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 Iarnród Éireann 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