In the aftermath of World War I, Winston Churchill reflected on the situation in Northern Ireland and expressed exasperation regarding the enduring impact of the Irish question on British affairs.
The position of countries has been violently altered … But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.
Today, amid paroxysms over the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, Northern Ireland’s persistent relevance is something of a self-inflicted wound for the UK. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, so the current crisis is not of its own doing.
Northern Ireland is not the only problem raised by Brexit – but it is perhaps the most problematic for those tasked with drafting the UK’s future relationship with Europe. The reason for this is two-fold: Northern Ireland will become the territorial frontier of the UK and its only land border with the EU. And the prospect of a “hard border” potentially risks destabilising the peace process.
In light of these concerns, the recent revelation that the government is discussing the possibility of moving its post-Brexit territorial border to the land and sea ports of the Republic of Ireland, is both interesting and ironic. And it shows that some furious creative thinking is happening behind the scenes.
Where should the border be?
The discussions highlight the extent to which the political geography of these islands is in transition. They also underline how political and economic issues in Britain and Ireland are intimately interwoven, and just how difficult it is to engineer political reform in Britain, without it having unintended consequences in Ireland.
It seems outlandish to suggest that the Irish Republic might now develop an integrated immigration control system with the UK and effectively shift the frontline of the UK border to the Republic’s sea ports and airports. But it does demonstrate how much concern there is both in London and Dublin about the implications of a hard border being reestablished in Northern Ireland.
It also indicates the extent of blue-skies thinking currently taking place in London and Dublin; that they are both willing to consider such an idea and float it in public. There would be technical challenges, linked in part to who would have ultimate control of such arrangements. The current discussions relate primarily to collaboration over the sharing of intelligence and passenger data systems, collection of advance passenger information and harmonised visa processes between the two countries. It may go beyond that in terms of the Irish Republic becoming a proxy clearing house for immigration into the UK.
The technical difficulties (one of which would be consent from the other EU member states) would likely be less tricky than the political sensitivities that could arise if this plan amounted to allowing Britain some consultative role over who is allowed entry into Ireland. Some form of reverse takeover might be conceivable, where Irish border officers have control over who enters Britain via Irish ports of entry – but that would presumably be anathema to the UK and certainly to the Brexiters, as it would merely replace control from the EU with control from Dublin.
Both states want to preserve the Common Travel Area (CTA) between Britain and Ireland, due to mutual economic self-interest, and neither wants complications within Northern Ireland either. Yet, if there is no hard border in Northern Ireland, maintaining the CTA will test the drafting skills of the most imaginative civil servants.
It remains unclear, for example, how this would prevent free travel of EU nationals from arriving in the UK via the Irish Republic. Both governments have speculated that they believe the number of EU nationals doing this would be very low – but their evidence base for this suggestion is extremely flimsy and it is in any case unlikely to slake the thirst of the Brexiters and their demands for lower immigration numbers.
Churchill’s creative thinking
All of this brings us back to Churchill and the biggest irony of all. The last time the UK faced a territorial conundrum of this nature was just after the outbreak of World War II. Prior to that, during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921, Churchill, then secretary of state for war, had spent a long time convincing Irish independence leader Michael Collins that three deep water ports – Berehaven, Queenstown and Lough Swilly – around the West of Ireland were crucial to British security interests and access to them must be retained in the treaty. Churchill succeeded, and it was.
Irish Taoiseach Eamon De Valera eventually renegotiated this with Neville Chamberlain when he was prime minister of the UK, and control of the treaty ports was handed back to Ireland in 1938 (at that time known as Eire), just before World War II.
This was a strategic disaster for Britain once the war began and left Churchill with two options. Invade Ireland and take over the treaty ports by force – or offer the Free State government Irish Unity in return for them ending their neutrality and allowing Britain access to Irish waters. The former was never seriously considered – but the latter was, and Churchill offered Irish unity “in principle” (subject to unionist agreement) on two separate occasions in 1940 and 1941.
The threat of Nazi Germany was considered so grave that options were apparently on the table that had not been prior to the start of the war. De Valera refused the offer, but the relevant point is that it demonstrated how creative Britain was prepared to be given the crisis faced.
Most people define Brexit as meaning that Britain is exiting the EU. But there is another form of Brexit – one at least mulled by Churchill in the early 1940s when creative thinking left few alternatives – namely Britain leaving Northern Ireland. An outlandish suggestion at the moment certainly, but perhaps no more so than the UK border becoming synonymous with Irish territorial sovereignty.
So – Brexit might well mean Brexit – but perhaps not in the way that it is currently understood.