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Northern Ireland

So, that’s that then. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is going to go through the House of Commons. The UK will have left the EU by 1 February 2020.

What is more, it seems, the UK may well ‘break free’ of the EU at the end of next year without having managed to weave so much as a thin handkerchief of a trade deal, let alone a bespoke British suit.

And the Irish land border will be an external frontier of the EU. What this means in practice will be far less dramatic and hair-raising than what it might otherwise have meant.

This is thanks to the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement.

In fact, the only part of this withdrawal agreement that is substantively different from May’s is this protocol. The change to the deal was all about the Irish border.

In so doing, it is intended to recognise the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland – an ambition that all parties in Northern Ireland had argued for.

But, if this is the case, why is Northern Ireland still unhappy? All Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs were elected on the grounds that they fundamentally disagreed with Johnson’s deal.

The majority do so because they are in support of Remain. But across the spectrum, they share a belief that the UK’s exit on these terms brings risks to Northern Ireland, both in terms of its economic development and its political stability.

What Brexit will mean for Northern Ireland will be very different to what it means for the rest of the UK. This is because of the EU’s willingness to breach two of its red lines in this protocol in light of the exceptional position of Northern Ireland.

First, it sets out terms for the future relationship (vis-à-vis Northern Ireland) prior to the UK’s exit, and, secondly, it shows flexibility (to the point of potential risk) in applying the rules of its single market.

And so there will be no need for checks and controls for customs or product standards at the Irish land border, and thus no need for new physical infrastructure, procedures or resources for the movement of goods across the border.

But, as has long been pointed out, there has to be a border somewhere. And this deal has included a rather poor attempt at an optical illusion: Northern Ireland is firmly in the UK’s customs territory…. But, whoah!, it is actually painted head to toe in the Union Customs Code, and so under the aegis of the EU.

For all the wordplay and platitudes and fudge and downright fabrication, what the protocol means for Northern Ireland will be seen at its borders.

The new political declaration on the future UK/EU relationship recognises that the UK and the EU will be separate markets and distinct legal orders, and this means procedures and checks when moving goods across borders.

Northern Ireland will be a strange half-way house, where controls on goods moving within the UK but across the Irish Sea may well now come into play – for all the good intentions on minimising such controls.

This will have economic consequences, as those leaked documents waved around by Jeremy Corbyn confirmed. But they have other consequences too.

And this is why it is worth listening to those in the central border region of Ireland/Northern Ireland to explain why The Border into Brexit report containing new data from a large online survey, focus groups and stakeholder interviews from the region has just been published.

The key point is that borders are about more than ‘trucks and tyres’ as one interviewee put it.

‘It’s the imposition of a border and it’s the challenge to identity that comes with that. It’s taking away freedoms and how you live your normal life. It’s a wholesale change and irrespective of whether the border is here in Cavan with Fermanagh or a sea border, it’s going to have a huge impact on life here. That new border that is being considered, the ramifications of that and the concern that that causes to the loyalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland.’

What people in the Irish border region know, from bitter recent experience, is that a border has both practical and symbolic significance.

And if there is increased friction when moving across it, there can be knock-on effects far beyond the immediate practicalities. Not to point too fine a point on it: borders are enormously significant in Northern Ireland.

Another interviewee from the border region explained this process in terms of how the prospect of a harder border is received – and this relates to both the land and the sea border:

‘This [Brexit] process is highlighting the existence of the border again. People are wondering, ‘how will this affect us and our relationships?’. It all feels that we will have to identify ourselves again, whereas before this issue had been lessened. It feels like we are going backwards and the concern is that this may impact on the peace process.’

The negative impacts of this are worsened by a sense of uncertainty. Even though the divorce of the UK from the EU is to take legal effect, what the new relationship between them will be like is going to take years to be revealed.

There is thus a strong sense of insecurity associated with Brexit now – and across all communities, and in relation to borders all around Northern Ireland. One interviewee for The Border Into Brexit study explained what this means:

‘Uncertainty leads to concern and worries which leads to and can lead to mistrust, and increasingly, what I would say is a tapering of relationships or impact on relationships, because people are inclined to go back into their own selves and their own place where they are comfortable with like-minded people. And that is what I am currently seeing. …So, Brexit has started a process of an increasing lack of engagement and building up of concern between people and within communities.’

I have previously described Northern Ireland as a meeting point between Britain and Ireland.

This has had horrendous, bloody consequences in the past, but it has also taken the form of kinship, friendship and cultural ties. Borders are lines of connection as well as of division.

Britain cannot simply shimmy Northern Ireland away from its Brexit considerations, let alone from its political and constitutional responsibilities.

The future UK-EU relationship will continue to be centred on what happens in and around Northern Ireland, both in practical and symbolic terms.

Because, as few people know more than those in the Irish border region: borders matter.

By Dr Katy Hayward, senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe and reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast


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