The 99-Year Temporary Border Solution

Remain protest. Northern Ireland, November 2017.

Lexit proponents have completely outsourced their thinking over the Irish border. As the hard Tory right and DUP seek to cleave Northern Ireland away from the all-Ireland and European regulatory space, the UK’s original sin in Ireland threatens to derail Brexit.

And as the hard right commit to Brexit as a project to restore national virility, their contempt for Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is clear.

Ireland is the country most inexplicably bound with the UK – culturally, politically, historically. For the left, there would have been no union or suffrage movement without Irish people. Yet like the right, it barely ever considers Ireland as sharing the same North Atlantic archipelago with the UK.

There is in effect, a stealth united Ireland strategy that imagines the pressures of Brexit will lead to a border poll, then inevitably a united Ireland.

But just as FBPE proponents have no plan to get a majority in a second referendum, Lexit supporters have no plan to establish a majority for Irish unity. If economic instability inevitably led to a united Ireland, then unity would likely have occurred long ago.

However, over 90% of Sinn Fein voters and the republican leadership opposed Brexit as they recognise destabilising the peace agreement will not create the conditions for political unity. If it does, it will likely not be on the terms of Lexiters.

The rights and wrongs of alignment with single market rules and customs union membership are a symptom and not a cause of British apathy about Northern Ireland. Westminster politicians of all persuasions have perhaps been comforted by the assumption that Northern Ireland’s centre of gravity is gradually moving towards Dublin rather than London.

There has also long been a substantial plurality in Britain that favours a united Ireland. It comes less from a sincere articulation of sharing political power with Ireland, more from a position of geopolitical NIMBY-ism.

Neglect of Northern Irish people has long been a comfortable state of affairs for left and right in Britain. There is no real sense that transferring Northern Ireland to the rule of the Dail would reverse British underinvestment in the North, or desegregate schools and housing estates.

This debate takes place in the shadow of the Good Friday Agreement – the most important achievement of UK governments in the last 50 years. The agreement is significantly inhibited by tacitly formalising communal divisions while doing nothing to tackle underinvestment and segregation.

There was no significant peace dividend, and the agreement is perhaps only a placeholder for very gradual reunification. But it is an imperfect means of healing and breathing space for people whose lives are still bound up with unexplained and inherited trauma, separation, and poverty.

A quite significant core of the agreement was the voters of Northern Ireland had to approve it – 58% of the total electorate did so. The voters of the Republic had to approve it – 53% of the total electorate did so. British people weren’t required to do anything. Indeed, the process was never designed to oblige Britons in any way.

The political argument has, far more than the economic argument, always been the biggest problem with Lexit arguments. But it’s also a reminder of the limitations Brexit places on the UK. Namely, the space to reimagine UK foreign policy would likely shrink.

Opposition to the death penalty has been a key part of the UK’s diplomatic strategy for several decades (for reasons of leverage rather than morality) – now this consensus is cracking.

Could the UK realistically leave NATO if it was outside of the EU and faced pressures to become even more US-aligned? UK foreign policy already promises to be even more debased, and even more dependent on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Photograph courtesy of Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916. Published under a Creative Commons license.