This article was originally posted on The Commentator
Project Fear goes into overdrive when it comes to Northern Ireland. But there is no more prospect of a return to the Troubles than there is of the UK sinking into economic depression. Workable solutions are there for the taking. As ever, we need to ignore the scaremongers and build a successful Brexit
Much has been made of the impact Brexit could have on Northern Ireland. After Brexit, Northern Ireland will bear Britain’s only land border with the EU, and its troubled history makes this a fraught shift.
At what could be a critical juncture, Northern Ireland is without an Executive, with coalition talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP having repeatedly failed. While they would not be at the negotiating table, the Executive would provide a useful reference for Northern Irish opinion during the Brexit process. It is a process with potentially high stakes.
Scaremongers say a post-Brexit hard border could lead to tensions, a renewal of the Troubles and a catastrophic ‘border poll’ where Northern Ireland votes on whether to split from the UK and join the Republic of Ireland.
Others fear an arrangement which would sell the Unionists down the river. These fears, understandable though they may be, are overblown.
Before I explain why, I will look into these fears a little more. A hard border between Britain and Ireland is taken as meaning a border which requires customs checks for goods and passport checks for people to pass.
As over half of Northern Irish trade is with the EU, much of it through Ireland, this would be economically problematic. It would be particularly problematic for those with cross-border jobs, family or friendships.
Consider the USA and Canada which share the longest land border in the world. There are many people who cross the border regularly, simply showing their ID and going to work or seeing their families. The USA and Canada also have thriving cross-border free trade through NAFTA.
A ‘hard border’ is not inherently unworkable. In the context of Northern Ireland, with its troubled history, however, it is. It could enflame tensions and leave border posts vulnerable to the kind of violence Northern Ireland used to suffer regularly. While every poll on joining Ireland has the Union winning 60/20, indicating fears of a border poll are overblown, it would not be an ideal situation.
Irish Prime Minister Varadkar has recently proposed an economic border in the Irish Sea, effectively putting Northern Ireland in a Customs Union with Ireland. It would also mean Northern Ireland no longer shares customs with the UK, which some perceive as politically orphaning it.
As 57 percent of trade which passes through NI ports is with the United Kingdom, it would be seen as a huge win for Sinn Féin, and the Democratic Unionist Party have ruled this out. It would also not be ideal.
Both scenarios can be avoided. Electronic pre-clearance could be used for almost all the trade in goods, with any necessary inspections taking place at dedicated zones away from the border. As 99 percent of non-EU trade is presently electronically pre-cleared, this would not require a great leap to sort out. There would be no need for customs checks on the border, and so no need for checkpoints.
People travelling between these two countries, meanwhile, would be covered by the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland, established in 1923, long before the EU. The question of how to prevent it becoming a back door for EU immigration to Britain arises, but there is a solution. Ireland being an island — and outside the Schengen Area — immigrants from the wider EU already face passport and security checks at Irish ports and airports.
If an EU citizen got through the Irish checks somehow legally, and then passed into Northern Ireland to illegally settle in the UK they would be illegal immigrants and prime for deportation.
Preventing illegal immigration via the Northern Irish border would call for investment in immigration enforcement in Northern Ireland, but not the creation of a hard border. Better still, cooperation with the Irish Border Authorities and immigration agencies would help resolve any issues before any potential illegal immigration got into Northern Ireland. Something similar already exists between Norway and Sweden. It can be done.
Both countries making high-tech customs checks work, and ensuring the Common Travel Area is secure, would require long-term cooperation and investment. But both sides would want it to work. Neither Dublin nor Westminster wants a return to the Troubles. When push comes to shove, the political will exists to invest in a sustainable solution to the issue of Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland.
There is, then, a clear solution when we Get Britain Out of the EU. It may not necessarily be easy or simple, but a solution is undoubtedly possible.
The creation of a high-tech customs border and the retention of the Common Travel Area is a path some people in Westminster have suggested, and which Ireland has not ruled out so far, although they aren’t keen on paying for it.
Insofar as both sides want the best for Northern Ireland, they should embrace it.
Alexander Fiuza is a Research Executive at cross-party grassroots campaign Get Britain Out