Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We must not let Brexit threaten peace in Ireland

The Good Friday agreement is integral to peace and prosperity in Ireland. We cannot let Brexit threaten this, writes Peter Hain

We scarcely need to remind ourselves of the tragic history of the Troubles. Spanning three decades, it scarred the streets of Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and Great Britain, with around 3700 dead and violence an everyday reality.

The Good Friday agreement, 20 years old today, brought an end to that horror and was a triumph for politics over this violence.

Its success was that it made the border between the two parts of Ireland virtually uncontentious – to nationalists because it had to be completely open, and to unionists because any constitutional change in Northern Ireland’s status could only occur with a referendum.

But the 1998 agreement is not a domestic contract or statement of intent. It is an international treaty between two states, with the British and Irish governments binding themselves in international law to implement its terms.

Its legal precedent was the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher, which gave the Irish government a right of consultation over Northern Irish affairs. The 1998 agreement makes formal recognition of the Irish Government’s ‘special interest in Northern Ireland’ and ‘the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in relation to Northern Ireland’. The agreement expressed the British government’s wish to ‘develop still further’ close cooperation with Ireland.

Strands two and three of the 1998 agreement – governing the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, respectively – are international by nature and their future cannot be determined solely by the will of the UK parliament.

The British government, in partnership with the Irish government, is legally bound to ensure that the functions and objectives of this cooperation is unimpeded by withdrawal from the European Union.

However, all that is threatened by Theresa May’s cavalier dogmatism on Brexit.

🎙 Special: In conversation with… Jonathan Powell 

After agreeing four months ago in the phase one negotiations to maintain a frictionless border to preserve the Good Friday agreement that brought peace ‘in all circumstances’, she and her ministers have, so far, completely failed to demonstrate how they can combine an open Irish border with the United Kingdom remaining outside both the single market and a customs union with the EU.

Imposing a hard border between the north and the south of the island could threaten the very basis of the peace process and the stability that the island of Ireland has enjoyed. Common EU membership for both the UK and the Republic (who joined on the same day) provided the essential context for cooperation between unionists and nationalists, the two parts of Ireland, and the British and Irish governments, which was essential for the success of the Agreement. The legal commitment in the 1998 Belfast agreement was to facilitate, not hinder, cross-border economic cooperation, with the EU context explicitly recognised.

Yet Tory Brexiteers have not produced a single credible proposal for how the serious Brexit-related problems over the border and the other relationships set out in the agreement could be avoided. Most Brexiteers have instead claimed it was the EU’s exclusive responsibility to ensure an open border.

There are more crossing points along this border than there are along the whole of the EU’s eastern frontier. The border crosses family farms and separates towns and villages from their natural hinterlands. The Irish border is, therefore, no ordinary state border.  It is invisible and ever-present; unremarkable and deeply contested. Managing the Irish border has required sensitivity and ingenuity, countering the heavy symbolism of partition with mundane, mutually-beneficial practical cooperation.

The continuing and disturbing impasse in the Northern Ireland assembly only makes this situation more difficult, whilst the current ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with a single party by the Tories calls into question their commitment to exercise power in Northern Ireland ‘with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions’, as required by the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

Some Brexiteers, such as the foreign secretary, have sought to belittle the Irish border question by suggesting a technological solution comparable to London’s congestion charge. However, as the former permanent secretary at the department of international trade, Martin Donnelly, has made clear, ‘On the NI border there is absolutely no evidence, and no serious expert in the customs field, who thinks that there can be an invisible technological border. It does not exist anywhere in the world. As well as the formal movement of goods there are all the service provider issues not picked up in statistics, from cross border medical and pharmaceutical transactions to people and data movements between supply chains north and south: and the infrastructure issues – energy, telecoms, air and rail travel, environmental standards etc. – which set the framework for transactions across the border.’

To proffer the ‘solution’ of ‘surveillance’ (using drones, as some have suggested) and the use of security intelligence completely ignores the very serious political and emotional damage of heavy securitisation and civilian loss in the border region.

Downplaying the need for border controls once outside the single market and customs union also runs counter to the UK’s obligations under international law.

📖 Letter from… Dublin

All technological solutions require infrastructure to implement which would be a sitting duck for continuous attacks, providing oxygen for paramilitary republicans. They do not substitute for the need for checks and inspections but merely aid efficiency in crossing the border legitimately and in identifying potential breaches of compliance or false declarations.

The United States and Canada border shows that even the most technologically-advanced means of customs border management rely on regulatory alignment, close cross-border cooperation and clear capacity for inspections and enforcement.

