Ireland: Brexit and the Border

As Brexit talks stumble on the intractable backstop to the British border in Ireland, Bernie Mc Adam calls on British socialists to fight for the only internationalist response, abolish the border altogether!

When Boris Johnson compared the border in Ireland with the boundaries of London’s traffic congestion charge zone last year, it showed a streak of wilful ignorance and contempt that the Irish have come to expect from British politicians. More recently his weirdo mate Rees-Mogg casually suggests the border should have ‘inspections, just like during the Troubles’ and that it was a ‘phantom’ problem. These remarks are no doubt part of a growing narrative that Brexiteers will want to paint of the conniving Irish and their ‘backstop’ obsession.

But the so called ‘Irish border’ is in fact a problem the British gave to Ireland. It is a British border. It never had any democratic legitimacy from the will of the Irish people as a whole. It resulted from a Treaty in 1921 which brought Ireland’s War of Independence to an end and started a civil war. The ‘agreement’ fell far short of an independent 32 county Republic, which the results of the 1918 General Election overwhelmingly signified. The resulting colonial ‘Northern Ireland’ and the Irish Free State with its dominion status were both reactionary and confessional states beholden to the British Empire.

The border or partition disrupted and stunted the economic life of the island as a whole. Communities in the border areas had families and farms split up and they remain some of the most impoverished parts of Ireland. The border has always been an undemocratic affront to the people of Ireland. It sustained a vicious anti Irish state in the north that reduced Catholic citizens to second class status resulting in a thirty year war of resistance to the sectarian state backed up by British military occupation and terror.

No British border in Ireland

Since the Good Friday Agreement, with the Unionist veto over a united Ireland assured, British and Irish capitalism, with the aid of the EU, has ensured an ‘invisible’ border for the purposes of smooth and profitable business. Brexit will disrupt this frictionless trade big time but then Brexit was not conceived with Ireland in mind let alone as a model for the industrial growth of Ireland.

The fact remains that membership of the EU has demonstrated how futile a border is on the island of Ireland. It follows from this that the threat of Brexit has quite unintentionally put the border right back into Irish politics with a vengeance! It is ironic that this renewed interest in a united Ireland was not what the rabid pro Brexiteers of the DUP and their Tory/UKIP pals expected when propelling their Brexit campaign.

No doubt the DUP will use the Brexit crisis to whip their followers into line by raising the bogey of a united Ireland, playing the Orange card yet again. Their hypocrisy knows no bounds as they still make out they are against a hard border. Ireland’s Lexiteer groups like People before Profit also rant against a Tory hard border, but why vote for Brexit in the first place then? There was no other option, like a soft border, on the ballot paper.

 So why is Brexit bad for Ireland?

The Irish government’s own impact assessment suggests the Irish economy’s GDP will be 4.3% worse off in a free trade deal and 7% worse off in a no deal scenario. Exports would be hit by 4.5% and imports by 4.8%. No deal would hit exports by 7.7% and imports by 8.2%. There would also be a significant lowering of real wages in both scenarios.

This comes as no surprise given that the UK is southern Ireland’s biggest EU trading partner. The imposition of tariffs and customs posts post Brexit will not enhance trade but profoundly damage it. The fall in sterling as a result of Brexit fears is already hurting Irish exports to the UK as it makes it more expensive to buy Irish goods.

The damage to the northern economy cannot be underestimated either, despite DUP heads in the sand. In 2016, 30% of the north’s exports went to the south and manufacturing employment is skewed towards sectors that have greater trade with the EU. Despite this, DUP Sammy Wilson claims that the Irish backstop is a ‘con-trick’ and that ‘farmers and businesses should be totally relaxed about a no deal Brexit’. Suffice to say farmers and businesses are not relaxed and neither are the majority of working class people in the north who voted to remain, largely out of concern for their jobs and standard of living. 

It is totally understandable why the Irish government and the vast majority of Irish people are against the UK leaving and in demanding a backstop if Brexit materialises. The backstop contained in the Withdrawal Agreement is meant to ensure continuing UK membership of the Customs Union and conformity to some single market rules for Northern Ireland until the terms of a new deal are completed. 

However, no Brexit deal, as the above impact assessment shows, will be favourable to Ireland. The backstop is merely a temporary arrangement until a distant deal of some unspecified nature is done. The backstop may well retain a common Customs Union but there cannot be frictionless trade without a single market. In fact there would be extensive product standard checks at the border especially with agri-food products, a major element in Ireland’s border trade. In short Brexit in any form will hit trade and jobs in Ireland as a whole. The choice is quite literally between a hard border and staying in the EU.

Will Jeremy Corbyn be good for Ireland?

Jeremy, no less than the late Tony Benn, has favoured a united Ireland. Good, as far as that goes. But so long as he promotes the idea of a softer Brexit scenario, he fails to acknowledge the fact that the majority of people in Ireland including the North are in favour of remaining in the EU. The logic of Jeremy’s position is that he too would take the North out of the EU against the wishes of the majority, thus making his ‘united Ireland’ position purely vacuous and rhetorical.

Jeremy refuses to challenge the Unionists on a borderless Ireland. Incredibly he praised DUP leader Arlene Foster for rejecting the backstop in May’s deal for ‘very good and sensible reasons’. Like putting a border down the Irish Sea no doubt! But yet his ‘soft’ Brexit scenario of staying in the Customs Union would also require a backstop, as he still favours pulling out of the single market. May’s deal certainly needed rejecting but because it was another variation on Brexit, not because the DUP feared a border going down the Irish Sea.

How Jeremy thinks we can retain all the advantages of the single market without being in it is a bit of wishful thinking. The EU is perfectly clear on this, there can be no single market access without freedom of movement and he has already disgracefully ruled this out, pandering to the right wing anti immigrant lobby.

Last summer he rejected a border going down the Irish Sea as proposed by the EU. How this squares with his support for a united Ireland is a mystery until we remember that the Labour Party even under Neil Kinnock with his Ireland spokesperson Kevin McNamara were also in favour of unity at some distant point in the future when the Unionists might consent. Waiting for that scenario really is kicking the can down the road!

The only consistent internationalist and democratic demand by British socialists must be for the right of the Irish people as a whole to determine the future of the north and its border. Labour should oppose the veto of a Unionist reactionary bloc and give notice of its intention to promote a united Ireland. Britain has no right to be in Ireland, it must withdraw immediately and unconditionally. It follows that Irish membership of the EU should also be democratically decided by the Irish people as a whole with no interference from the UK be it a Tory or a Labour government.


Red Flag is a socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement, militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and internationalist.

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