Much has been written on the fact that the Irish border is a nightmare for Brexit negotiations. A hard border will hurt the people on both sides of the border and undo decades of work, but an open border would seem to defeat many of the aims of those who voted to leave the European Union. Moreover, it is difficult to see how a soft border would work if we cannot secure a custom or trade deal. In the meantime it is the people of Northern Ireland who suffer.
Identity and everyday life
To me, and many in Northern Ireland, the most significant impact of any border would be on the day to day lives and fundamental identity of those who live on both sides. Much is known, but little is understood, of the importance of identity in Northern Irish culture. This can manifest itself in unappetising ways such as burning ‘opposing’ flags on bonfires.
Identity is often polarising in Northern Ireland, with people supporting one community to the exclusion of the other. This can be seen in everything from voting patterns, to painting pavements. Yet the open border, Good Friday agreement and various initiatives over the years have started a move in a new direction. This change is particularly obvious amongst younger people who feel they don’t really have one identity in Northern Ireland as it currently is, pre-Brexit. The openness of the border and the ability to choose a passport, allows for a flexible identity for those who want it.
On a more practical level the border is neither clear cut, nor in the middle of nowhere. It runs through villages and towns, often crossing through a farm owned by a single farmer or a street where family members live. People travel across the border every day to shop, work and visit family or friends.
Many have said – and I include myself here – that there can be no perfect solution. There is no one way to make everyone happy. But isn’t this always the case in politics? And nowhere more so than Northern Ireland. Good Friday did not make everyone happy. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness shaking hands did not make everyone happy. The history of Northern Ireland is one of finding a creative solution that works best for the country.
Looking east for solutions?
We don’t need to look any further than the EU itself for evidence of creative solutions for issues caused by borders. Let’s take Poland as an example. Poland shares an external border with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Many people who live around the borders face similar problems to those in Northern Ireland. They have Polish passports or the so-called “Karta Polaka” (“Polish Card”), speak Polish and consider themselves Polish. Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians maintain links with their respective minorities in Poland. They too travel back and forth over the border to work and visit family. Pushing the comparison, they too used to be (at least partly) the same country with no border. Placing a hard EU border was essential yet disastrous for many of these communities.
In this case, the EU was not the harsh dictator that much of the UK media likes to portray it. It passed Regulation 1931/2006 on local traffic at external borders. This regulation allows for countries with external borders to make exceptional bilateral treaties with their neighbours. The rules can vary depending on the situation in terms of fees, length of permit and checks. These bilateral treaties have worked well for the most part where implemented. Indeed, a 2014 report was positive about the implementation of the Polish-Kaliningrad agreement. The agreement applies to all inhabitants on the Russian side of the Kaliningrad region and to residents of parts of Pomerania and Warmia-Mazury voivodships on the Polish side. The Polish agreement with Ukraine grants permits to those who live and work up to 30km from the shared border.
The implementation of these agreements has resulted in a boost to the local economy with an increase in the number of people coming to Poland for shopping, tourism and to access medical and care services. The main complaint is in relation to traffic queues, because these specific agreements do not create a special traffic lane for permit holders.
The Poland-Kaliningrad treaty shows the EU’s ability to be flexible. The provisions in the treaty are an exception to Regulation 1931/2006, granted after taking the special circumstances of the region into consideration. The EU is aware that its members and their neighbours do not exist in a vacuum and has historically found ways to ensure open co-operation and a vision for the future, whilst preserving historical ties.
I am not saying that we can copy and paste the agreements that Poland has with its neighbours for the Northern Ireland case. However, it is clear the EU is experienced in responding with similar border questions. The UK government seems to be spending a long time setting down red lines and stating their own aims. Why aren’t we looking at these types of agreements? Would the Regulation 1931/2006 allow for such an agreement to apply to all of Northern Ireland? We may not have all the answers, but these are the types of questions we must be asking.
If this is something that we are to pursue an information campaign will be needed as soon as possible. Information gathering and talks with locals were key to the success of the Polish bilateral treaties. Given that we only have until March 2019 to finalise a solution on Brexit, we need to be doing this now. We must reach out to councillors, MLAs, business owners and residents to submit evidence. This isn’t new for the UK with select committees gathering information like this all the time. Whilst the situation may be more difficult because Northern Ireland has failed to form an assembly, that does not mean we shouldn’t try.
Now that Labour has put itself on a soft Brexit footing, there could be hope for Northern Ireland. We need to have the Labour party at the negotiation table. A combination of a trade and customs deal and a creative border deal could mean that, in practice, things can largely stay as they are for the people of Northern Ireland post-Brexit. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, heavily influenced by the ties with Ireland and the disastrous consequences of a hard border. The people who live in Northern Ireland are British citizens, or at least have the right to be. It’s time for the UK government to put its ego aside and enter into serious, creative discussions with the EU before it’s too late.