Potential Catastrophe How the Irish Border Became Brexit's Biggest Hurdle
A new "hard" border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could have dire economic consequences for both sides -- and reignite old feuds. Now Dublin is playing hardball with British negotiators.
Jean Hegarty turns around and points to her buttocks. "This is where the bullet entered Kevin's body." Her finger moves upwards, following the path the bullet took through to his upper body. "Kevin was shot from behind, when he tried to crawl away from soldiers." Kevin McElhinney was one of 13 unarmed young men who died on so-called Bloody Sunday, in the Northern Irish city of Derry, on January 30, 1972. He was Jean Hegarty's younger brother. He was only 17 years old.
Hegarty - small, energetic and prone to bursts of contagious laughter - spends much of her time reminding people about Bloody Sunday. For the past 18 years, she has overseen the small Museum of Free Derry in Bogside, the Catholic neighborhood in the city, which lies close to the border with the Republic of Ireland. The museum is located only a few feet from the place where Hegarty's brother died. Weapons, bullet casings, gas masks in glass cases serve as reminders of the horrors.
Now that conflict between nationalists, those who want a united Ireland, and unionists, those who want to stay part of the United Kingdom, could reemerge. The Ireland question is currently the most difficult hurdle of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, and the deadline for a solution is approaching. There is a danger that a "hard" border, with inspections of people and goods, and the violence that had supposedly been overcome, might return. If no solution is found, the United Kingdom could exit the EU without a withdrawal agreement - partly at the instigation of the Irish government.
Derry - though unionists prefer the official name of Londonderry - is today still marked by the conflict, known as The Troubles, which resulted in the deaths of over 3,600 people. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 put an end to the killing, and it made the approximately 500-kilometer border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland invisible. Soldiers and barbed wire disappeared. Drivers now only notice they've crossed the border because the speed-limit signs switch from kilometers to miles.
Cars cross the virtual border almost 1.9 million times per month: People drive to work, trucks to factories, ambulances to clinics. Both parts of the island are practically united in their everyday lives. Brexit threatens to abruptly end all of this. The virtual border could be turned back into a real one, where police officers and border guards inspect almost everything and everyone. For the island's economy that would be a catastrophe - and for the peace process, potentially, as well.
'Mother of all Ducks'
According to the most recent promotional video from Silver Hill Foods, the mother of all ducks comes from Emyvale, a small town close to the border with Northern Ireland. With meat that is juicy and tender, and feathers that are soft, the "best-feathered duck in the world," is said to not only fills the world's stomachs, but also the comforters and pillows of countless five-star hotels. The "Silver Hill Duck," the ad argues, is quite simply the "mother of all ducks." At culinary duck hotspots, like London's Chinatown, they have even established a monopoly. "For 10 years, we have had a market share of 100 percent," boasts Silver Hill CEO Micheal Briody. He explains that the British market has been satiated, which is why they are currently aggressively expanding into Asia.
When the subject turns to the Irish border, even Briody becomes quieter. Three quarters of the 80,000 ducks that are killed every day at the Silver Hill plant in the Republic of Ireland come from Northern Ireland. Eggs, chicks and fledglings cross the border up to five times until the ducks are slaughtered. If border controls were to be reinstituted, Briody says, "it would have a significant impact on our business," with enormous new time and financial constraints. He says that his company has already stopped signing new contracts with suppliers from Northern Ireland, because one never knows.
If the United Kingdom leaves the EU without a trade agreement, it would mean WTO tariffs of over 30 percent. The demand in the UK would then probably collapse, and the Silver Hill monopoly in the British capital would be over. "London would then have to make do with inferior products," says Briody, defiantly.
The problems for the economy overall would be even bigger. Eighty percent of the goods exported from Ireland go first to the UK, 66 percent are then distributed to other countries. The British land bridge is thus the lifeline for the Irish economy - and, accordingly, Dublin is very worried about potential customs barriers.
Irish Government Threatens Veto
As a result, the Irish government is dramatically increasing the pressure on London in the Brexit negotiations. Dublin is insisting on a written guarantee that there will be no hard border. Otherwise, according to the barely concealed threat by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Ireland would use its veto to scuttle the transition to the second Brexit negotiation phase.
The Republic of Ireland is currently in a rare position of power. The other 27 EU member states claim they are only willing to talk to the British government about their common future and a trade agreement once "sufficient progress" has been made on three issues: London's financial obligations, the future rights of affected citizens and the Ireland question. This decision must be made unanimously by all 27 heads of state and government. Without Ireland, nothing will happen.
But, although there is movement on the question of citizen rights and even on the heated issue of Brexit's exit bill, little progress has been made on the Ireland question. If there is no breakthrough at the next EU summit in mid-December, then the schedule of the negotiations could completely fall apart. In the most extreme case, a Brexit could happen without a withdrawal agreement, with terrible consequences for the EU economy and worse consequences for the British one.
The Irish Want to Use Their Chance
The Irish are putting on a poker face. Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, addressing journalists from several EU countries in Belfast last Wednesday, said that it was necessary to have a written agreement about at least the framework for the future border. "We can't accept the promise of a check in the post."
Although EU diplomats say they are optimistic that the Irish won't allow the situation to become extreme - and want to put pressure on Dublin in case of an emergency -- they cannot be certain, because the government in Dublin is worried about having only one shot. Once Brexit negotiations move to the second phase, Ireland's veto rights are gone. The withdrawal agreement only requires a qualified majority in the European Council to pass. "When Ireland and the EU task force say that we need significantly more progress and reassurance and clarity on the Irish border issue, we mean it," said Coveney. "We are not in the business of building barriers on the island of Ireland ever again."
But nobody knows how that can be avoided. British Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly made it clear that her country will be leaving the single market and the customs union when it exits the EU on March 29, 2019. According to the law, new personal and customs inspections will be carried out at the new outer EU border from that point onward.
Unionists Reject Special Status for Northern Ireland
Although the British government also emphasized in its official paper on the Ireland issue that they do not want any new screenings of goods and people, they pointed out that this would require an "unprecedented solution." London did not describe in detail what this would look like and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier promptly dismissed the British offer.
An obvious solution, which Coveney also suggests, would be to give Northern Ireland special status and allow it to remain in the customs union and the single market. The border would then, in practical terms, be relocated to the Irish Sea. But the Northern Irish unionists reject this outright: They fear a loosening of Northern Island's ties to the UK and a move towards the island's reunification. One problem: The Democratic Unionist Party has been propping up the UK government since Theresa May's disastrous snap election. If they withdraw their support, the prime minister falls.
Based on the current positions, people in diplomatic circles argue, the Irish question is currently unsolvable. On top of this, they argue, it's utterly unclear how a compromise could be found. The Irish government also narrowly avoided a no-confidence vote in parliament this week, after the deputy premier, Frances Fitzgerald, was accused of being aware of a smear campaign against a whistleblower in the Irish police. Fitzgerald stepped down on Tuesday, averting an early election at a crucial time.
Ultimately, said Foreign Minister Coveney, the border question is about much more than trade and barrier-free travel. "It is about peace." A new hard border, people in Dublin government circles are saying, wouldn't just inflict economic damage, and cause a rise in unemployment and dissatisfaction, but also present a new target for old hatreds. People in Ireland rarely talk about peace, instead speaking of a peace process. That process is far from over.