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Brexit and the irish border: a critical geography the role of a border

‘A line separating two countries, administrative divisions, or other areas.’ This is how Oxford Dictionary defines the word Border. The Role of a border is primarily to define the parameter of a nation or region and declare territory and area. It is imperative in the role of protection of that area and its people. It is in place to barricade from threats and to monitor and control what and who enters and exits the region or nation. “Traditionally, modern state territorial borders have been understood as parameters of possession, protection and exclusion in the national imagination” (Brexit Bordering and Bodies on the island of Ireland). The role and understanding of borders have changed greatly through globalisation. Today there is an interconnectedness across nations and trading blocs which gives any individual the privilege to be a ‘global citizen’. In the case of the Northern Irish to Ireland border, its role holds much deeper meaning. The invisible border symbolises the end of the 30-year-long troubles between the North and the South and the now cooperative relations which exist between the unionists and the nationalists. The role of this particular border is to declare the areas of different parliament and state but carries out little protection purposes which are much less significant here because of the broad legal and policy frameworks shared by the UK and Ireland, The Common Travel Act, The EU single market and the 1998 Good Friday agreement (The pivotal position of the Irish border in the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union). Until the citizens of the UK voted by a majority of 51.9% in June 2016 to withdrawal from the EU, these frameworks ensured a frictionless border and allowed the free movement of people, labour, goods and capital. The current Brexit crisis raises many concerns and potential consequences for the border, The economy, the two state bodies and the citizens of both Northern Ireland and Ireland which I will discuss.

Reasons for the Brexit Crisis

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Britain has a unique history. It has always been a powerful nation, a leader in economic development and a wealthy Nation. The British empire was the leading global power until the mid 20th century and I think it is important to acknowledge the UKs history and the influence which it has had in the countries decision to exit the EU. The British culture places strong values on identity, the British way of life has always been one of liberty, prosperity and power. The British media and population have had a turbulent relationship with the EU since Britain joined in 1973 and this so called – ‘Euroscepticism’ has been influenced by the European Unions unrestricted regulation around migration within its member state. The strong sense of English nationalism which exits in the UK has attributed to the idea that immigration into the UK poses a threat.

Many regions within the UK boomed during the Industrial revolution and later suffered when globalisation led to deindustrialisation nearing the end of the 19th century. Much research has suggested that the regions which prospered during rise in industrialisation and have since suffered economic decline, saw a stronger vote to leave the EU. On the contrary, areas which are now booming with the growing services industry in the UK voted with a shocking majority to remain, London for example being home to Worlds biggest financial services firms voted with a 72% majority to stay within the EU. Lincolnshire, a region in the UK exceled in engineering during the industrial revolution and has never reached the same level of economic prosperity since the industries decline, voted with a 65% majority to leave.

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There is a suggested connection between regional economic success and income and voting decision when it came to Brexit. Many individuals in the UK believe the increase in immigration from other European citizens has led to UK nationals suffering economically as a result of foreign labour taking jobs and straining the Nations resources such as healthcare and education.

The perception among many British individuals and politicians is that leaving the EU trading bloc and thus opting out of the free movement of people and workers agreement is that this will allow them to “take back control”. Though statistics inform us that the employment rate of UK-born citizens at the time of the vote was at a record high, while the participation rate has not declined. Suggesting Immigrants are not negatively affecting British nationals’ chance of employment. This could also be supported by the geographical disparities I discussed above suggesting areas which are currently flourishing, for example London, do not perceive a risk to jobs here.

Impact on the economy

The UK is the second largest single-country export destination for Ireland for goods and largest single-country export destination for services (Source: CSO, UN COMTRADE).

Similarly, the UK serves as the biggest import country for Ireland, in 2013, the 33.6% of goods imported into Ireland came from the UK. The UKs exit from the EU will disrupt this trading relationship by imposing tariffs and trade barriers between the two nations and thus reducing imports and exports while increasing import prices for Irish firms. These changes on cost for the firms will inevitably be passed onto the consumer and the citizens across the Island will feel the impact of these tariffs on their real purchasing power.

The economy in Northern Ireland is heavily reliant on Agri-food sector which represents 70″,000 jobs and 3.25% of Northern Irelands Gross value added – equating to £1.1 Billion at basic prices. (Source: Dept of Agriculture, Environment and Rural affairs). This vital sector is closely integrated with the Republic, allowing for the trade of animals and sale of foodstuff and materials. £899.5m worth of food and live animals were exported to the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland in 2017. ( The competitive disadvantage which would arise for Northern Ireland would be immense and leaving the EU and thus imposing extensive trade rules on the 35% if Northern Ireland exports which are destined for Southern markets. (Pivotal position)

The activities supporting the agriculture industry are threatened to become complex and costly post-Brexit. The EU funding to Northern Irish farmers also represents a significant proportion of income. The EUs Common Agricultural Policy accounted for 60% of Northern Irish farmers income in 2014.

