One of the ways that Brexit negotiations are breaking down is over Ireland. Yet much of the discussion ignores both imperialist history and the consequences for working people.
At first glance the shape of the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country makes no sense. It is a squiggly line stretching 310 miles from Lough Foyle in the north west to Carlingford in the east. It follows no natural boundaries and cuts across 180 roads. Donegal is indisputably in the north of Ireland, but not part of Northern Ireland. Neither was the border based on the division of Ireland into four historical provinces with Ulster as the northern one. Three counties of Ulster — Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal — were excluded from the newly created statelet.
There were two main reasons for this. The Northern state had to be shaped to ensure that there was a majority for Unionism in it, hence the exclusion of the three largely Nationalist counties. It also had to secure for Britain the north-east of the country around Belfast with its profitable shipbuilding, engineering and linen industries. The border was an artificial construct to further the objectives of imperial Britain.
This context is crucial in any attempt to understand the complexities of the discussions around Brexit. All sides are faced with a contradiction. The reestablishment of a “hard” border with customs posts and security apparatus is anathema to nearly everyone, especially those who live and work in the border areas. But if Britain leaves the EU its only land border would be in Ireland and goods traversing it would be subject to tariffs.
I say “nearly everyone” advisedly, for into the argument steps Jacob Rees Mogg, darling of the “hard” Brexiteers, who suggests with smug imperial arrogance and no grasp of history that there could be a reversion to “historic arrangements” where “people were inspected at the border as they were during the Troubles.” Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the people of the border areas have experienced no impediments to free movement and will not take kindly to any imposition of the status quo ante.
Very few in these discussions, however, make the obvious point that the border is an imperial anachronism and that Ireland should be a united country. Instead the debates focus on the impact of Brexit on the Irish economies on both sides of the existing border.
In an otherwise indispensable book, Brexit and Ireland, Tony Connelly implies that the problem is Brexit itself and the inability of the May government to navigate its way through the minefield of its implications for the Irish border. With access to the leading civil servants and government players Connelly charts the tortuous process of the negotiations, but more importantly provides valuable detail about the interdependency of the economies on both sides of the border.
In 2015 17.8 billion euros worth of goods were imported to Ireland from the UK, all of which would be subject to the Customs Import Procedure post-Brexit; 15.5 billion euros worth were exported in the opposite direction. The imposition of tariffs on these goods and services would cause an administrative and fiscal nightmare.
He also charts the scale of the number of crossings made by people daily. Rees Mogg may blithely assert “it’s not a border everyone has to go through every day”, but that means little to the 30,000 who make a daily crossing to work and the 30 million annual vehicle crossings of the border. It’s estimated that the reestablishment of border checkpoints would create tailbacks of a mile within 15 minutes.
Connelly points out that the fall in the value of sterling versus the euro has already led to the closure of some agricultural businesses in the South who had been paid in sterling for goods exported to Britain through the North of Ireland. He also identifies the shift in patterns of trade across the border. In 1974 9.3 percent of exports from the South went to the North, but by 2014 this had declined to 1.8 percent. Meanwhile 37.9 percent of service exports from the North went to the South and 25 percent of manufacturing exports followed suit in 2014.The imposition of tariffs on this trade could have an incalculably detrimental effect.
He also points out that some companies depend on operations on both sides of the border. The giant dairy company LacPatrick buys 600 million litres of milk from 1,050 farmers on both sides of the border and turns nearly a third of this milk into infant formula in Cavan in the South for export to China and the Middle East. A “hard” border would cause massive disruptions to these cross-border operations.
At the heart of the Irish government’s approach to the impasse in the formal negotiations is to say to Britain “You created this mess, what are you going to do to solve it?” and rely on the continued support of the EU to fight its corner.
But this is to have illusions in the nature and motivation of the EU. The neoliberal orthodoxy at its core is imposed on its members as the Greeks have found out. It protects the interests of the Eurozone and plays hard ball with Brexit “pour encourager les autres”. Neither can it be regarded as a bastion of democracy and social progress. The rise of the far-right within its borders and the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean outside them are testimony to that. If Ireland looks to it for protection there will be a price to pay.
Borders of all kinds are at the heart of this problem and in the specific context of the impact of Brexit on Ireland any attempt to strengthen or even militarise the border should and will be met with mass popular resistance.