Belfast, Brexit and relations over the Irish border

Posted in Google Brexit News
at 2016.11.05
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Belfast, Brexit and relations over the Irish border

As the UK government gears up to deliver on the Brexit for which people voted, what of our dearest and nearest neighbour, the Irish Republic? First of all let us keep in sight one thing: Ireland’s future is Ireland’s choice. The UK will not decide on Ireland’s behalf. The decision on EU membership is a choice for the Republic and the Republic alone to make — benefits and all too vivid costs and all.

And let us not misconstrue this as a situation where Ireland has somehow chosen the EU “over” the rest of the British Isles. It is not an either/or: Ireland can have good relations with both the UK, of which it is not part; and with the EU, in which it wishes to remain. The Republic is not following the UK out of the EU but that is not a barrier to Brexit.

Here is what Brexit does not mean: it does not mean that the UK is becoming a hermit kingdom; that travel to the UK will stop; or that we will become a North Korea but with better nuclear weapons and more reality TV formats. In respect to Ireland post-Brexit, things will carry on pretty much as they have for a millennium. You will be able to move freely between the two jurisdictions.

The most recent iteration of this in law is the “common travel area”, which predates the UK’s EU membership. Both governments want it, and it is fantastical to think Brussels will presume to interfere with it or be allowed to.

Given that Irish nationals are already treated as being British by law, won’t this mean EU26 nationals just head for the Republic and then freely enter the UK? No. People will still come from every corner of the Earth, as they do now, but the responsibility will fall on the Home Office to ensure that everyone has a right to be working in the UK. National Insurance numbers will be a more important tool, therefore, than a series of pillboxes dotting the border with the north. There is no secret door into the UK via the common travel area that is not already open via Stansted or Dover or anywhere else.

The EU is institutionally well acquainted with porous external borders, with many localised agreements already in place. Brussels could not possibly deny Dublin the same treatment

It is the same story with trade. Electronic purchase trails are more important in determining the origins and destinations of goods than border guards with flashlights. The EU is institutionally well-acquainted with porous external borders, with many localised agreements already in place. Brussels could not possibly deny Dublin the same treatment.

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, politicians opposed to leaving the EU need to stop asserting things about the Belfast Agreement that are not in it; they need to stop pretending that there is a penumbra of things that are. There is nothing in the agreement that militates against Brexit, nor are there any fantasy vetoes provided for any of the devolved assemblies.

The guiding principle of the Belfast Agreement architecture is, however, that Northern Ireland is in the UK — and people have peacefully signed up to that. The UK has voted to leave but that does not mean Anglo-Irish relations are poisoned. It is fanciful to think that relations were perfect for the first 20 years of both countries’ membership of the EU.

There is no point in raking up the squalid failures of good neighbourliness — especially the noxiously political refusal to extradite terrorists to the UK — that membership of the EU and its predecessors failed to prevent. Equally, the mythmaking must end. The EU neither brought peace to Northern Ireland nor obstructed it: it was, and is, irrelevant to whether or not violence is employed by a small minority rather than constitutional politics. Given the trauma of the Troubles, it is irresponsible to conflate peace with EU membership.

On a practical level, the commonality of British and Irish borders is based on pragmatic political friendship. By agreement, the British provide effective air defence for the Irish, so deepening existing information-sharing protocols is just further good work. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are friends; we work together; we can each choose which multilateral bodies to be members of.

The border is in the mind of those who want cynically and recklessly to exploit it. The facts on the ground are the proof of the good relations we have built together. Brexit means for Ireland only what Brussels wants to inflict, and only what Ireland wants to accept. We wish our neighbour well.

The writer is deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party and leads the party at Westminster

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Published at Sat, 05 Nov 2016 18:00:00 +0000

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