th September 2017

A lot of nonsense is talked about Brexit.  Here is the truth.

Sorting out all Brexit issues affecting the borders of Northern Ireland could take many years to fully resolve.  At the same time, the EU has made it clear that until a practical solution is agreed, even if such a solution is fine-tuned in future, discussions on a trade deal post-Brexit, will be on permanent hold.

There is a small chance that the entire Brexit process will be halted by a further vote in the UK, which could form part of an election manifesto commitment at the next election.  However this is becoming less likely at the moment, because opinion polls across the UK as a whole are more in favour of Brexit than when the original vote to leave took place.  (At the same time, paradoxically, opinion polls in other EU nations are becoming more positive about being part of the EU.)

For the purposes of this article, let us assume therefore that Brexit happens.

The EU has made absolutely 100% clear that they will not under any circumstances tolerate a breach anywhere in the EU wall controlling goods, services and movements of people across the border into the EU.  That is, unless every detail of that breach is carefully agreed as part of a complex trade agreement.  The reason is that such a breach would be used by every company wanting to bypass normal trade tarifs.  It would amount to a kind of legal smuggling.  Such a breach could also be used by migrants.

The UK government has also taken a similar position.  While the UK government would be delighted to have a back door after Brexit, through which goods and services can freely move in and out of the EU without any trade barriers, they would be against creating any port or airport into UK territory where migrants could flood into the UK without any controls.

The strong EU preference is for a simple, ordinary, border in the Irish sea.  In other words, free movement of goods and services and people between the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Northern Ireland (NI).  The only alternative that is likely to be manageable from customs and migration point of view would be a hard EU / UK border applied between ROI and NI.  The UK government has proposed various complicated ways in which a border could be managed in a less cut and dried way between the ROI and NI, but all these are likely to be rejected by the EU. 

But who has the moral right to determine which of the two simple options should apply?  The European Commission has already stated that the logical body to decide where that border should be is a Parliament representing the people of NI, in conjunction with the Parliament of ROI. The only problem is that at the time of writing, there is no Parliament operating in Northern Ireland, for unrelated reasons.  So such decisions would slide by default to Westminster.

It could be argued that Westminster has no moral right to determine such a vitally important matter on behalf of the people of NI.  And in the absence of a functioning NI Parliament the logical conclusion would then be that such a matter should be subject to a referendum in NI.

Choice: Assuming that the UK leaves the EU, where do you wish the customs and passport border between Northern Ireland and the UK to be?  In the Irish Sea or between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Because of the vast number of people movements across the border between ROA and NI every day, the fact that many farms have land running across the border and so on, such a vote might well settle on a border in the Irish Sea.  Indeed this is likely to be the only politically sustainable solution in the longer term, for another very important reason.

A further significant factor in the changing landscape of NI is that demographics are changing, and with it, the likely future balance of votes on these and many other issues.  The birth rate of communities identifying culturally as Catholic, is far greater than the birth rate of communities identifying culturally as Protestant.  So in general terms, the size of the electorate likely to vote for traditionally Catholic policies will eventually exceed the rest of the population.  The old situation of a Catholic minority is going to become a Protestant minority.  This is a radical transformation with a tipping point likely to be in less than a decade.

So in the longer term, it is even more likely that the majority of the population of NI would vote for no border with ROI.

However, the current reality is that the Conservative government in the UK is perpetually on the brink of being unable to govern because it lacks a majority, and the party keeping it in power is the Democratic Unionist Party, which is likely to resist an Irish sea border, since it’s core value is union with the UK.

So the Brexit process will continue for a while more at least, in a messy and semi-chaotic way.

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