How will Brexit affect cross-border transport in Ireland?

The border on the Dublin road, county Armagh, December 2017. Image: Getty.

Last month, polling from YouGov showed that a measly 18 per cent of Britons ranked ‘Preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland’ in their top three priorities for negotiations with the EU. Amid the daily grind of warnings about the future after Brexit, it should be little surprise that an issue consistently underplayed and under-discussed – before, during and after the 2016 Referendum – sits so low on the list of the public’ priorities.

The majority of the discussion on what Brexit will mean for Northern Ireland has been economic. More specifically, the potentially grave implications for the movement of good and services, all island trade and industrial cooperation. These are vital issues – but evidently they have not cut through to general public opinion. 

However, there is also a lack of recognition that the border is far more than an obstacle to haulage. It is a place of communities and human interaction. For thousands of British and Irish citizens, the border is part of daily life and, as the current progress of the Counter-Terrorism & Border Security Bill through Parliament is showing, upsetting the order of life in border communities through legislation is relatively easy. So what potential trouble could Brexit cause?

Until March 2019, crossing the border will remain practically seamless. After March, however, as with almost everything in the United Kingdom at present, the picture is murkier. In the event of a No Deal Brexit, ID could be checked at fixed points on public transport. 

But how would this impact services? And is there any way, short of literal hard infastructure, to stop people driving, cycling or simply walking across the many roads and paths than cross the border across its length? 

And what about those who use cross-border services daily? There is a difference between boarding the Belfast-Dublin Express, for a pre-planned trip and needing to routinely use cross-border bus service between, say, Derry and Donegal.

There is also the problem of technical compatibility. Multiple providers – some in the Republic, some in the north – currently run buses across the border. Likewise, it is not an uncommon sight to see an IarnróÉireann train idling at Belfast Central, providing cover for technical problems with the normal, Northern Irish run Translink service. These are the everyday realities of cross-border travel. Yet the unanswered question remains, if there is no continuation of regulatory alignment between the EU and UK, or the EU and Northern Ireland, post-Brexit, how will these arrangements continue?

Overshadowing all of this, like nowhere else in the UK, is the threat of conflict. It is highly suspect to suggest that any change to how the border operates will plunge the North back into the violence of the Troubles – but one cannot ignore the historic precedent for the border to be a flashpoint. Recent sectarian tensions mean that any proposed plan to ‘fix’ the border could raise security concerns, too.

There could, of course, be a miracle deal at the eleventh hour that solves all of the above and more. There could even be a second referendum: stranger things have happened. But failing the Hail Mary scenario, the British government is going to have to help make the Irish border work.

We’ve seen, in recent week, how lacklustre the government’s current planning for the far larger crossing with the EU at Dover has been. On the Irish border, although the numbers are smaller, there is far less existing infrastructure and a more complicated web of human factors at play. How much hope is there for an adequate solution


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.