Borders: Ireland’s Brexit Killer


The phony populism that strengthens the hatred of immigrants in 2017 America—in a land where all but Native and African Americans are immigrants—also promotes hysteria about borders. Inside the rallying cry “Make America Great Again” is a cry for hard borders. A call to keep immigrants out.

Across the Pond

Phony populism led Britain to Brexit. There too, it nurtures a fear of immigrants, hatred of regulations, and the centuries-long hatred of the Continent in the sceptered isle. As well as a yearning for the return of borders. No Euros for Britain even before Brexit, creating the perfect stew for Britains to vote to leave the European Union. “Britain First” has rung through the shouts of mobs and the hard Brexiteers in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet. But Ireland’s position on borders may be a Brexit killer.

First, A Little History

After more than two centuries of struggle and rebellion for independence, Ireland became a Free State in 1921. Free of Britain, almost…but there was a catch. The negotiations between Ireland and Britain resulted in the partition of six of the nine counties of the ancient northern province of Ulster. Northern Ireland was thus created, to remain part of Great Britain, satisfying the powerful of the Protestant-majority north. The partition created two Irelands with a border to cross. Pro-British Union and pro-Free State Ireland Protestants and Catholics were trapped in each.

Years of tumult followed in the 1920s, including the Irish Civil War and the Troubles. Finally, in the 1930s, the constitution was passed into law and the Republic of Ireland was born.

Today Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, while the Republic of Ireland remains a sovereign country.

Although the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, the rest of the United Kingdom voted to leave, taking Northern Ireland with it. The only political party in Northern Ireland that voted to leave was the Democratic Unionist Party, which has a Protestant, pro-British, anti-Belfast Agreement, and anti-progressive agenda. The DUP became very useful to Theresa May when she nearly lost her government in a snap election this summer. The DUP seats propped her party up to a Parliamentary majority in a cash-for-votes deal. As a result, the most highly subsidized part of the UK—Northern Ireland—now has another 1 billion pounds sterling in the treasury.

Ireland the Brexit Killer

The small island that holds Northern Ireland and Ireland is separated from Britain by the Irish Sea. The Irish Sea is currently fished and traversed by all bordering countries. There even was talk of creating a border down the middle of the sea after Brexit. Borders are important to the Brexit transition for the UK/Northern Ireland because the Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU. Going from an EU country to a non-EU country requires customs. Borders are needed for customs checks. The Republic of Ireland and many in Northern Ireland do not want a hard border. The decision made about an Irish border therefore threatens to alter or derail the Brexit transition.

The Border Between Ireland and Northern Ireland

Gone is the highly fraught border of the violent 1970s. No one is nostalgic for it. When you cross from the Republic to Northern Ireland now, there’s no cue. Eventually, you’ll notice the British-hued red mailboxes replacing the green ones of the Republic, and the Union Jack replacing the Tricolor. The border is invisible in other ways too: people commute regularly from one country to the other for jobs and for medical appointments; trade crosses unimpeded by customs, including and most especially EU goods.

And there’s the problem: now that Northern Ireland will follow Britain in leaving the EU, but the Republic of Ireland will not, what to do about customs? It’s difficult to imagine customs without a border, regardless of modern technology. The parties involved in steering Brexit have had a difficult time imagining how it would really work, and the schedule for the required conclusion of Brexit is moving very fast.

Meanwhile, the Irish government has remained steadfast in saying absolutely not to a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Do they really want to leave?

The twisting and turning over customs and borders by the British and Irish governments has revealed other problems in British planning at this stage: there hasn’t been any. Now that that’s out in the open, it seems as though the British government is rethinking the hard leave.

The UK voted to leave the EU in a referendum. The EU accepted the request to leave, but with strictures. Now the British government wants the deals Norway and Canada have—sort of an EU light—with regard to British regulations, borders, and markets. But the agreement signed did not contain such options, and the EU remains serious that Britain can not go back from the agreed Brexit. The EU also remains serious about its demands for compensation (every divorce is costly), citizen’s rights (all residents of the EU to this point travel, study, work and live freely in all EU countries)—and Ireland.

What About Ireland?

The EU is standing behind the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 1998, which brought about the fragile peace enjoyed today on the island. The signed agreement defined the special relationships between Northern Ireland and Ireland, Britain and Ireland, and Northern Ireland and Britain. All EU countries at the time, as they are at this moment.

As part of the special relationship, the Belfast Agreement gave everyone in Northern Ireland the absolute right to citizenship in the Republic of Ireland, and therefore the EU.

The EU is therefore offering Northern Ireland a refundable Brexit. Should Northern Ireland choose to join the Republic of Ireland—which it has the right to do—it can rejoin the EU.

EU will never allow Britain to rejoin. The British are stuck with their morning-after remorse. After a very public affair, this ugly divorce is proceeding.


Two posts appeared here in June about the impact of Ireland on Brexit and vice versa:

“Will Brexit Reunite Ireland?” June 6th, 2017,

“Will Ireland Redefine Brexit?” June 14th, 2017

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