Impact on peace

One of the biggest concerns about the consequences of Brexit on citizens of both Northern Ireland and on the Republic is the threat to peace. The thirty years of Civil war in Ireland killed nearly 3″,500 people. Relative to the small population of the Island, the war had a substantial impact between 1969 and 1998. The violence involving bombings and shootings remain in the memories and the legacies of the conflict. The formal conclusion of the violence was marked by the formation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but it would be years of cross-border cooperation initiatives, negotiations, peace-making programmes and over 1.3 billion Euro of funding from the Special EU Programmes Body before the two states would achieve the harmonious relationship which now exists.

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The EU was crucial to the formation of the so-called Belfast agreement. It signified a formal ending to the civil war but only the beginning of the process of peace which was led and funded by the EU. “the Irish border, like other European borders, will be no more in reality than a county boundary”, argued leading northern nationalist John Hume in 1998. The threat of a hard border to follow the UKs exit from Britain is momentous because it was the removal of a physical border which played a determining role in the end of the conflict. The primary reason for the decision to leave the EU, argued by Brexiteers is the apparently excessive immigration into the UK. As outlined in ‘Brexit, Bordering and Bodies on the island of Ireland’, Ireland serves as an ideal entry point to the UK, threatening reciters goal of taking back control, logically there would have to be an entirely impenetrable border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic in order to keep outsiders out, as the UK so desperately wishes to do. This causes an obvious tension between maintaining a frictionless border and upholding the Good Friday agreement, and controlling immigration to Britain.

Possible solutions

One solution to the Brexit crisis which would lessen the negative economic impact on the economy of both Northern Ireland and Ireland is the option of the UK remaining within the European Economic Area. This would allow businesses to retain access to the single market. The other main argument in favour of this solution is that if the UK were to achieve this, it would eliminate the need for a border on the island of Ireland. While this is a potential outcome, like every solution to the crisis it is reliant on a number of legal and political factors which will be incredibly challenging. All member states of the EU would need to approve, and an agreement would need to be met between the EU and the UK outlining exactly the new relationship. This would likely take years of negotiations and legal effort. The most challenging aspect of this option as a solution that would need to be overcome, is the fact that being a part of the EEA, imposes a number of obligations and rights. One of which being access to the single market and the free movement of goods which would aid the economy post-Brexit, but the other is the freedom of movement of workers secured among member States. Given that one of the primary reasons for then Crisis was to decrease immigration into the UK, this would be entirely unproductive in the eyes of Brexiteers and would contradict the concerns around immigration and democracy. A slightly more complex approach to this solution, would be to allow only the North of Ireland to remain in the EU trading bloc, giving a very special economic status to the region would again eliminate the risk of a border and all the issues it brings with it, it would lessen the economic effects on the North. The solution, while incredibly hard to achieve could be viable given Northern Irelands 62.7% majority vote to remain. What should be absolutely central to all political approach and debate in the Brexit talks is that while England and Wales voted to leave, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and Scotland voted strongly to remained, and this needs to be considered in the Crisis’s solution.

Another solution to the Brexit crisis could potentially be a second referendum. Since the 2016 vote took place many individuals have changed their mind. If a re-vote were to take place it could very likely result in an entirely different outcome. While unlikely, The UK remaining in the EU, despite all of the ongoing political talks and negotiations, would be an ideal solution to all of the issues and impacts raised. Given the integration between both Ireland and the UK’s economies, as well as the two nations relationship with the EU, there is no direct solution. There has been 46 years of de-bordering and economic integration and one fix-all solution is simply impossible.

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The Brexit crisis is an incredibly complex and challenging situation for all parties involved. The reasons, causes, impacts and solutions of the dilemma are all complicated. The fundamental reasons for Brexiteers decision to vote in favour of leaving are to stop immigration and to gain back control and power of the UK. These reasons are influenced by history, and attitudes which differ greatly across the populations age, background, income and geographical location. The impact of Brexit on the citizens of Northern Ireland the Republic will be mostly economical, while there is substantial threat to standard of living and lifestyle if conflict arises due to a hard border and disagreement between Brexiteers and non-Brexiteers. The solutions to the crisis I have discussed are somewhat speculative, given the constantly changing approach and opinions and the sheer lack of direction by politicians. Regardless of whether there is a soft Brexit, A Hard Brexit or the UK or the North remains in the trading bloc, there is inevitably going to have to be years of litigation and negotiation before the chaos finally calms.

Word count: 2″,037.


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