Hard Brexiters’ stance on the Irish border is nonsense – I can tell you, I grew up there

Posted By: August 08, 2019

The customs checkpoint at the end of my garden is now a family home; a hard border in Ireland is simply unworkable

Séamas O’Reilly. The Guardian. London. Wednesday, August 7, 2019. ( Séamas O’Reilly is a writer from Derry.)

One consequence of the brain’s incredible ability to make sense of the world is that it sometimes sees things that aren’t there. Most people have experienced pareidolia, that pleasing effect of interpreting a face from a random assortment of objects or shapes, so that a paperclip and two blobs of adhesive putty look like a happy little man, or the watermarks behind Auntie Maureen’s radiator strike her as a dead ringer for the Virgin Mary. Our brain has spent so many millions of years geared toward facial recognition, it takes even the most random nonsense and attempts to construct it into something meaningful.

My brain, it turns out, does a similar thing when I read the tweets of Brexit MEP Ben Habib. “I am on the border between NI and ROI,” he tweeted last week, above a video that depicted him and some colleagues wisely playing in the middle of the road. “Travelling in a straight line, one enters and exits the ROI a number of times. There could never be a hard border here. The UK has declared it would never seek to impose one. The whole thing is a red herring.”

Surely, I thought, this was a pleasing moment of candor from a man who had seen just how unworkable a border would be, who had stood where it once was and realized that such a self-defeating arrangement must never be put in place again.

Alas, this hope was no more real than Auntie Maureen’s blotchy patch of Blessed-Virgin-shaped damp. Habib’s point was, astoundingly, that a no-deal Brexit was somehow incapable of causing a hard border because … it would be inconvenient to erect? Or because there isn’t one there currently? Perhaps Habib thinks the world is just full of things now, and new things can’t be built in spaces where those things don’t currently exist. One wonders what it would be like to watch Grand Designs with him, to feel his innocent thrill at the impossibility of these wondrous structures as they miraculously appear in places where once they weren’t. Of course, it’s hard to know exactly what he meant, or whence came the ebullience with which he meant it since, again, my brain is working overtime to ascribe sense where none exists.

I don’t know much about Habib’s little border crossing jaunt; I do hope he had a nice time, perhaps returning home with some agricultural diesel or a few nice boxty recipes. But I do know quite a bit about the hard border which, for 80 years, existed between the UK and Ireland. Because that’s where I was born and raised.

My family home is on Derry’s western border with Donegal. I mean “on” here quite literally. For most of my childhood, our garden backed on to a UK customs checkpoint which sat at the terminus of land behind our garage. I’m sure this isn’t some red herring I’ve imagined because I’d have likely conjured a more thrilling sight than the squat little prefab that blighted our view of the main road until 1997. On the other hand, however, fevered my imagination, I doubt I could have made up the time an IRA bomb blast destroyed that building, damaging our windows and blowing a section of its wall into our field – with its kitchen-sink still attached.

I’ve lived on the hard border and faced some small part of the harm it can do to a place. It takes a certain lack of seriousness to say that something is impossible just because it has never happened before. It takes an altogether different level of ineptitude to say a thing is impossible, when it only very recently stopped happening, having done so for eight decades before that.

The hard border is not currently there because of its relaxation under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, underpinned by the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU states. If Britain leaves with no deal, we will have an international border between two entities with disparate health regulations, tax schemes, and immigration policies, meaning it will need to be fortified once more. You might say this concept is what gives both words within the term “international border” their meaning. It would be odd if we were merely having to point this out to those who, admirably enough, advocate pulling down the barriers between nations. But we are here explaining the concept of borders to the very people who have been screaming we need greater control of them for decades, and who wish to crash out of the world’s most successful trading bloc largely because of the people who come through those borders.

But it gets better. After the Good Friday agreement, the customs hut was sold so that a large family home could be built in its place. The couple who live there are extremely nice but I’m sure they would object to having a customs outpost erected in their bedroom. They have also shown remarkably little interest in working for HMRC as checkpoint guards. My dad says they’re into walking their dog, mostly. The building immediately next door is in the Republic of Ireland and was formerly the Irish customs post. It’s now a kickboxing gym. There has never been even a cursory inquiry into purchasing these buildings and refitting them for their former purposes.

There are 300 miles (482km) of the border. That’s a lot of family homes, petrol stations, cowsheds and kickboxing gyms. While I will admit me quite like the thought of some pencil-necked bureaucrat having to evict a gym filled with oiled-up Derry and Donegal martial artists, doing so across Northern Ireland would be the most expensive and logistically arduous engineering, staffing and planning job in UK or Irish history. It would take a great deal more than 85 days and £2.1bn. And it would still be a bad idea even if it promised a massively improved economy and huge social improvements, rather than a harrowing wasteland of dead diabetics, bleached chicken and Dominic Raab.

It’s hard to know what Habib and the Brexit commentariat are aiming for, except borders that are stronger, more impenetrable and back under Britain’s Control™ while also being open, invisible and as frictionless as those we currently have. We may have to make peace with the fact they don’t even know themselves. No matter how hard we look, the nonsense of their position is staring us in the face.