Instead of a hard border, there should be a united Ireland

Brexit represents a historic crossroads for our island.

I sit in the harsh light of the television, watching the mounds of dried wooden pallets and defaced tricolours of the Twelfth on across my screen. It strikes me like a match against the hard edge of a matchbox: now, more than ever, the British government is playing with fire. Calls for a frictionless, seamless border dividing Ireland echo from European governments. But, in the vacuum of political airs and graces, these calls do not translate to reality.

An exit from the customs union is still proposed for Britain and for Northern Ireland, another special status. But in reality, no matter how much we want it to, it will never work. The customs union allows goods, once they have met all requirements of the EU, to move freely between member states thereafter. However, should Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, establish trade deals with non-EU members, there is a fear that imported goods would start to seep into the EU via the border.

So there is then the potential for goods that have not been exposed to the same regulations entering the EU market. Even if there are rigorous checks imposed, even if there is some sort of online registration system implemented to avoid regular checks, something will always be required at the border for goods that have not been registered. For businesses this means delays and more paperwork than it’s worth.  

Furthermore, a border, be it hard or soft, means unemployment. It means that the places initially proposed for 385 cancer patients crossing it are no longer secure, that farms and homes are divided. It means people who belng nowhere. For those who work on the other side, the delays of a daily crossing could make cross-border employment unfeasible.

The impact on agriculture would be catastrophic. Farms that span both sides of the border would be subject to both EU directives and British agricultural laws which are unlikely to be compatible. According to BBC reporting on local fears surrounding the prospect of a hard border, each week over 5000 sheep from Northern Ireland are sent to factories in the South. The implications cross-border agribusiness would have for food safety would make farming and distribution so complex that it would have devastating effects on farmers’ livelihoods.

Moreover, if World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs were enforced at the harshest level, cross-border agribusiness would quickly become futile. For farmers who straddle the border and depend so much on the EU single farm payment, a border could leave them cut-off with broken trade links and no EU funding. Those who have only ever worked in agriculture and who lack the skills to work in any other industry would be forced to continue in an impossible environment. Farmers, in short, are forced into poverty.  

A border spells disaster for those  in the South, too. 40% of southern chicken is processed in Northern Ireland. Southern wheat is also processed in the North. Even Guinness travels over the border to be packaged before being exported from the South.

The politicians that take to podiums once election time looms condemn the North as an economic burden. According to the British Treasury, the cost of maintaining Northern Ireland is £18.3 billion. But, time and time again, the analysis of what this figure consists of is overlooked.

£2.9 billion (€3.30 bn) of it is spent on “Bank of England debt, defence, etc”  and £1.1 billion (€1.25 bn) on the depreciation of British capital stock. Meanwhile, revenue generated in the North is estimated at £15.6 billion (€17.7 bn).  This breaks the real cost down to approximately £2.7 billion and that excludes the multinationals that generate revenue in Northern Ireland but book their tax in London. Furthermore, this figure excludes the economic benefits of trade in a United Ireland under a single currency, extended fishing rights, fewer administrative costs and more.  

Apart from the economics, the Unionists in Northern Ireland remain the elephant in the room, in 10 Downing Street, if you will. They must not be left behind. As it stands, many unionists in Northern Ireland are living in a state that is not representative of what they want. LGBT unionists are oppressed; unionists are being forced to cut ties with the EU, even though only one unionist party supported this action; and unionist farmers and businesses are seeing their industries plunged into economic chaos.

And yes, there are those unionists who don’t feel Northern Irish, but British in every sense. But there are also those in Ireland who feel Polish or Nigerian or American in every sense. A United Ireland does not mean the suppression of the cultures of the people it hosts. Rather, it means embracing the colourful and varied nature of this island.

By establishing a United Ireland we would be establishing a state that is inclusive of all its citizens, because as we stand now, divided, we are missing opportunities for our island to reach its full potential. Admittedly, it is a rocky road that lies ahead. It will take time and tolerance. But, it will mean a united island; an island better for all its citizens, North and South.

Stormont is left idle. Northern Ireland balances on the edge of a snap election. And after? More talks. Talks that lead to elections, elections that lead to talks. And then one day, someone will say time is up. And it will be time to go back. They’ll build small huts to house uniforms. British customs on one side, Irish on the other. Just like the good old days.

But we have the opportunity to stop ourselves falling back in time. We have the opportunity to take a step towards the future we dreamed of so many years ago. We cannot let ourselves be bought and sold. All change is frightening. But we cannot be frightened of what the people are voting for, of what people are working towards, of equality.

As a new wave of interest washes in, with its eyes on us and on the border, I dare you to disappoint the spectators. Don’t give them a show; give them equality. Give them a state you’re proud of. Give them a United Ireland.

Illustration: Jenny Corcoran (Art editor)