Stark realities of border mean NI has case for a special Brexit arrangement

A hard Brexit seems to be on the cards
A hard Brexit seems to be on the cards

There may be the will, but is there a way?

That essentially sums up the current level of reassurance or rather lack of it in relation to the potential policing of sometime of mmigration and/or customs interface between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as a consequence of Brexit.

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry . 
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Paemaker

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry . Pic Colm Lenaghan/Paemaker

Representatives of the UK Government, most recently the Prime Minister Theresa May, have provided warm words that they have no desire to see the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. From a different perspective, the Irish Government are clear that such an eventuality is something that will seek to prevent.

It has been claimed that the Common Travel Area predates the accession of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland to the European Union and can therefore survive the departure of those states from the EU. However, this argument neglects two key considerations.

First, until now, the UK and Ireland have moved in union around the key immigration and freedom of movement issues. Both states joined the EEC at the same time, and both opted out of the Schengen zone to rely instead on the Common Travel Area.

Second, opting out of Schengen was different from opting out of the core EU principle of the freedom of movement. The Common Travel Area should more readily be understood in terms of how freedom of movement within Europe and non-EU immigration is policed rather than the principle of freedom of movement itself.

Now, the difficulty is that unless we see the softest of soft Brexits, with the UK continuing to more or less fully participate in the EU Single Market and to preserve freedom of movement of people, there will be a difference between the trade and immigration regimes applying to the UK and to the Republic of Ireland.

This will therefore need to be policed in some way. With the confirmation that the Prime Minister is committed to full control of immigration policy, then a hard Brexit seems to be on the cards.

There have been some suggestions that the policing of the inevitable people and customs interface could be handled through electronic-based alternatives, or random checks on papers and paperwork.

However, in terms of trade, it is worth noting that even between Norway and Sweden, with both being members of the Schengen zone, there is still a physical border to address the minimal differences between Norway’s participation in the European Economic Area and the EU Single Market in which Sweden obviously participates.

With respect to people, if the UK Government did try to police immigration through requiring employers, landlords, doctors etc to make checks on paperwork, this additional bureaucracy would run contrary to the stated aim of the Leave campaign to reduce bureaucratic red-tape.

Today, the border on the island of Ireland is largely a constitutional line to separate different jurisdictions but with little practical effect due to common regimes on trade and the freedom of movement for EU citizens.

The very real danger now is that the interface between different customs and immigration regimes will be either policed across the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea. And hard-nosed practical considerations may determine which.

Whatever option emerges will carry financial and economic implications in terms of limitations of choices, dislocation of activity and additional transactional costs.

But even more critically, a barrier in either respect will run contrary to the fundamental and balanced arrangements that underpin the Good Friday Agreement.

Albeit imperfectly, they have facilitated the political evolution in Northern Ireland over the past two decades and facilitated the option for people to operate relatively freely in a range of different frames of reference across these islands. Importantly, they have allowed the development of political pluralism and open, mixed and multiples identities

These stark realities give weight to the case for some consideration of a special arrangement whereby Northern Ireland either remains as a region of the European Union while part of a UK that has otherwise Brexited or that it has special arrangements made for it. The alternative is not a pure form of Brexit, whatever that might mean, but rather than significant and far-reaching anomalies will emerge.

Therefore, rather than watching on the side-lines, it is critical that we in Northern Ireland seek to develop an outcome that best protects our interests and maximises our future opportunities.

• Stephen Farry is an Alliance Party MLA and former Minister for Employment & Learning