Brexiteers bury heads in sand over cost to NI

Brexiteers bury heads in sand over cost to NI
Former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Hain. Photo Photocall Ireland! 

By Peter Hain (former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2005-2007)

While Brexiteers bury their heads in the sand over the consequences of leaving for the island of Ireland, important voices insist these could be very serious.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow last week to urge both half a million- plus Irish people in Britain, and voters in Northern Ireland, to support Remain.

John Major and Tony Blair in their joint appearance in Belfast recently were trenchant about the dangers to Irish stability and the peace process if we left the European Union – and as architects of the peace process, they should know.

Sinn Féin this week demanded a new referendum in Northern Ireland on unification – which, while unsurprising from its standpoint, would undoubtedly be divisive and destabilising after nine years of government power-sharing between bitter old enemies.

Remember that republicans signed up to the Good Friday Agreement because it held the promise of future reunification of Ireland, albeit by the ballot box rather than the bullet and the bomb. And they have dangerous if marginalised dissidents yapping at their heels and planning terrorist attacks.

The Settlement we secured in 2007 reinforced the Good Friday cross-border institutions which are very important to both republicans and nationalists. What exactly would happen to these?

But the elephant in the room is that Brexit means the two parts of Ireland would be on opposite sides of an EU border for the very first time in history, because the United Kingdom and the Republic entered together in 1973.

Leave advocates – including the Democratic Unionist party – are simply in denial about the consequences. They ask, ‘Why would the common travel area, which has existed since the early 1920s, be threatened when it even survived “the Troubles”?’ The answer is very clear.

First, there were tough security checks and border controls between north and south during the Troubles, which, under the peace process, have been dismantled. The border today is invisible, with substantial cross-movement and increasing business, cultural and economic links. If we left the EU, that same border would be the only land one between the UK and the EU.

It is unthinkable in today’s world of jihadi terrorism, mass migration and desperate refugees, that it would not have to be made secure. Indeed, given the Leave campaign’s pledges for even more stringent border controls, how could they with any credibility allow the current open crossing to survive as a back door into the UK?

Border controls and customs checks are surely inevitable, with a negative impact upon citizens and trade, north and south. It is hard to envisage how the common travel area between the Republic and the UK could remain. The EU might require Ireland to join Schengen. Ports and airports would certainly require new security controls on both sides of the Irish sea.

Compared with the last Labour government, the Tories have not engaged as intimately as they should have done in Irish matters, north or south. Does anyone imagine a Little Englander post-Brexit government would do better?

That brings us to the general British-Irish relationship, which has gradually become as close as it could ever be after centuries of bitterness, conflict and mutual suspicion – with royal visits, previously unthinkable, now the norm.

Brexit would not simply isolate Britain from the rest of the world, but from Ireland as well.

One other point: EU funding and investment has underpinned the peace process. Over £2bn will have gone to Northern Ireland in the six years to 2020. That will simply disappear, and who really believes the Tory right will replace it any more than it will the public spending on the NHS and so on cut by the economic shock of Brexit?

When these facts are pointed out to Brexiteers, they scream ‘project fear’. Actually they are project reality – a potentially grim reality for anyone concerned about the future of both halves of the island of Ireland.

• Peter Hain was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 and served in Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s cabinets as Northern Ireland Secretary, Welsh Secretary, Work and Pensions Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons. He tweets @PeterHain


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