Brexit and the Irish Border: Professor Tara Keenan

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Professor Tara Keenan at John Cabot University

Professor Tara Keenan at John Cabot University

The social and economic implications of Brexit, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, could potentially be far-reaching and long-lasting.

The Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted JCU English professor Tara Keenan for a lecture on April 9 on Brexit and the possible creation of a hard border in Ireland. Professor Keenan earned a Ph.D. from Trinity College Dublin for her research on women in politics in Ireland and Europe. Her book, Irish Women and Street Politics, was published by Irish Academic Press in 2010.

A referendum was held in 2016 to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union and “Leave” won by 51.9% to 48.1%. But the withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and UK has so far been rejected three times by UK MPs.

In her opening remarks, Professor Keenan discussed how the Irish border differs from others in Europe. Unlike those of other European countries, the border dividing the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland is still in dispute. Brexit could create a hard border between the statelet and the Republic, similar to that which exists between Norway and Sweden. Prof. Keenan explained that a hard border would necessitate the building of large physical structures, as well as security and customs personnel for each side. As of now, one could cross the border several times in a five-minute drive, but after Brexit, drivers would go through customs and possible passport checks at each checkpoint. If the U.K. fails to secure a deal, then the E.U. will have to begin construction of nearly three hundred border checkpoints.

The creation of a hard border would not only affect everyday drivers, but commercial vehicles, and consequently, the transport of goods and services, as having to cross the hard border would force businesses to pay higher customs duties. Supply chains often run from the north and south sides of the island and would be interrupted by the creation of a harder border. Currently, 35% of Northern Ireland’s imports go to the Republic of Ireland. If Brexit happens with no deal, these imports will suffer high tariffs from both the E.U. and Northern Ireland resulting in prices skyrocketing.

Not only would the hard border result in negative economic repercussions for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but it would also inevitably result in some forms of armed activity, whether from loyalists or republicans. Brexit has called attention to this border for the first time in several years, and there are fears that Ireland may return to the days of car bombings, cross-border sniping, and even dumping dead bodies on border lines if a hard border is reinstated. The checkpoints and the personnel guarding the checkpoints have faced consistent attacks by various Irish Republican groups seeking to resist the British presence in Ireland. In the past, some checkpoints had to be replaced several times, with one needing to be replaced twelve times in just two months. Inevitably, instituting a hard border would lead to an uptick in organized crime as well.

The uncertainty of the Brexit situation has forced all involved parties to wander, in Keenan’s words, into “uncharted and unchartered territories.” The uncertainty of Ireland’s future is already affecting the country’s economy, putting small-scale farmers and manufacturers of animal products, dairy, and meats, especially at risk. To conclude, Keenan emphasized that leaving the E.U. would be harmful to the United Kingdom, saying “Europe is Britain’s to lose right now, but it’s not over yet.”

On the effectiveness of referenda as tools of democracies for accountability in politics, Keenan suggested that referenda rarely undergo proper research or debates, resulting in letting the loudest or most funded groups win, at the expense of minority groups, who are often left unprotected and under-represented.

A member of the audience asked about the definition of a ‘backstop’ and its relevance to discussions about Brexit in Ireland. Keenan explained the backstop as a sort of insurance policy in the case of a no-deal Brexit, one that would tie the U.K. to the E.U. inevitably via customs agreements. Many supporters of Brexit view the backstop as problematic, because it still leaves the nation with connections to the E.U., as opposed to the clean break they desire.

Going forward, Keenan predicted that the Brexit deal will endure a long extension. Both the E.U. and the U.K. eventually would have to acknowledge that Northern Ireland is a particular case, requiring a different approach compared to the one adopted by the U.K. The E.U. is not willing to chip away at the progress that has been achieved on the Northern Irish border.

Watch the video of the event on JCUTV: “Brexit and the Irish Border

(Hannah Hein, Daniel Kyei Brobbey, Megan Gower)