Image: Guiseppe Milo/Flickr.
Earlier this year, the wording in a Home Office recruitment campaign sparked a small controversy. As part of a drive to recruit an additional 1000 border force officers post-Brexit, the 21 jobs advertised in Belfast were only open to those with a British passport – “due to the sensitive nature of the work, require special allegiance to the Crown”.
In the north of Ireland, a painstakingly-crafted peace agreement allows citizens to identify as Irish, British or both – and are entitled to hold both or either passport. With less than half the population identifying primarily or solely as British, many would be excluded.
The ‘British only’ only aspect of the job adverts also echoed the decades of institutional discrimination that the Catholic minority had faced in terms of employment, where government ministers openly invited employers to discriminate.
The advert was quickly amended after being referred to the local equality commission, but it struck a larger point: preparations are underway for a border in Ireland.
Claire Hanna, the Brexit spokesperson for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) said: “Instead of putting out job advertisements, the British Government should take some serious time to spell out clearly what form of Border they anticipate these employees to be guarding.”
A troubled history
If Ireland was mentioned at all during the Brexit campaign, it was to reassure people that a campaign underlined by a ‘take back control of our borders’ narrative would somehow have no impact on the UK’s only land border with the EU.
Once the referendum dust had settled and Theresa May was Prime Minister, she was initially at pains to stress that Brexit would not herald a return to the ‘borders of the past’.
Following the anti-colonial struggle and subsequent civil war, Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s. This saw the creation of a new 500km international border drawn between the north-east and the rest of the island. The border was a point of contention for most of the following decades, and during the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles it was home to patrols, and checkpoints, and saw harassment, violence and death.
Twenty years after the 1998 Good Friday agreement, tens of thousands of people pass the border each day, most with little indication of when exactly they had crossed.
Quietly strengthening the border
To put it mildly, UK-EU negations since the referendum have not gone smoothly. As the March 2019 Brexit deadline looms, a ‘no deal’ scenario looks increasingly likely – and with it come worrying implications for the border. While the prevailing narrative is that the UK government is famously ill-prepared, actions and statements throughout this year show how a border is being prepared for.
The border jobs adverts mentioned above were not the first such controversy. In late 2017 the Home Office announced a 300 new ‘mobile patrol’ border force officers for a range of locations including Belfast, but would not disclose how many would be stationed in the north.
This summer the chief of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) announced he would be looking for 400 new officers for post-Brexit border security issues. On the other side of the border, the Gardaí called for extra funding and machine guns for border patrols (the Gardaí are traditionally unarmed).
The PSNI chief has said that any instillations would become targets for dissident republicans, yet in preparation for Brexit the police have halted the sale of three disused police stations along the border.
Most worrying is an anti-terror bill is currently passing through Westminster, due to be law by Christmas. The Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill contains provisions that will grant powers to police and other officials to stop, search and detain anyone found within one mile of the North-South border. Further, police don’t need to show any reasonable suspicion. The act also explicitly names two train stations (the first stops on the cross-border rail service) which are several miles in from the border yet fall under these powers.
The fear that the powers will be used if granted are legitimate. At least as far back as 2009 checks have been imposed on those travelling between those travel from the North to Britain – without any statutory basis. A similar existing piece of anti-terror legislation to the one proposed was used 12,479 times in a recent three-year period (2014-2016). Despite this high number, there was not one case of someone being held on terror-related grounds. Rather, some were then handed over to immigration officials – thereby using emergency anti-terror laws to side-step the lack of legislated immigration checks. A leading human rights charity has warned of the current and future risk of racial profiling.
Even away from the borders, there is precedent. The North has the most disproportionate use of stop and search by the police – police there use their stop and search powers three times more than those in England and Wales. But in the North those searches are also three times less likely to lead to any further action.
On the ground
Support for Brexit is low in the North, and even lower for any kind of border. A recent survey from Queens University Belfast found that 60% of people would support protests against any north-south checks. When the figures are broken down, they are even starker: 36% of Sinn Féin voters would support blocking traffic, and one in 10 would support protests that attacked any new border installations or infrastructure.
In the referendum, 55.8% of people voted to remain, with the issue of the border looming large (polling now puts support for ‘remain’ in the North at 69%). When this 55.8% is broken down geographically, it is even more stark. Of those constituencies that border the Irish republic, all voted remain – generally with margins of 60 – 70%. This map can almost be neatly overlapped with where Brexit-supporting DUP and anti-Brexit Sinn Féin hold their seats, and where areas have a higher catholic than protestant population.
Yet regardless of these divisions, there is substantial support from both communities “for the type of UK exit that would largely eliminate the need for any border.” The Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a leading human rights organisation based in Belfast, has said that any potential border could be a “threat to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement”:
“Any move towards a border that is controlled in any way, by fixed checkpoints, electronic surveillance or in-country spot checks, will not only cause economic and social inconvenience but also accentuate the distinction between jurisdictions which was becoming usefully blurred.”
The situation in North is changing and unstable. In the 2016 assembly elections, unionists lost their majority for the first time in the state’s 90 year history. In January 2017, the Assembly collapsed, and this week marks 589 days of political stalemate, beating Belgium’s world record as the longest time without a government.
Post-peace agreement, support for a united Ireland has remained a minority viewpoint – even in Catholic communities. Yet now many say Brexit and the threat of a border increases the desirability of reunification – and with it, EU membership. The continued denial of access to abortion, marriage equality, and Irish language rights – all now available in the south – also plays a role.
A recent poll found that 60% of voters in the North think that Brexit makes the break-up of the UK more likely. While issues of the border rank high for people in the North, people in the North rank low for voters in Britain. Polling of Leave voters revealed that they “would rather lose Northern Ireland than give up the benefits of Brexit”. Voters as a whole put preventing a hard border at the bottom of their priorities for the Brexit negotiations.
As the government laid out their plans for a no-deal Brexit, new Brexit Secretary Dominic Rabb gave few commitments other than to say “We wouldn’t return to any sort of hard border”. Yet there is no clarity on how that will be avoided.
The ‘no deal’ alternatives to border checks are no less troubling. CAJ warns that the North could become ‘one big border’, with stepped-up immigration raids and a hyper-intensified version of the ‘hostile environment’.
When a video emerged last week of arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that we should have Troubles-era ‘inspections’ of people crossing the border, it provoked ire and condemnation from all quarters. Yet while it may be true that we will not exactly return to ‘the borders of the past’, the borders of the future are becoming increasingly likely.
This article is cross-posted with kind permission from Red Pepper