Once again, a tension-packed border

Britain’s 2016 decision to leave Europe was a seismic event for the bloc and Ireland found itself at the epicentre

by Joe Stenson 


Ireland retains unique political relations and deeply enmeshed trade ties with the kingdom it was once ruled by. It also has a crucial role in guaranteeing hard-won peace in the neighbouring British territory of Northern Ireland. The Brexit vote scrambled those delicate dynamics -- developed in the 100 years since Ireland won independence -- and when Britain finally split with the EU in January it marked a new chapter.

As the only EU nation sharing a land border with the UK, Ireland has unwillingly become the fraught frontier between the bloc and Britain’s experiment with the outside.

In a strange way Brexit upset Ireland’s February general election, despite a broad cross-party consensus that the nation should act in solidarity with the EU during negotiations around the split.

Then-prime minister Leo Varadkar chose to hold an election one week after Brexit, evoking the ongoing danger it posed and his ability to guide future trade deal talks currently underway. "Brexit is not done yet -- in fact it's only half-time," he warned.

But he was swiftly routed at the polls by voters who had suffered from four years of Brexit fatigue and were ready to focus on domestic failures in housing and healthcare. New prime minister Micheál Martin has signalled he will seek a future trade deal with minimal disruption.

But the four years before Martin’s election had been turbulent as Brexit threatened the bedrock of peace across the island of Ireland, with the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal to smooth the split.

Analysts predict this “hard Brexit” would require checkpoints for goods transiting the new 500 kilometre EU frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland -- a province Britain retained in 1921 as Ireland became independent. But a “hard border” between the territories -- required to preserve the EU customs union and single market -- proved a deeply problematic notion.

Border infrastructure was dissolved after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland -- a 30 year conflict between unionists and republicans which killed 3,500 people. It was a canny maneuver -- allowing nationalists seeking Irish unity to ignore the border whilst appeasing unionists favouring bonds to mainland Britain.

Security experts suggested dissident republican paramilitaries would lay siege to new infrastructure symbolically separating Northern Ireland from the republic, restarting the old cycle of bloodshed.

Fears of a “hard Brexit” were salved when Britain agreed to avoid a “hard border” by putting checkpoints on goods travelling between the mainland and Northern Ireland. But that had far reaching implications for the status of Northern Ireland -- and the very statehood of the UK and Ireland.

Hardcore unionists branded the protocol “the betrayal act” -- believing trade barriers in the Irish Sea symbolically sever the province’s ties to the mainland and create a de facto economic united Ireland. 

Meanwhile republicans have argued that Brexit stokes the case for a united Ireland -- having highlighted the border as an unenforceable obstruction. An economic argument has also been made that Northern Ireland would be better off with Ireland inside the EU than with Britain on the outside.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement a referendum can be held on Irish unity. Hardcore republican party Sinn Fein said that poll must be held within five years because of Brexit.

These political developments have simmered against the backdrop of Brexit’s economic impact -- slated to be a disaster for Ireland.

The withdrawal deal allayed short-term disruption but Britain and the EU are currently locked in fruitless negotiations to determine a future trade relationship by the end of the year. Ireland fears a “cliff edge” which could see the UK revert to World Trade Organisation rules, imposing high tariffs and quotas.

The agri-food sector -- symbolically important industry on “the emerald isle” -- would be particularly vulnerable with the central bank warning a third of farms could go bankrupt under steep tariff regimes.

With the nation’s coffers already emptied by the coronavirus crisis, the prospect of a further economic shock is not a welcome one.


Joe Stenson works as a text and video journalist at AFP news agency in Ireland.