Ireland’s open border ensures people can eat
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.