Beyond the border quandary

Brexit is in the interest of neither British nor Irish capital, writes James Harvey

Throughout all the twists and turns of the Brexit negotiations over the last year, one item - the Irish border - has moved from its recent obscurity to become one of the major themes of the controversy surrounding Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.

Much of the debate initially turned on seemingly narrow technical aspects of customs and immigration control along the notoriously porous 499-kilometre border. Politicians who previously could not distinguish Omagh from Armagh have all of a sudden become experts on the intricacies of cross-border trade or the mechanisms of customs regulation. Obscure provincial towns and rolling farmland on both sides of the Irish border have been treated to fact-finding visits by British minsters and EU negotiators - although, needless to say, not in the same place or at the same time.1

Amidst the unwanted attention given to these contemporary ‘dreary steeples’ along the Irish border, the Irish and British media have been unable to resist joining in the fun: immigration minster Caroline Nokes’ admission to the House of Commons Northern Ireland committee that she had not read the Good Friday agreement and Jacob Rees-Moggs’ lame performance on the nature of the Irish border during a television interview were widely mocked as evidence of the ignorance and incompetence at the heart of the British establishment’s approach to Brexit.2 Politicians and commentators on both sides of the Irish Sea have lined up to join in the jingoistic chorus in support of their governments and in condemnation of the chauvinism of the other side.3 Thus, whilst Rees-Mogg compares Brexit to the historical triumphs of Crécy, Agincourt and Waterloo - “We win all these things” -leading Irish liberal commentator Fintan O’Toole responds by arguing that Brexit is a “tragic folly” and nearly the maddest thing England has ever done (apparently only trumped by the Hundred Years War).4

However, when we get down to the details of how Brexit will affect the Irish border and future economic relations between Britain and Ireland, the rhetoric both becomes much sharper and more closely embroiled with the current political stasis in Northern Ireland. Thus David Davis tries to suggest that Fine Gael (famously the most anti-republican party south of the border) is now dancing to Sinn Féin’s tune when it comes to Brexit.5 In response taoiseach Leo Varadkar dismissed Davis’s remarks as “strange and inaccurate” and in the process strengthened his standing as a staunch defender of Irish national interests.6 Furthermore, continued insistence by Varadkar, as a crucial summit of EU leaders approaches in June, that “there can be no Brexit deal without assurances that will be no hard border on our island” was widely applauded in Dublin and further added to his newly acquired reputation for putting it up to the British.7

So behind the manufactured outrage of the tabloids and the chauvinistic rhetoric of politicians, what are we to make of this latest episode in the Brexit drama? Let us begin by looking at the significance of the border, especially for the Irish ruling class, as represented by the Fine Gael government. Not only will Brexit transform the Irish border into a new land frontier between the European Union and the United Kingdom, but it also has the potential to seriously disrupt and fundamentally reshape long-established political and economic relationships between the Irish state and the UK - such as the Common Travel Area, which allows free movement of citizens between the two jurisdictions.8

Furthermore if Britain suffered punitive tariffs and other restrictions on trade as a result of Brexit, the Irish economy would be very badly hit indeed. Irish exports to the United Kingdom currently amount to 17% of total GDP: Ireland’s important agri-business sector sells 41% of its output to British and Northern Irish customers. The imposition of a new customs regime and a hard border would likewise be seriously disruptive to cross-border trade, currently estimated at £65 billion annually.9

Politically, Dublin governments have acted in close concert with London since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, especially when it came to countering the threat of militant republicanism across the island.10 This was never more apparent than during the peace process, when the close partnership of the two states successfully drew the Provisionals into the political mainstream and staged-managed the negotiations that produced the Good Friday agreement.11 The Dublin-London relationship has been key in containing and stabilising conflict in the Six Counties since the early 1970s.

Ireland’s Brexit question

Judging from the alarmist rhetoric on all sides, not only are these “historic achievements” of the peace process now put in danger , but the fundamental alignment between the two states also appears to have been called into question by Brexit.12 For many the Irish government’s determined positioning alongside its fellow members of the EU during the negotiations with the UK marks a significant historical reorientation for the Irish state and its economy.13

Given the close economic relationship between Ireland and Britain, and the interconnectedness of the two economies on the island, especially in the agri-business sector, it is hardly surprising that Irish business and financial interests were strongly opposed to Brexit before the referendum in Britain. Former taoiseach Enda Kenny famously worked closely with David Cameron to secure a deal that would keep Britain in the EU and during the referendum campaign Irish ministers and diplomats laboured tirelessly to persuade voters in Britain (especially the Irish community) to vote ‘remain’.14 This policy was clearly in the political and economic interests of both the Irish and British ruling classes - above all in Northern Ireland, where the two states shared a fundamental common concern in maintaining their hard-won post-1998 status quo.

