Ireland fears no-deal Brexit

August 22, 2019 10:38
For the Irish government, an open border is not simply a matter of economics and trade. It is the key to retaining peace on the island. Photo: Reuters

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing Britain rapidly toward a "no-deal" Brexit on Oct. 31 – and the Republic of Ireland is the EU country that will be most damaged by such an outcome.

Economists forecast that 85,000 jobs in Ireland are under threat in the medium term under a no-deal. Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said: “Make no mistake: a no-deal Brexit is an ugly prospect. It will put many businesses and many people under a great deal of strain. A no-deal Brexit, if that is the choice of the British government, will fundamentally disrupt the free movement of goods in a seamless way as we enjoy today.”

The United Kingdom accounts for 11 percent of Ireland’s exports and 23 percent of its imports. The UK is its second-biggest export market, after the United States, and its largest export market within the EU. In addition, a large proportion of Irish exports to the European continent pass through the UK, by sea and land. A no-deal Brexit is likely to result in tariffs on many of these goods and delays in delivering them.

Ireland is the only EU country that has a land border with the UK – 499 kilometers with 270 public roads – linking it to Northern Ireland. Since 1993, it has been open for the passage of goods. About 13,000 vehicles cross the border every day.

To ensure that the border remains open, Dublin has proposed a "backstop", a legal guarantee that Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules and standards if there was no new trade deal to avoid a hard border. Brussels accepted this and it became part of the Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated with London. The UK Parliament refused to pass the Withdrawal Agreement.

But Johnson insists that the backstop must go and an alternative found to keep the border open.

An Irish official said the UK had not proposed specific alternatives. “We have been discussing this for two and a half years. No-one has found a viable alternative. In addition, the British are untrustworthy. If we amended the Withdrawal Agreement, would Britain abide by it?” he said.

“European leaders regard Johnson as toxic. He was the one who told the lies that persuaded the British to vote for Brexit,” the official added.

“Time is rapidly slipping away. We are past posturing or preludes to talks,” said the Irish Independent newspaper in an editorial on Wednesday. “Mr. Johnson has yet to offer a single alternative [to the backstop]. ‘Binning the backstop’ is an empty slogan. It will not be entertained as a serious political slogan.”

Johnson is being given the same message this week in visits to Paris and Berlin to meet the leaders of France and Germany.

On Monday night, Johnson spoke for nearly one hour with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar; each repeated their own position and reached no agreement. Johnson will visit Dublin in early September to resume the dialogue.

For the Irish government, an open border is not simply a matter of economics and trade. It is the key to retaining peace on the island that has flourished since the Good Friday Agreement with Britain in April 1998.

Were a hard border to be established, it would mean customs checkpoints protected by security forces. They could become targets of attack by Republican militants who oppose any symbols of separation of the island. Such violence would invite revenge attacks by militants on the rival Protestant side. And the terrible cycle of violence which the island suffered from 1969 to 1998 might resume; it killed 3,500 people and left 47,500 injured.

On Monday night, a Republican group carried out a bomb attack in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, close to the border; it aimed to kill police officers, but failed. It was a reminder of the dangers that lurk in the shadows of the peace agreement.

“I am fearful for the future,” said Tom Doherty, a Dublin taxi driver. “Brexit has brought the city benefits in terms of financial and legal firms moving some operations from the UK in order to keep them within the EU. But that has meant higher property prices, bad for ordinary people like me.

“No-deal Brexit means a border again, with police and checkpoints. We had a bomb attack this week. A hard border means that the violence may begin again. We are two different countries. Why did the British government not think of this before the Brexit referendum? What a historic mistake!” he said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.