Ire­land’s open bor­der en­sures peo­ple can eat

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Felic­ity Lawrence

In North­ern Ire­land, 56% of those who took part in the ref­er­en­dum voted to re­main in the Euro­pean Union. For the ma­jor­ity, the free­dom for peo­ple and goods to come and go with­out checks across the Ir­ish bor­der car­ries the mo­men­tous freight of na­tional iden­tity; it goes to the heart of the peace set­tle­ment. The UK gov­ern­ment knows this – which is why Theresa May has promised a con­tra­dic­tion: that what will be­come the bor­der with the EU will re­main fric­tion­less, de­spite also promis­ing, to please Brex­iters, that Great Britain and North­ern Ire­land will be out­side the cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket.

The idea that you can have a fric­tion­less, open bor­der with­out cus­toms ar­range­ments that match ex­actly or near as damn it on ei­ther side is a myth. But while the pol­i­tics of the bor­der have been ex­ten­sively dis­cussed, the prac­ti­cal im­por­tance of the cus­toms union is still not widely un­der­stood. While it may sound tech­ni­cal, what it con­trols is as ba­sic as bread and milk. We dis­cuss it in the ab­stract. We need to talk about the ef­fect on peo­ple.

The North­ern Ir­ish econ­omy de­pends on its agri-food ex­ports. The lion’s share of the $1.6bn a year it ex­ports to the EU flows across the Ir­ish bor­der. Thou­sands of daily move­ments of peo­ple, lor­ries and an­i­mals go back and forth. Forty per cent of lamb reared in the north trav­els over to the south for pro­cess­ing, as does up to a third of North­ern Ire­land’s milk pro­duc­tion. Food and drink is the north’s largest man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor and one in 10 jobs de­pend on it.

Cut­ting off the flow of food into North­ern Ire­land, mean­while, is un­prece­dented out­side of the cir­cum­stances of war. Just three su­per­mar­ket chains feed it, to all in­tents and pur­poses – Tesco, Asda and Sains­bury’s sup­ply 70% of the coun­try’s gro­cery sales, pro­vid­ing an un­in­ter­rupted stream of fresh food sourced from across con­ti­nen­tal Europe through Britain. Think on that with the day-to-day im­pact on fam­i­lies in mind. Even a small in­crease in de­lays for in­spec­tion could risk the prospect of food rot­ting be­fore it was pro­cessed.

Even if the po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of a new, hard bor­der were sur­mount­able, the prac­ti­cal ones seem un­man­age­able.

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