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Brexit, UK And The Irish Border: An Affair to Remember

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On 23rd June 2016, Britons voted the UK out of the European Union so that their country could move “forward” with their own rules. All they wanted was to prevent easy European immigration into their country.  Yet at the same time, they don’t want a physical border to come into effect between the Northern Ireland of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

For now, people from either side have no problem crossing over to the side, for both countries are part of the EU common travel area that allows free movement of trade and people. But ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union, the future of the Irish border has been the highlight of Brexit negotiations. In order to understand this issue, we need to first dig deeper into the history of the Irish border.

History of the Irish Border

The Irish Border is an issue that has the potential to wreck the whole Brexit process. Brexit rudely interrupts decades of Irish-British reconciliation efforts. People living on both the sides want to reduce the effects of the larger historical complication that can ruin their lives once again.

Ireland was originally a British colony ruled by the English monarchy, but after independence, it split into two countries -the Republic of Ireland became a separate state and Northern Ireland remained part of the UK. The current Irish conflict dates back to when Northern Ireland was separated from mainland Ireland in the early 1920s.

After the separation, the population of Northern Ireland was divided into Unionists and the Nationalists. The Unionists were happy to remain as part of the British territory and were mostly Catholic while the Nationalists or Republicans, who wanted NI to be independent of the UK, were the Protestants.

The following years saw tensions between the two sides turn violent, with armed groups of both sides fighting. Many people died in the violence. After 30 years of conflict, on 10th April 1998, the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ or known as the ‘Belfast Agreement’ was signed after intense negotiations between the UK government, the Irish government and Northern Ireland political parties. This resulted in the formation of a new government in Northern Ireland that shared power between the Unionists and the Nationalists.

The Northern Ireland Assembly looked into local issues and cooperated with the Republic of Ireland. A council was also set up to promote the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Although, the region’s political parties are still locked in a standoff with each other, however, there has been no return to violence.

How The Border Affects Trade Relations

With Brexit, trade and travel in Ireland will become more complicated as Northern Ireland will remain with the UK while Ireland will be the part of EU.

Under the EU laws, member nations have to maintain customs and border checks with non-member countries as the nations will have different taxes and tariffs placed on the imports of goods. This will lead to the creation of a Hard border that will present unique trade, economic and political risks. The European Commission’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement proposed that Northern Ireland stays in the EU customs union, which will allow for seamless trade and avoid the need of any kind of border. But PM Theresa May rejected this proposal.

More than 35,000 people who commute across the border daily would be forced to go through customs checks. Agricultural-food supply chains which are highly integrated on a cross-border basis will be disrupted.

The UK is the second largest importer of Ireland goods, taking in 12.79% of its total exports amounting to $16.5 billion in 2016. Goods exports from the UK to Ireland amounted to $22.9 billion in 2016, making Ireland the fifth largest importer of UK goods, constituting 5.5% of its total exports.

Ireland refers to Britain as the Land of Bridges that connects its economy to Eastern Europe. Two-thirds of Irish goods exporters make use of the UK land bridge to access continental markets. But after Brexit becomes a reality in 2019, Britain will be an obstructive wall instead of a bridge, getting in between Ireland and the European market.

It is estimated that any change in the current EU-UK trading relationship, either through the introduction of tariffs or non-tariffs barrier, would impact Ireland more than any of the other 27 nations of the EU. In worst case scenarios, Ireland will be impacted more than the UK itself.

The following five sectors account for the vast majority of the total impact of Brexit: Agri-food, pharma-chemicals, electrical machinery, wholesale and retail and air transport.

There would be a large impact on the pockets of the local people from Ireland and would cost an average of 1400Euros for one household a year as price rises. There would be an impact on trade barriers on retail prices as well. It used a database of more than 4,500 products routinely imported from Britain and found that the price of bread and cereals in the Republic could rise by up to 30 percent in a hard Brexit scenario, while milk, cheese, and egg prices could increase 46 percent. The increased trade costs would affect the Irish exports of goods and services by 8% in 2030. By 2030, Irish GDP would be affected by 3 to 7%

Flights between Britain and the European Union could be grounded immediately after a no-deal Brexit, according to the most recent batch of technical notices on the impact of a Hard Brexit published by the British government.

Efforts made for Soft Border

The UK government, the Irish government, and the EU have all opposed to a hard border in Ireland. British PM Theresa May have stated that she wants to retain the border frictionless which, however, seems impossible.

Another political complication is that Theresa may has actually lost her governing majority in the parliament in the general election following the referendum. Short of a majority, she was forced to form a minority govt with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP believes that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK but is opposed to any kind of hard Irish border.

Another effort being made for a soft border is to build smart borders. High-end technology solutions can possibly withdraw the requirement of a visible border. But the important question is who would pay for such an expensive solution with questionable effectiveness?

On December 2017, the British govt had pledged to maintain the ‘regulatory alignment’ between the UK and the EU. According to it, the UK will leave the single market but will maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This, however, has angered the Brexit supporters who voted to leave out of the bloc.

The return of a hard border will threaten the peace process between the UK and Ireland. Ireland remains a mere spectator as it braces itself for the dire consequences for which the UK is responsible. However, the regulatory alignment was greeted with widespread relief, the prospects of it don’t really settle all the odds.

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