Queen's Policy Engagement

Borders of the Future: Brexit and Bordering Ireland

If nobody wants a return to the borders of the past, then what will the borders of the future look like asks Professor Cathal McCall.

Borders of the Future: Brexit and Bordering Ireland

Prior to calling the 2017 UK General Election, a favourite refrain of Prime Minister Theresa May was ‘nobody wants a return to the borders of the past’. For many on the island of Ireland, the image of the borders of the past that springs to mind is the heavily securitised stretch of the Irish border in South Armagh that was dismantled over a decade ago.

If ‘nobody wants a return to the borders of the past’ then what will the borders of the future look like? One could consider the European Border Guard Teams of Frontex – sporting night vision goggles – that already roam the EU’s external frontier in search of irregular migrants. However, the remit of Frontex does not run to Ireland because neither the state nor the UK is a member of the Schengen border regime. Moreover, in the Brexit negotiation, European Commission negotiators are likely to concentrate on the cross-border movement of goods, capital and services rather than people on the island of Ireland.

But what of the British side in the negotiation? It is important to remember that Brexit was inspired by another refrain, namely, ‘bring back control’, especially control of the movement of people from the European continent to Britain.

State borders are the principal foci for asserting such control. Hard borders of the future may rely increasingly on technology to operationalise border control. However, border technology experts tell us plainly that technology is not the solution. The human border guard cannot be easily supplanted in a hard border regime, especially when its quarry is human.

With this in mind, we need to consider where a Brexit border control regime could be established.

Post-Brexit, the Republic of Ireland will remain open to fellow European citizens. So it is, therefore, logical to assume that the Irish border will be the principal foci for asserting control. However, this assumption is problematic, not least because the Irish border meanders for approximately 300 miles across the island of Ireland, has approximately 200 crossing points, and was the subject of agitation and violence from its consolidation in 1925 to its softening in the 1990s.

Ireland has the densest cross-border road network in Europe.  Additionally, key arterial roads can cross the border more than once. For example, the direct route from Cavan Town (in the Republic) to Dungannon (in Northern Ireland), through the Drummully Salient, crosses the border no less than five times.

Even when ‘The Troubles’ were at their height in the 1970s and 1980s, the border security regime was partial because the British Government recognised that a continuous securitised border would play into the hands of Irish republican insurgents. In the post-1998 era of minimal border security threat, the idea of reinstating a hard Irish border is generally considered to be a foolish one.

After the Brexit referendum of 23rd June 2016, it appeared that the UK Government, led by Prime Minister May, was cognisant of the risks involved in rebordering on the island of Ireland. Such rebordering could entail the reintroduction of customs checkpoints on cross-border arterial routes, the closure of scores of secondary cross-border roads (that were reopened in the 1990s courtesy of EU Interreg funding), and the establishment of a border security regime to support vulnerable customs officials and infrastructure.

An alternative to such a politically hazardous and costly enterprise would be for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Union Customs Union. A special non-tariff deal could be struck between a reinstated Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government on Northern Ireland goods, capital, and services entering Britain. This would mean that Britain’s border portals (at ports and airports) would become the foci for heightened securitisation. However, the requirement to produce a form of identification other than a passport at Britain’s border portal checkpoints would help to soothe Ulster British national identity sensitivities.

This alternative is attractive on two counts: it would honour a cross-border, cross-community democratic wish articulated in another refrain, namely, ‘no one wants to see a hard border’ on the island of Ireland; and it would be easier and less costly to establish and manage. Incidentally, it would also go at least some way to respecting the clear majority of the Northern Ireland electorate that voted to remain in the European Union.

In response to past security threats, bordering Britain was triggered without a qualm. In 1940 travellers from the island of Ireland were required to carry passports or limited travel documents for ‘war-work’ in order to enter Britain. A ‘common travel area’ between Britain and Ireland was not reinstated fully until 1952. In 1974, the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act gave the British Home Secretary the power to prevent individuals moving from Northern Ireland to Britain and also to deport individuals from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Passengers at the ‘Belfast Gate’ of Britain’s airports were well acquainted with the intrusion of border security control paraphernalia decades before the experience became commonplace after the 11th September 2001 Islamic jihadist attacks on the United States of America.

Britain’s border within the UK, combined with the permeability of the UK’s land border with the Republic of Ireland, and Westminster’s willingness to allow Northern Ireland to secede from the UK unilaterally in the event of a majority in Northern Ireland approving such a move, challenges the idea of a UK border that is coterminous with the UK state. Britain is the de facto state and its borders are fuzzy.

Thus, the UK’s borders as principal foci for ‘bringing back control’ may well retreat to Britain in the quest to render them, clear, secure, and impenetrable to unwanted outsiders.

Professor McCall was one of the participants in the February 2017 “Brexit and Borders” Workshop
co-hosted at Queen’s University Belfast by the British Academy and the Royal Irish Academy. 


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons licence.

Professor Cathal McCall
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Cathal McCall is Professor of European Politics in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University, Belfast. He has written extensively on European borders, cross-border cooperation and peacebuilding.

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