If, as the prime minister insists, Brexit means the UK leaving the single market (a rules-based legal entity, not just a political agreement) and the customs union, then Brexit would unavoidably mean the introduction of tariffs and quotas on trade from Northern Ireland to the Republic and could also limit the ability of Northern Irish businesses to sell their services to people south of the border.  The UK government, in turn, would be obliged by World Trade Organisation rules to enforce hard border arrangements because of the change in its relationship with the EU. Therefore, to keep the border open as it is today, Northern Ireland would need to remain inside both the EU single market and the customs union.

Furthermore, if one of the objectives –  if not the objective – of leaving the single market is to control European immigration into the UK, then how would that be possible without border controls within Ireland? Without controls along the length of the border, migrants from within the EU and outside it would have access into the UK.

The Brexiteers claim that the Common Travel Area has existed for almost a century and continue unaffected. However, the reason the CTA continues to work is that the UK and Ireland entered the EU at the same time and have a common immigration policy – including remaining outside the Schengen area. If Britain leaves the single market, however, the Republic would either have to impose the same rules as the UK and put itself in breach of the free movement of labour within the EU, which would be illegal under the provisions of the single market, or it would have to impose border controls.

A hard border is one that consists of layers of barriers to movement (tariffs, quotas, bans, regulations) and which requires strict conditions and evidence of compliance in order to cross (declarations, inspections, authorisation, visas, permits). However, whilst harder borders require greater means of control and state management, it is not the visibility of a border that determines how hard it is. The experience of a harder border is felt away from the border line, in the obstacles faced by an individual or business when seeking to cross it to legally work/trade/operate on the other side.

A combination of the conditions of EU membership and the operation of the 1998 agreement has enabled cross-border economies of scale, supply chains, public service delivery and practical cooperation to flourish. These are particularly essential in areas such as the central border region that have suffered the consequences of multiple deprivation and conflict.

An estimated 30,000 people commute across the border every day, with around one million HGVs, over one million vans and 12 million cars moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic every year. Any change to border arrangements, will therefore, have a noticeable impact on the daily lives of ordinary people.

In addition, not only is the Republic Northern Ireland’s single largest export market (worth £4bn in 2016), but it sells nearly as much to the rest of the world (16 per cent of its exports) as it does to the Republic (15 per cent of its exports). Outside the EU single market and customs union, Northern Ireland would suffer new barriers to trade that would affect nearly 60% of its sales outside of the UK.

📖 Why the Good Friday agreement still matters

This is not all: the achievement of the Good Friday agreement has been not only to secure piece in Ireland, but to allow the two countries to cooperate in a huge range of areas, which are now under threat.

  • Northern Ireland is a vital route to market for goods from the Republic, as the UK acts as a ‘landbridge’ to markets in the EU 27.
  • Dublin airport is the main entry and exit point for air travel for Northern Ireland, with around half of Northern Ireland residents using it for holiday travel.
  • A particular economic success has been the single wholesale electricity market known as the SEM. Its functioning requires the implementation of EU energy laws in Northern Ireland and it is unclear how it is compatible with the UK leaving the Internal Energy Market.

Brexit also has significant implications for the food and agribusiness sector, the largest cross-border trading sector on the island. It relies hugely on EU membership for everything from farmer payments to tariff-free exports.

  • 594 million litres of milk are imported from Northern Ireland for processing in Ireland. If import tariffs or even non-tariff barriers were put in place, this could decimate the Irish milk processing sector.
  • Nearly all of the wheat is grown in Ireland is sent north for milling, and then re-imported back to Ireland.
  • Almost 40 per cent of Northern Irish lamb is processed in the Republic, while a significant volume of pigs and cattle from the South are processed in Northern Ireland.

The 1998 agreement was drawn up in the context of shared UK and Irish membership of the EU and presumed continuity of this context. The practical implementation of the agreement in several areas of cross-border cooperation centres on regulatory alignment.

UK withdrawal from the EU means that the trajectories of the UK and Ireland will now diverge. This divergence will be wide-ranging and will happen in law, trade, security, rights, policies and politics. Brexit risks deep fissures between the UK and Ireland, and puts the Good Friday agreement at risk.

Brexit, with its re-emergence of exclusivist definitions of sovereignty, nationalism and state borders, threatens to destabilise the fragile equilibrium in Northern Ireland. To renew the physical division of the border across the island with all that implies for people’s identities in a region which voted to remain, and where the peace process has successfully transcended the border question for the last twenty years, could threaten everything that has been achieved.


Peter Hain was secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 2005-7 when he helped negotiate the settlement that in May 2007 saw Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness lead a new era of self-government. He tweets @PeterHain


Photo: by Fribbler [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Peter Hain

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