Dublin’s unicorn: no land border checks in no-deal Brexit

by Hugo Dixon | 15.07.2019

Leo Varadkar says there could be checks at ports on the whole island of Ireland if the UK crashes out of the EU, thereby avoiding any infrastructure along the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Irish prime minister’s comments show it’s not just Brexiters who believe in fantasy.

One can see why Varadkar doesn’t want a land border between the north and the south. It would divide the island of Ireland. Any infrastructure could be a target for terrorists. 

The return of border controls wouldn’t just be a symbol of division. It would gum up trade between two economies that have become massively intertwined – with goods and people criss-crossing the invisible frontier. Both economies would be hammered.

However, if the UK crashes out of the EU, Ireland will need to police its frontier with the UK. Otherwise, products that don’t conform to EU standards will be able to cross into Ireland and, from there, enter the rest of the EU without any hindrance. This will undermine the integrity of the single market.

The Irish prime minister’s alternative is to treat the whole island as a single zone for agricultural and food safety rules – and check live animals and animal products when they come into the ports of both the north and the south. 

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On its own, this would not do the trick. Northern Ireland would also have to follow the EU’s standards on manufactured goods and customs. There would then need to be checks on goods coming into the island of Ireland to make sure they didn’t enter the EU’s single market or customs union. And there would have to be controls at airports, not just ports.

Just thinking about that for a moment makes it clear this is a political non-starter for the UK. Northern Ireland would effectively be annexed to the Republic for the purposes of trade in goods and agriculture. Even if Boris Johnson, the probable next prime minister, was willing to sign up to it – making a mockery of the Tories’ official name, the Conservative and Unionist Party – Northern Ireland’s DUP, on whom he will rely for a desperately slender majority, would go ballistic.

The sort of arrangement needed to keep the Irish land border open in the event of “no deal” would go further than the notorious “backstop” in Theresa May’s defunct deal with the EU. Because that required a bare-bones customs union for the whole of the UK, the checks in the Irish Sea were to be limited to ensuring that goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain followed EU rules. The DUP were understandably not willing to swallow even that.

If there’s no deal, there will have to be controls on the land border in Ireland. The sooner everybody – both the Irish government and Brexiters – fesses up to that, the better.

There’s only one way to avoid both a land border in Ireland and a sea border. That’s for there to be no border controls between the UK and the EU. And unless we want to be turned into what Johnson calls a “vassal state” – following EU rules without a vote on them – the only way of doing that is to stay in the EU and help make the rules. 

That’s one reason we’ll be saying “no to Boris, yes to Europe” on Saturday. Join us on the demo.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “Dublin’s unicorn: no land border checks in no-deal Brexit”

  • You have overlooked a little fact that the PSNI did not overlook at the weekend. If nationalist areas-Derry, Armagh, Tyrone etc are cut off form the rest of Ireland-to which they owe loyalty and feel a full part of-with Derry being a Belarus to Donegal…the response will be visceral….not just dissidents but right across the population. British sovereignty in those area will be taken down as roads are blocked and courts and British admin. boycotted. There will be civil resistance…as Sinn Fein said last week…with ‘things changing on the ground’. Nationalists are a majority in 4 1/2 of the 6 counties plus Belfast and will not accept a hard border. This is national identity. Would Somerset being cut off from Devon because of a decision in Germany? Sorry…the British are going to have a massive problem very rapidly for which they will bear full responsibility. If Boris thinks he can cut South Armagh from Louth-he may find himself enlightened in short order. How many times in 800 years has England tried to enforce its will on Ireland in Ireland against the will of the Irish people? How often have the Irish sat there and taken it? Do the British have a learning difficulty up there on their ivory tower of post-imperial delusion.? As the PSNI Chief Constable said at the weekend…if farmers have to shoot their sheep because they can’t sell them to their market in their neighbouring town…the response will not be easy to control.

  • Perhaps I am losing the plot here, but is the problem of immigration being addressed or ignored?
    I see lots about the issue of goods across the border, but how about EU citizens travelling to the UK and vice versa, over this Irish border. Can someone explain, or am I missing a unicorn?

  • To John Sullivan
    Thanks for your very enlightening post. Johnson and Rees-Mogg, for example, have dismissed the obvious problems that Brexit will make on the Island of Ireland. Frightening.
    I have read nothing in the mainstream media which explains the consequences so well as your post, John. It is very concerning that most of the mainland U.K. population lacks any understanding of this vital issue.
    Despite, many exhortations from people on this website, the Remain side is STILL not getting its argument across in the mainstream media.

  • This is indeed the danger. In 1922 the British set up a state in Ireland upon threat of ‘an immediate and terrible war’ which gave the unionists a Herrenvolk status to rule over the ‘inferior’ Irish Catholic native. In fact the Attorney General for NI, Brian Maginnes referred to the state itself as being based on political apartheid. So Britain created a European White South Africa in what was supposed to be ‘their own country’. They had in fact built what a certain historian has called ‘John Bull’s Political Slum’..a dirty little post-imperial secret that remained a secret until the Catholic underdog decided they were no longer going to be second class citizens in their own country….and that was when in 1968 grainy pictures appeared on ‘mainland’ TV screens of rioting in this place called Northern Ireland. The rest is history…AND THAT HISTORY IS NOW. As is commonly said now in conversations across all parts of Ireland …800 years has taught them nothing ‘ the Brits are at it again’.

  • It is a border drawn in Ireland….To most people here in Ireland it is a British Border…given that they drew it under threat of war, sent tens of thousands of troops to try (and failed) to control it-including blowing up country roads (imagine that in Dorset) and are now it seems intent on reinforcing that border by turning the North into a commercial Zambia to its neighbouring counties. So we can say that as they drew it and are trying to reinforce by unilateral action it is in fact a British border in Ireland. They drew it so they own it. As regards EU citizens all EU citizens have automatic access to Ireland (4 freedoms of the single market) and can and will go to any part of Ireland at will…The PSNI will not be running around 500 kms with 300+ crossing points in hostile territory to suit little England’s fantasies. So if Mogg and friends wants to affect controls they will be at the British ports and airports. Otherwise they can just pretend…as they seem to be doing with everything else.