Sunday, 26 June 2016

Ireland faces its doomsday scenario

Both sides of Ireland are in a panic because Brexit could make the peace process unravel. But perhaps the North has come far enough to allow a non-violent reunification of the island.

"Of all the things that could happen to an Irish government short of the outbreak of war, this is pretty much up there with the worst of them," wrote The Irish Times, the republic's main newspaper, as the world woke up to the "Brexit nightmare" on Friday morning.

"Ever since David Cameron announced that he would hold a referendum back in 2012, Irish officials have regarded the prospect of a British exit from the EU as the worst thing that could happen [to Ireland]," the paper wrote. "[Irish PM] Kenny now faces leading Ireland through a period of difficulty and uncertainty unprecedented in the last 50 years, more complex and unpredictable than the recent financial crisis, more destabilising the Northern Troubles."

The UK is Ireland's biggest trading partner. One billion euros worth of goods flow freely across the Irish Sea each week, tariff-free because both countries are in the European Union. If the UK leaves the EU while the Republic of Ireland stays in, customs duties will have to be imposed on that trade. That is, unless the UK joins the EEA, but I've written before on why that is unlikely.

A wall erected across an island

More worryingly, a border control will have to be erected between what will become the UK's only land border with the EU - the division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is currently no border control across the island of Ireland. In fact the only time a border control between the two was set up, since the Republic declared independence from the UK in 1919, was during the violent troubles of the 1990s.

Now there is a fear that the troubles will return. Northern Ireland voted by a strong majority to remain in the EU. On Friday, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Catholic from Sinn Fein, said that the result means there should be a referendum on the North separating from the UK, as is expected in Scotland (where a vast majority also voted to remain). 

Commentators have urged caution. Writing in The Guardian, Emer O'Toole warned that acting in haste could mean a return to violence. 

"A border poll at this juncture would be dangerous. Think the build-up to Brexit was polarising and scary? Add a few centuries of colonial history, a partition, 30 years of sectarianism and violence, a fragile peace of less than two decades, a severe terror threat, a quarter tonne of semtex, a wee dash of Brexit-induced socio-economic insecurity, and the frustration caused by one’s English compatriots voting to pull the rug out from under a painstakingly crafted peace process, then tell me about polarising and scary."

However at the same time, O'Toole said she believes the long-term result could be reunification. The Irelands just needs to proceed cautiously in how they might get there. And in the short term, the biggest challenge will be the re-imposition of border controls.

"The border checks of the Troubles were, for many, militarised sites of fear and oppression, and the free passage from north to south that citizens and travellers now enjoy is an auspicious sign of the peace process working," she wrote. "For the 25% of people in the north who, according to the 2011 census, consider themselves to be Irish only, a newly reinforced border is a provocation and an injury."

Special outside-Schengen arrangements?

The leave camp have argued that the 'common travel area' that has existed between the two countries since they split in 1923 will not be disrupted by the UK leaving the EU. After all, they are both already not in the EU's common travel area, the Schengen Zone, having been granted special dispensation from joining. That arrangement will continue irregardless of whether they are both EU states, they have said.

But there are two problems with this. For one, even if they were right about the idea that the Common Travel Area can continue to exist, leaving the border open with the Republic would mean that the UK still cannot "control its own borders", one of the main promises of the Leave campaign.

Any EU citizen would still have the right to enter Ireland with no visa and no clearance. That person, let's say, a Polish plumber, could then just cross over into the UK through the Common Travel Area. It would become a back door entry to the UK.

But even that argument is moot because legal experts have concluded it is not possible for an EU state to have a bilateral common travel area with a non-EU state.

A policy paper published by academics at Newcastle and Durham universities in early June concluded there is “virtually no possibility” that the border can continue operating as it is.

"The UK-Ireland border would represent an external border to the EU as a whole. There are no other ‘external’ EU borders that do not come with border controls.”

'But wait, what about Norway!' I hear the Leave campaign saying. Norway is not an EU state, but it has no border controls with Sweden and Denmark (or indeed with the rest of the EU). 

But that's because Norway is part of the EU's common travel area - the Schengen Zone. According to the terms of that agreement, the EU's external borders extend to the Schengen Zone's external borders (and therefor, also to Iceland).

So if the UK wanted to keep an open border with Ireland, it would need to have both countries join the Schengen Area (inconceivable politically). In other words, it could not have a free-movement area only with Ireland, it would need to have one with all of the EU.

This isn't a hypothetical debate. Cyprus is an EU state and has applied to join Schengen, but has not yet been allowed in. The Greek part of the island wants to have a passport-free travel zone with Greece, and the Turkish one wants one with Turkey. But this is not allowed, because EU states are not allowed to conclude bilateral free movement agreements with non-EU states - even if they're not in Schengen.

This was also the case when Greenland left the EU but remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark. It lost its free travel rights under the Nordic Passport Union and border controls had to be set up where there were none before, between it and Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway.

(I should point out that the CTA includes the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which are not part of the EU. But they are considered territories under international law, not countries).

Can the island unite?

The turnout figures show that the leave-remain split did not come down on Protestant-Catholic lines in the North on Thursday. Turnout was low in Catholic areas, suggesting that a majority of both Catholics and Protestants voted remain (despite the allegiances of political parties). Surely, the Protestants (who want the North to remain part of the UK), were hoping the rest of the UK would also vote remain. They knew the can of worms that would result from a leave vote.

So it isn't as simple as the Scotland case. It stands to reason that the Protestants who voted for remain were doing so out of concern for keeping the UK together. Therefore, they would not vote in a referendum to leave the UK. At least not for now.

But, as O'Toole posits, what if the situation in the rest of the UK becomes so dire over the next year that economic concerns trump religious ones? If financial services companies start flowing from London to Dublin, resulting in more jobs in the Republic than in the UK, it might soften prejudices.

Has Northern Ireland come far enough in the peace and reconciliation process that Protestants could countenance joining with the Republic, at least perhaps in a federation? I'm certainly no expert, but O'Toole sounds positive on this front.

When it was first created, before it devolved into a Catholic quasi-theocracy, the Irish Republic was meant to be a nondenominational secular republic. That's what the colours in the Irish flag mean - the Green is for the Catholics, the orange is for Protestants, and the white is for the peace between them. It didn't quite work out that way.

But today's Ireland is a different place. The Republic has cast aside the old religious order, as demonstrated in Prime Minister Kenny's incredible 2011 speech denouncing the Catholic Church before parliament. Has the island moved beyond its religious divides, and is Brexit the spark that will result in unification?

Or perhaps some different solution is in store. Witness this map that's been making the rounds today on social media. It would certainly solve any accession veto worries from Scotland!

It's a time of huge uncertainty for the British Isles as a whole. Buckle your seat belts, it's going to be a wild year for Atlantic geopolitics.

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