We must not return to a hard border in Ireland

Posted By: February 19, 2018

Jenny Chapman. The Times. London. Monday, February 19, 2018

Jenny Chapman is Labour MP for Darlington and a member of Labour’s shadow Brexit team

After nearly twenty years of peace, it’s easy to take progress in Northern Ireland for granted. Questions about the incompatibility of Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement are dismissed as the latest obsession of the unreconciled Remainer. But fears about what Brexit means for Northern Ireland are genuine and need answers.

Those wanting greater control and enforcement of rules on immigration after Brexit imagine the reinstatement of a hard Border on the island of Ireland will help. It won’t. The common travel area has allowed citizens of both countries to move freely, give or take the occasional interruption, since 1925. We need to remember that the Border was dismantled not in response to an EU treaty, but to achieve peace. The watchtowers, checkpoints, and guns were removed because that is what was agreed in the Good Friday agreement, not because both countries are EU members. Having said that, there is no doubt that aspects of EU membership helped remove some of the obstacles to the softening of the Irish border.

Customs union membership allowed the movement of goods without customs checks across borders. When checkpoints were removed to achieve peace, the infrastructure could be done away with entirely because both countries were members of a customs union. There was no need to stop lorries and check loads because the UK and Ireland applied the same customs rules. Today the meandering border is invisible, allowing well over 100 million crossings every year. The dividend of peace has been a flourishing trade, with 35 percent of Northern Ireland’s exports heading south across the border, involving 7,000 small businesses annually.

As well as the undoubted economic benefits, the invisible Border has improved daily life. Around 15,000 people cross the border each day for work. Hundreds of children cross the border to get to school. Cancer treatment, children’s cardiology, and radiology services are among a growing number of health services provided on a cross-border basis. Communities have grown used to life without a hard border and have no intention of returning to the hassle, delay, admin and inconvenience they know it brings.

A future hard land Border would not be unique to Northern Ireland — there are hard borders between Norway and Sweden, and the USA and Canada — but the history of this place is different. A return to checkpoints for whatever purpose and even the most discreet of arrangements would be a target for vandalism or worse and would need to be protected. As the owner of a successful Northern Ireland business told me, “even electronic border posts wouldn’t last a day.”

Northern Ireland is part of our country and parliament has the same duty to citizens of Derry as it does to those of Darlington. That is why the Labour Party has promised to support a Brexit deal only if it secures the open Border in Northern Ireland. So far the Government has been unable to explain how it can keep an open Border without a comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU. That is why Labour says we should keep a customs union on the table as a viable outcome of Brexit negotiations. Dogmatically ruling out a customs union, without knowing how the solemn promises made to Northern Ireland at the end of the first phase of the Brexit negotiations can be fulfilled, risks the security, prosperity, and stability of over 2 million of our citizens.

The continuing absence of an executive at Stormont muffles the voices of Northern Ireland at a critical time. Brexit could change the lives of the people of Northern Ireland more than anywhere else in the UK, and negotiators on both sides need to hear from them. None of us should ever look to Northern Ireland’s future without remembering the more than 3,500 people who lost their lives in the 30 years before the Good Friday Agreement. That means whatever else Brexit brings, Labour will hold Theresa May to her promises to Northern Ireland, and won’t allow the clock to be turned back on the Irish border.