Irish eyes aren’t smiling: the Northern Irish border is Brexit’s first real stumbling block by Chris Murray

Ahead of our Brexit event with Keir Starmer MP on the 29th September,  Fabian member and Research Fellow on Migration, Integration and Communities at the IPPR Chris Murray writes about the challenges posed by Brexit for border control.

The government has said there must be an “unprecedented solution” for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit.   A paper detailing the plans focuses on the need to avoid a hard border. The government stresses there should be no physical infrastructure, such as customs posts, at the border.  Critics say the proposals lack credible detail, with Labour deriding the plans for the border as “a fantasy frontier”.

What to do about the British-Irish border post-Brexit is unfortunately an unimaginably technically and politically complex issue. All the solutions come with a cost ones the Conservatives coalition partners, the DUP, will find bitter to swallow.

When the UK leaves the EU, the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland will become an external border of the EU. If Britain leaves the customs union, as it plans, then it also becomes a customs border. And if the UK leaves free movement, as it also plans, then it becomes a point of entry into the free movement zone. Even millennials can remember a time when the UK-Ireland border was a ˜hard border”, whose physical manifestations have melted away since the end of the Troubles. One of the few issues to unite all political parties in Belfast, London and Dublin is a desire not to re-construct it not least because a hard border would carry serious economic consequences for communities on both sides.

There are broadly four conceivable solutions to the current “˜Irish Question” being discussed in Westminster. The first two are straightforward but totally unrealistic. Britain could either give up Brexit and remain in the EU. Despite the ongoing confusion about what Britain actually wants from Brexit, that remains very unlikely. Another is that the Irish follow Britain out of the EU, as some diehard Brexiteers have been suggesting. Given there seems precisely zero enthusiasm for that idea in Dublin, “Irexit” seems fanciful.

That leaves two options. The first is land checks along the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. For customs checks, a possible model is the 1600km Norwegian-Swedish border, which is also a customs border. There are many crossing points for people, watched by video surveillance, but declarable goods must pass through one of 10 special customs checkpoints. Electronic pre-registry and pre-clearance streamline the process. With significant investment in technology and man-power, a system of a land checks, that apply only to goods can, just about, be envisaged.

In a land checks system, people would continue to pass freely. Both the UK and Ireland are in the Common Travel Area, so there is no need to check passports of British or Irish citizens crossing the border. The Common Travel Area applies only British and Irish citizens, not to other EU citizens. So the UK will have to rely on labour market enforcement and behind-the-border immigration checks for illegal immigrants, and on the strength of Irish checks for security purposes.

But the politics of Northern Ireland make land checks unattractive. The Norway-Sweden customs border is enforced by officials from one country being able to spot-check vehicles up to 15km into the others territory. That is, for example, how customs officials found 2.5m worth of garlic, which Sweden imposes a tariff on but Norway doesn’t.  Policing and jurisdictional issues are among of the most fraught in the Northern Irish settlement. The days when police forces would have to abandon pursuit when suspected terrorists crossed the border are well within living memory. It would be unthinkable to many strong Unionists (such as the DUP) to allow Irish police to question British citizens on British soil. Equally, officers of the British Crown – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – having jurisdiction over Irish citizens on Republican soil will be tough for the Irish to accept, especially given the Irish prime minister has stated baldly that the Irish will do the British no special favours in solving this problem.

An alternative would be sea checks that would mean leaving the physical border free of customs checks, and relying instead on an automated online process for Northern Ireland. Customs officers could follow up with spot checks in the Province. When goods travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, they would be subject to customs enforcement at that points. The UK would in effect start imposing checks within its own borders. Passengers from Northern Ireland disembarking on internal flights or ferries would be re-routed through the customs checks on the mainland that non-Brits currently use.

Like land checks, a system of sea checks is equally politically unattractive. It is an article of faith in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland that the Province is part of the UK. Sea checks clearly imply that the Northern Irish economy is more like the Republic’s than the British mainland’s. Creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and Britain, rather than between Northern Ireland and the Republic, would feel like conceding that the island of Ireland is on a path to unification. That would be a no-go for the DUP’s Unionist constituency in any circumstances. Furthermore, it leaves Northern Ireland’s economy at significant risk of contraband and trade distortion. Given Northern Irish politicians hold the power to bring down Theresa May’s government, sea checks seem a non-starter.

Four solutions in their own way each seem unpalatable. The most plausible solution looks like a fudge of land and sea checks, at great expense to the British taxpayer. Big investment in pre-clearance technology along an e-border with the Republic, with lots of customs officials doing behind-the-border checks on the UK side. Checks on all non-UK licenced vehicles crossing the Irish Sea, again with a substantially beefed-up customs force and lots of cash for the ferry companies to help them cope. None of this will come cheap. Theresa May may find she has to spend a lot more in Northern Ireland than the £1bn she promised the DUP back in June.

One thing is for certain,  the SNP with its ambition to be independent of the UK but within Europe will be very interested in the outcome.