The border and Brexit, a worry for Northern Irish students in Trinity

As the deadline for Brexit fast approaches, Trinity News looks at how students that regularly cross the Irish border are feeling about the challenges the future may hold for them

Following the 2017 British snap election, Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, needed the support of ten MPs to obtain a majority in the House of Commons. The Tories entered into a confidence-and-supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Last December, an agreement to ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland was almost made between Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EU Commission. However, at the eleventh hour, Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, intervened. Foster refused to support any deal that divided Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. “We have to ensure that there is no border down the Irish Sea”, said Foster. “We are not going to allow the United Kingdom to be broken up by Brussels or by anyone else.”

At present, Theresa May could be likened to a child’s doll. Being tugged and pulled in different political directions: her own party, along with Labour, the DUP, and Jean-Claude Juncker, each grabbing a separate limb. Despite concerns expressed by both the EU and Leo Varadkar over the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP have described their red line as “blood red”.

On November 14, May announced that a draft Brexit deal had been reached and approved by her cabinet. The draft deal aims to ensure that there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland. However, May requires the support of 320 MPs for the deal to pass through the House of Commons. The draft proposal has been viciously attacked by members of the Conservative Party, Labour Party, and the DUP. At the time of writing, eight government ministers have resigned and 23 MPs have submitted letters requesting a vote of no confidence. Discussion of a hard border remains a very serious threat.

In an interview with Trinity News, John Manley, Political Correspondent for the Irish News, commented on the impact Brexit will have on the border: “We have no idea what a hard border would look like and there are several different scenarios that could transpire. Over 30,000 people travel across the border every day.”

“This may result in political unrest, instability, and dissatisfaction.”

Norbrook, a pharmaceutical company based in Newry, Northern Ireland, employs 1,700 workers. Many of these workers live in the Republic of Ireland and travel across the border every day. “The logistical inconvenience of a hard border will greatly unsettle these workers”, says Manley. “If it becomes such an inconvenience, where people have to queue and carry additional documents, this will clearly limit the potential for cross border employment. It would also have a negative impact on social relations, which are intertwined with economic relations”. Manley added: “This may result in political unrest, instability, and dissatisfaction.”

Peter Ruddell, a fourth year BESS student told Trinity News: “A hard border would mean crossing an international border just to travel home, this presents worrying questions.” He explained the impact this would have on transport services across the border: “There will likely be fewer services and I doubt buses will continue to depart from Belfast every hour. Due to checks on the border, bus companies like Ulster Bus will no longer be able to cross as freely. With delays and the inevitable price increases, I won’t be able to travel home as often I do.” A second year Science student, Naoise Quinlivan, expressed similar concerns. Quinlivan often brings food from home to cope with living costs here in Dublin, but he fears that “this will almost be impossible in the event of a hard border with customs checks. It will ultimately add to financial stress, which is not ideal coming up to exams”.

With citizens of Northern Ireland having the choice of British, Irish, or dual citizenship, not everyone has an Irish passport. This factor could lead to further complications in the event of a hard border being established. By crossing the border and entering the Republic of Ireland, drivers will be entering the EU. Will there be a distinction between those travelling with an Irish EU passport and those with a British non-EU passport? Ruddell explained: “I only have a British passport at the minute and due to the uncertainty surrounding the situation I have applied for an Irish one.”

“Reinstating checkpoints would be regarded by many as a regrettable step back, and a major threat to peace achieved in Northern Ireland.”

A second year Dentistry student from Belfast, Helen Francis, told Trinity News that she travels home every fortnight to look after her grandmother. Helen expressed concern that “having to be stopped at the border every second Friday, just to go home, almost feels like I would be living as my parents did during the Troubles”. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, British military watchtowers and border checkpoints were removed. Reinstating checkpoints would be regarded by many as a regrettable step back, and a major threat to peace achieved in Northern Ireland.

The border itself is 499km long, with 275 crossing points. The length and accessibility meant that during the height of the Troubles in the 1970s, the British Army struggled to maintain a hard border. They resorted to tactics such as cratering and placing spikes on unapproved roads, which resulted in checkpoints becoming targets of paramilitary organisations, leading to many deaths. It is not inconceivable that a hard border could lead to bombing of physical infrastructure and a rise in sectarian violence.

“In the event of a hard border, travelling to College from the north might not just become inconvenient, long, and expensive for students.”

President Michael D. Higgins has expressed his concerns on the matter, saying “when there was a hard border in place, it encouraged an extraordinary level of violence and killings. I agree with the Taoiseach…it is a risk that we should not take”. In the event of a hard border, travelling to College from the north might not just become inconvenient, long, and expensive for students. It could also become fatally dangerous.

Trinity recently vocalised concerns over Brexit in an open letter to The Financial Times, noting that applications from Northern students have decreased by 20% this year. In 2014, Trinity introduced a feasibility study for students from Northern Ireland which held three places on every course for students completing three A-levels, incentivising Northern Irish applications. A hard border could lead to further reductions in applications, undermining the continued success of the feasibility study.

The impact that a hard border would have on workers and students should not be overlooked. Notwithstanding the possible return of violence and a negative impact on the economy, people who work or study on both sides of the border will face serious difficulties with regards to travel. This inconvenience alone may be enough to inhibit college applications from students in the north, and the threat of danger is likely to galvanise this. At the very worst, Brexit may call into question whether students currently studying in Trinity from Northern Ireland can safely continue their degrees.