Yesterday’s publication of an updated report by a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom on the possible future shape of the non-border between the UK-administered Six Counties and the rest of Ireland is a glorious example of Brexit vacuity at its best. Despite sixty-nine pages of comparative analysis, witness statements and innumerable footnotes, the document amounts to little more than a list of increasingly challenging questions to which the British MPs could offer no answers.
How is Britain going to maintain an invisible or open frontier around its legacy colony in the north-east of Ireland when the country withdraws from the European Union, including the EU’s single market and customs union? Simply put, no one knows. Or as the Westminster website headlines the report, “No progress in finding solution to Brexit border problem“.
From the publication itself, “The land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland“, the impossibility of unobtrusive customs checks and border posts gives rise to these confused thoughts:
The Committee has heard numerous proposals for how the UK and the EU could ensure customs compliance without physical infrastructure at the border. This is currently the case for enforcement in relation to fuel, alcohol and tobacco. These proposals address the question of compliance through mobile patrols, risk analysis, data-sharing and enforcement measures away from the border. However, we have had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border.
The Committee supports the Prime Minister’s clear rejection of the current proposals in the Draft Withdrawal Agreement which would result in a customs border in the Irish Sea. The issues of the land border cannot be resolved by creating a costly barrier to trade with Northern Ireland’s largest market
The Government’s stated intention, that Northern Ireland will be outside of the EU Customs Union and Single Market but require no border infrastructure, is unprecedented.
On the question of London reimposing a militarised frontier to demarcate its recently quiescent colonial territory in the northern corner of the island of Ireland, the scene of violent conflict until the Irish-British peace process of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the MPs note that:
During the Troubles, security installations were erected along the border and a system of approved roads was put in place for travel between jurisdictions. Dr Patterson told us it would now be accepted that all the infrastructure used to create the “hardest of hard borders” was ineffective. Professor John Doyle, Director of the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction at Dublin City University, said:
33,000 members of the Armed Forces were deployed in Northern Ireland. If you talk to veterans, I do not think you will find a single officer who thought the border was sealed for one hour during that period. All the evidence is that it was not.
Today, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has around 7,000 officers for 310 miles of border. George Hamilton agreed that hard physical infrastructure had not been successful for policing the border. In his assessment, physical infrastructure at the border would also become the subject of “unhelpful attention” from dissident republicans who view the police or representatives of the state as legitimate targets. He emphasised that officers should not be made into “sitting ducks”…
The border in Northern Ireland has always been porous. Additional infrastructure is not only politically objectionable but, on its own, would be a highly ineffective means of preventing the movement of illicit goods.
Particular attention should be paid to this claim by the members of the Conservative, Labour and Democratic Unionist parties on the committee regarding the removal of European Union rights and protections from Irish citizens in the Six Counties:
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement recognises the birth right of the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish, British, or both, irrespective of any future change in the status of Northern Ireland, and to equal treatment irrespective of their choice.
On leaving the EU, British citizens will no longer be EU citizens. The Joint Report states, however, that people in Northern Ireland who can also choose Irish citizenship will “continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, including where they reside in Northern Ireland”. However, we heard that nearly all rights stemming from the EU’s four freedoms are conditional upon an individual living within an EU member state. Sylvia de Mars told us that once the UK leaves, the rights of EU citizens in Northern Ireland will become dormant in the same way that an EU citizen living in the United States today has dormant EU rights.
Good luck with that!