As the House of Lords EU Committee put it, with considerable understatement recently: UK-Irish relations “are often overlooked on the British side of the Irish sea”. Both before and after the EU referendum, the consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have been an afterthought in the public debate. Often there has been no thought at all.
After the referendum result, Theresa May was quick to reassure Stormont that “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past”. Yet, under the pressure from the Tory right, and despite quietly believing in a Remain position during the campaign, the drift of May’s policy, however muddled, seems to be heading towards a so-called “hard Brexit”. Britain could, at the very least, leave the single market. From the Tory right in the cabinet, there have even been suggestions about leaving the customs union — a call which, when it came from Liam Fox in July, caused tension with Dublin government, which proclaimed itself “very surprised”.
The effect of leaving the single market and the customs union would be to entrench the border between the Republic of Ireland and the North. As a recent House of Lords EU committee report stated, “the only way to maintain an open border would be either for the UK to remain in the customs union or for EU partners to agree to a bilateral UK-Irish agreement on trade and customs.” The latter will not be forthcoming without some special dispensation for the Republic of Ireland during the negotiations between Britain and the 27 EU countries and, without it, some system of customs checks would seem inevitable at the border. Moreover, the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be cast into doubt. One legal expert has suggested that: “In the event of a UK withdrawal, much would depend on the terms of its subsequent relationship to the EU. To the extent that customs checks applied to goods moving across the border on the island of Ireland, or to traffic between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, there would be pressure for controls on the movement of persons as well.”
Even if the CTA provisions, which have existed in some form or other since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, are preserved, there will at least be some change to the ability of EU and Swiss/EEA citizens to move between the Republic of Ireland and Britain. Ironically given that the largest Unionist party, the DUP, supported British withdrawal from the EU, one option could mean border checks to enter Great Britain — not at the Irish Border but at ports and airports both North and South. It is this sort of Brexit which Irish capitalism fears most, as the UK is Ireland’s second largest EU trading partner after Belgium, and its key market for exports in the crucial agri-food and drinks sector. This is not to mention the potential complications for the close family and cultural ties between millions of workers in Ireland and the UK, and the position of Irish workers and students living in Britain.
The position of Northern Ireland is, typically, a complicated one. Economically, in the agri-food sector, £700 million of its annual £1.15 billion exports go to the Republic, and customs duties would reverse the moves towards greater economic integration since 1998. Perhaps the only growth industry from a return of a customs border would be organised criminal diesel smuggling. In an atmosphere of fiscal retrenchment, with no appetite for further funding for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, the effect would be to accelerate the Stormont Executive’s attacks on public sector workers, benefits and services, in a region that is already suffering from high levels of deprivation. Of importance, too, would be the effect a tangible border would have on politics in the North. In the short-term at least, it would puncture the optimistic nationalist assumption that economic growth plus demography would deliver a united Ireland. The almost invisible border, diminished in relative importance by its contextualisation within Britain and Ireland’s shared EU membership, would suddenly become a presence in everyday life once more.
This should worry Sinn Fein, which is already losing some working-class support in republican areas to People Before Profit on account of the Executive’s austerity measures. Part of the party’s appeal and prestige lies in its all-Ireland organisation, and the ostensible momentum towards Irish unity generated by its expanding vote share. Brexit could arrest this forward movement. At the same time, a majority of Northern Ireland voted to Remain, creating the potential for discontent with Brexit and with England as there has been in Scotland.
Those unionists who absurdly contend that Northern Ireland is straightforwardly a part of the UK will confront the fact that the six counties is near the bottom of the British government’s list of priorities. Many commentators have expressed alarm about the impact on the “peace process”.
Socialists should of course welcome the cessation of sectarian violence, and the opportunities it opens for the elaboration of working-class and socialist politics. The Good Friday Agreement itself, however, cannot be politically endorsed, as it fails to tackle the roots of the national question and has institutionalised sectarian politics at Stormont. Nevertheless, we should not be complacent about its incidental undoing in the maelstrom of a turbulent and unpredictable Brexit. Down that road lies potential sectarian polarisation and further attacks on workers, as the capitalist class off-loads of the cost of economic disruption. Rather, the overthrow of Stormont should be the positive work of conscious political forces: a working-class movement which, in advocating its replacement with a federal united Ireland with a measure of regional autonomy for Protestant-majority areas, would have the potential to unite workers across the sectarian divide.