Tom Murray runs an independent pharmacy in Letterkenny, the most populous town in Donegal, Ireland’s northwestern corner. He takes pride in seeking out supplies at the best possible prices, and hence under-cutting well-known chains. Quite a lot of his suppliers are in the Belfast area. That’s why he dreads the “devastating impact” which Brexit, and an all-too-likely return to custom duties, could have on his and other nearby firms. In the very short term, sterling’s plunge is making his inputs cheaper, while also tempting his customers to drive east and shop in Northern Ireland.
But the advent of duties (which he thinks may exceed 20%) on cross-border transactions, would be far worse than any uncertainty caused by currency swings. Many of his Donegal neighbours are in the food-processing business, buying milk in Northern Ireland and sending yoghurt or cheese back to the United Kingdom. Cross-border duties would play havoc with that trade. That’s one reason why Mr Murray, and residents of five other places along the inter-Irish borders staged a protest this month, dressing as customs officers and erecting temporary road-blocks to remind people what a toughly monitored frontier running through the island would be like.
At the same time, James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, was sending a different message. There would be no return to a hard inter-Irish border, he insisted. That was because the British and Irish governments were working closely to find ways to strengthen, not weaken, the Common Travel Area which embraces the whole of the British Isles. The Irish government, in a softer tone, confirmed that such talks were in progress.
In public, the government led by Enda Kenny has walked a fine line between stressing the dangers posed by Brexit to the whole of Ireland and working constructively to minimise them. But as prospects grow of a hard Brexit outside the customs union, the level of fear in Ireland has risen too. The “all-Ireland forum” of politicians and other public figures, which Mr Kenny will convene on November 2nd, is seen as the minimum he can do to assuage and give voice to those anxieties. Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, has spoken more bluntly, warning of a “devastating blow” to his part of the island if it is excluded from the customs union.
Which of the parties to this anguished conversation about Ireland’s future is right? Mr Brokenshire and the worried traders of Donegal are talking about two different things. The Common Travel Area is indeed quite a robust arrangement and has survived many changes in the British Isles over the last 90 years or so. Since the advent of an independent Irish state in the 1920s, authorities in London and Dublin have quietly collaborated, more than most of their subjects realized, to maintain a security and migration ring around the two islands: keeping undesirables out of the archipelago and regulating cross-border travel while leaving it relatively unimpeded. These arrangements had to be discreet because they offended both Irish nationalists (who might have been shocked at how closely their frontier police were working with the Brits) and Ulster Unionists, whose British pride was wounded whenever security checks were required of people travelling by sea or air between their province and the British mainland.
But common sense generally prevailed. It is logical for London and Dublin to collaborate over frontier controls and to co-regulate travel between the two islands. Policing ports and airports will always be easier than monitoring a meandering 300-mile land frontier. The fact that Britain and Ireland stayed out of the Schengen agreement has made it simpler for them to keep collaborating over migration matters. In 2011, for example, British and Irish ministers quietly agreed on a “joint programme of work to increase the security of the external Common Travel Area”. That effort will continue.
But exchanging lists of internationally wanted terrorists, or even keeping illegal economic migrants at bay, is one thing; facilitating cross-border trade in cheese or toothbrushes is quite another. When Theresa May was still home secretary, and a Remainer, she said she found it hard to imagine how some sort of customs control between the two parts of Ireland could be avoided if Brexit occurred. Averting that prospect will require goodwill not just from Ireland but from all 27 countries which will remain in the Union. And with every passing day, goodwill seems to be evaporating.
Even on immigration matters, the situation is far from simple. Of course, Britain and Ireland will collaborate closely on keeping Al-Qaeda suspects out of the entire archipelago. But as an EU member, Ireland cannot stop people from the Union’s poorer parts coming to work in the Republic, and indeed tens of thousands of Romanians do exactly that.
If the United Kingdom is really bent on “taking control” of migration policy and keeping poor Europeans out, then it will have to stop those Romanians crossing the Irish border. That will be to the detriment of employers in places like Belfast and Ballymena, where plenty of Romanians work hard, pay taxes and support families back home. Whatever controls are erected at the inter-Irish border, determined migrants are bound to cross via remote country routes. Attempts to stop such crossings will be burdensome, offensive to ordinary travellers and locals, and unsuccessful.
Edited by Paul Taylor