The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Irish border riddle confounds EU, U.K. as Brexit draws closer

- By Lorne Cook

CARRICKCAR­NAN, Ireland: The land around the small Irish town of Carrickcar­nan is the kind of place where Britain’s plan to leave the European Union runs right into a wall – an invisible one that’s proving inordinate­ly difficult to overcome.

Somehow, a border of sorts will have to be drawn between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and EU member Ireland to allow customs control over goods, produce and livestock once the U.K. has fully left the bloc.

That means the unpoliced and invisible Irish land border will become the boundary between the EU and the U.K. – raising questions about trade and customs checks.

Of all the thorny issues in Brexit negotiatio­ns, this has been the toughest, because the challenge of keeping trade running smoothly is deeply entangled with questions of identity: what it means to be from Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communitie­s remain divided decades after 30 years of conflict claimed around 3,700 lives. The peace agreement signed in 1998 provides people with the freedom to identify as Irish or British, or both. It helped dismantle Northern Ireland’s once heavily-policed and militarize­d border with Ireland – and the last thing people want now is a new one.

“The peace process took identity and borders out of politics. Brexit has put them slap bang back into the middle again,” Northern Ireland business and strategy adviser Conor Houston lamented.

EU leaders and British Prime Minister Theresa May hope to make progress this week as the Brexit divorce saga comes to a critical juncture.

The Northern Ireland-Ireland border zig-zags all over the map. It cuts around properties, veers over roads and dodges villages. People cross it when they leave home to visit their doctor or go shopping. It’s mostly only visible when the speed signs change from kilometers to miles.

The dividing line stretches for 500 kilometers and is dotted with over 250 official road crossings, more than on Europe’s entire eastern flank.

A fine example of the Brexit conundrum is the Jonesborou­gh Parish Church. A padlock secures the gate of this run-down Protestant place of worship in the U.K. An Irish flag flies in the cemetery next door, over the border. In the parking lot, a weather-beaten sign reads: “No EU Frontier in Ireland.”

Not so long ago, 12 fortified watchtower­s, 4 helicopter bases, a handful of army barracks and police stations dotted the countrysid­e within a 16-kilometer radius.

Border posts stood for authority and made easy targets for paramilita­ries. So police came to guard the customs officers. Then the army was called in to protect the police.

Some think that modern technology – drones and cameras – can defeat old enmities. Others suspect they would be used for target practice.

“For some, that will be seen as surveillan­ce and a throwback to the troubles. Then you’re going to have to decide how to protect those drones and cameras,” said Peter Sheridan, a retired senior police officer with 32 years’ experience in dealing with organized crime.

Still, Sheridan says politician­s should not cave in to threats.

“We cannot be pressured into decisions by those who wield the biggest stick,” he said.

About 65 kilometers to the north, in Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast, the barriers are far more visible. In many places, neighborho­ods are still separated by high, graffiti-daubed “peace walls.” Schools are mostly segregated.

The territory has the U.K.’s highest poverty, suicide and unemployme­nt rates – and there are fears that Brexit might make things worse.

“The tensions just can’t be underestim­ated and it’s absolutely pervasive” in parts of Belfast, said Angila Chada from Springboar­d, a group working with unemployed Protestant and Catholic young people.

It’s not all bad news. Trade – mostly in the agricultur­al and food sectors – has doubled in the last 20 years and Northern Ireland’s economy has steadily improved. Still, even in the best Brexit scenario, Aodhan Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium notes there will be “a substantia­l new administra­tive burden.”

More checks on goods crossing the border will mean more paperwork. That means delays, and delays create costs.

“There is very little wiggle room for business. These costs will get passed onto the consumer,” Connolly told reporters during a visit to Northern Ireland organized by the Irish government. “It’s literally death by a thousand cuts. The food prices will go up, the fuel will go up, the shirt on your back.”

Creating a “hard border” – something all parties want to avoid – would make things worse.

On average, commercial vehicles cross the border 13,000 times each day. In the future, around 3,000 loads a day carrying beef, lamb, pork, poultry, eggs or dairy products might have to be stopped. Each check would take about 10 minutes, said Seamus Leheny from Freight Transport Associatio­n.

“We would have paralysis here on the border,” he said.

Whether customs and other checks could be done away from the border – at airports, ports, factories or markets – remains to be seen.

In coming weeks, EU officials and the British and Irish government­s must come up with a policy which guarantees that goods can be controlled without stifling the economy. Above all, the Brexit Irish border plan must respect the identities of Northern Ireland’s people and not inflame tensions, as many fear it might.

 ??  ?? A section of one of the Northern Ireland “peace walls” in Cupar Way, Belfast.
A section of one of the Northern Ireland “peace walls” in Cupar Way, Belfast.
 ??  ?? An Irish flag flies over the graves in a cemetery in Carrickcar­nan next to the Jonesborou­gh Parish located in Northern Ireland.
An Irish flag flies over the graves in a cemetery in Carrickcar­nan next to the Jonesborou­gh Parish located in Northern Ireland.

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