Irish riddle bordering on the impossible

MAY 14 — Ever since Britons voted to leave the European Union in the momentous referendum 11 months ago, one question has lingered long and hard, like the proverbial elephant in the room: what will happen in Ireland?

The island of Ireland, the western-most point of Europe, is divided into two countries. The majority of the territory is the independent Republic of Ireland, but the north-eastern segment, Northern Ireland, is part of the United Kingdom.

This partition of Ireland has a long and complicated political and religious history, dating back nearly five centuries to English King Henry VIII’s famous (and selfish he just wanted to get divorced) decision to renounce the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome, forming the Church of England and placing himself at the head.

Ireland, however, stayed largely loyal to the Pope, and the religious split with England grew more serious after the spread of the Protestant faith, eventually leading to Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant English army massacring thousands of Irish Catholics in the aftermath of the English Civil War, which saw King Charles I beheaded in 1649.

You may well be wondering so what? What on earth do the greedy and avaricious political manoeuvrings of long-dead English monarchs have to do with contemporary Ireland’s position post-Brexit?

Belfast City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland... should the north and south unite to solve the border problem after Brexit? — Picture from
Belfast City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland... should the north and south unite to solve the border problem after Brexit? — Picture from

Sadly, those events from many centuries ago still have everything to do with modern Ireland’s future, because the divisions that opened up in the Middle Ages have still never fully healed: Northern Ireland is still Protestant and loyal to the British crown; the Republic of Ireland is still Catholic and proudly independent.

Indeed, when I was growing up, the conflict between Northern Ireland, the Republic and the British mainland was an integral part of daily life, with bomb threats from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who were fighting for a united and independent Ireland, an ever-present danger.

More than 3,000 people were killed by the IRA and their opponent loyalist forces during “The Troubles” between the late 1960s and late 1990s, with the Northern Irish capital Belfast a particularly dangerous and violent place.

Since then, an outbreak of peace has reigned with the two Irish territories living alongside each other harmoniously — which is all, of course, the overwhelming majority of inhabitants in the North and the Republic have ever wanted.

But now an enormous stumbling block has emerged in the form of Brexit, because nobody has any idea how the process of the UK’s decoupling from the EU can be executed without severely hampering relations between the two parts of Ireland, one of which will no longer be within the EU while the other one still is.

The crux of the matter is the border. At the moment, the 300-mile long border between the North and the Republic is freely open to all and sundry, allowing a daily traffic of around 30,000 people to move back and forth without any restrictions so they can trade, go to work and back, visit friends and family and simply live their normal lives.

One of the key tenets of Brexit, however, is that it will allow the UK to regain control of its borders. Entrants to the UK from the EU will have to pass through strict border controls — that much has always been clear about Brexit, which has been based upon a criterion of controlling immigration all along.

On the mainland, that will be simple enough because it is surrounded by water and can therefore be easily patrolled. But in Ireland, there is simply no way border controls can be effectively carried out without also impacting the millions of Irish folk — from both sides of the border — who wish to travel freely between the North and the Republic.

How can you have a border which applies to some people but not to others? And it’s crystal clear there will have to be a border — otherwise, nothing would prevent a Syrian refugee who has reached France from boarding a ferry to the Republic of Ireland and from there crossing into Northern Ireland, and hence into the UK. And, believe me, keeping out refugees from Syria is the chief concern of many Brexiteers.

The whole thing is logically impossible, and nobody has yet come up with any convincing plan. Everybody is trying very hard, including the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who undertook a two-day visit to Ireland on Thursday and Friday and addressed the matter in the Irish parliament in Dublin, expressing his sincere hopes that a “hard border” can be avoided.

Barnier is calling for a “creative and flexible” solution which will see the Irish border become a “special case”, allowing residents of Ireland to continue their current freedom of movement while still, somehow, restricting that freedom of movement to everybody else. British Prime Minister Theresa May has expressed a similar desire. But how that can be done nobody really knows.

The only really logical solution would be for Ireland to unite, with the North ending its association with the UK and joining independent Ireland as a member of the EU. But many Protestant Loyalists abhor that idea — a friend of mine from the North told me that such a scenario would result in civil war.

And so, in Barnier’s words, a creative and flexible solution will have to be found. And it will have to be very creative indeed, because nobody has thought of anything yet.

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