Thus the Irish ruling class seems to be pulled in two directions: its interests in political stability north of the border and those close economic ties suggest a very soft Brexit and some form of continued alignment with Britain;15 however, Varadkar’s publicly expressed position seems to be heading on an opposite course towards “ever closer union” with the other members of the EU 27.16 This could easily be dismissed as a negotiating position, part of a choreographed sham fight designed to ultimately produce the softest of Brexits, which meets the interest of both Irish and British capitalism.17 Whilst this accurately defines the underlying aims of the Irish, British and European ruling classes, Varadkar’s willingness to play hardball and hold the EU’s hard line on the soft border is about more than furthering his own electoral popularity.18

Rather what Ireland’s Brexit question reveals is a particular form of politicalcrisis inherent in the contemporary conjuncture in both the 26 counties and the northern state.


1. Belfast Telegraph May 12 2017: www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/there-is-always-an-answer-says-barnier-as-brexit-border-dominates-ireland-visit-35706889.html; Belfast Telegraph April 24 2018: www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/columnists/suzanne-breen/suzanne-breen-shrouding-david-davis-irish-border-visit-in-secrecy-a-pr-own-goal-for-brexiteers-36837827.html.

2. A reference to Winston Churchill’s oft quoted remarks on the way in which the conflict in Ireland had retained its essential character despite the world-changing impact of World War I throughout Europe: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1922/feb/16/irish-free-state-agreement-bill. For Caroline Nokes see www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-northern-ireland-44218644/immigration-minister-didn-t-read-good-friday-agreement, and for Rees-Mogg see www.dailymail.co.uk/video/news/video-1683502/Video-Jacob-Rees-Mogg-fear-hard-Irish-border.html.

3. The Irish Times May 25 2018.

4. The Irish Times February 3 2018: www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-is-brexit-the-maddest-thing-england-has-ever-done-not-quite-1.3373995.

5. The Irish Times April 10 2018: www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/davis-claims-sf-pushed-government-s-hard-stance-on-brexit-1.3456731.

6. The Irish News April 111 2018: www.irishnews.com/paywall/tsb/irishnews/irishnews/irishnews//news/northernirelandnews/2018/04/11/news/taoiseach-leo-varadkar-dismisses-inaccurate-comments-by-brexit-secretary-david-davis-over-sinn-fe-in-influence-in-negotiati-1301238/content.html.

7. Politico May 17 2018: www.politico.eu/article/customs-union-leo-varadkar-no-brexit-deal-without-border-backstop-western-balkans-summit-sofia.

8. T Connelly Brexit and Ireland London 2017 has a good account of the projected impact of Brexit on these economic relationships between the two states.

9. T Connelly op cit pp40-47. See also M Murphy Europe and Northern Ireland’s future Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2018, for the specific economic impacts on the northern economy.

10. For an overview of this relationship see J Coakley and M Gallagher, Politics in the Irish Republic London 2017.

11. One of the best ‘insider’ accounts of this process, showing the importance of the Anglo-Irish partnership during the peace process, is J Powell Great hatred, little room: making peace in Northern Ireland London 2009.

12. BBC Northern Ireland February 20 2018: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-43126409.

13. F O’Toole, ‘Brexit’s Irish question’ New York Review of Books September 28 2017: www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/09/28/brexits-irish-question.

14. The Times November 27 2017: www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-irish-question-is-back-to-bite-britain-s-rulers-once-more-3cd7lp0ng.

15. Although it is very much a minority viewpoint, former Irish diplomat Ray Bassett has taken this idea for a continued close alignment between the two states to its logical extreme by calling for Ireland’s withdrawal from the EU - ‘Irexit’. See ‘Ireland should seriously consider Irexit, says UK think tank’ The Irish Times July 3 2017.

16. The Irish Times March 25 2017.

17. In opposing Varadkar’s approach, the small band of Irexiteers argue that the EU is using Ireland in its game of bluff with Britain and will sacrifice Irish interests if that should be necessary. See Sunday Business Post May 6 2018: www.businesspost.ie/opinion/mind-gap-brexit-backstop-national-interest-415886. In contrast see TheIndependent May 8 2018: www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-ireland-population-majority-remain-eu-poll-border-solution-theresa-may-latest-a8340941.html.

18. The Irish Times April 19 2018.