Ireland First?

Fig 1. Border Cartoon Ian Knox Irish News


Getting the Brexiteers to take the Irish border seriously has been an uphill struggle. For a Dubliner it was obvious that this would be one of the most, if not the most difficult issue, post Brexit. In a heated Halley-Tontine Society in Dublin (October 2016) it was agreed that the most likely solution despite intense Unionist opposition would be border in the Irish Sea. I still think this is most likely even if causes the collapse of the May government.

Two former PMs Blair and Major warned pre-referendum that the Irish Border would be a significant issue.  The Irish Government also did what it could to warn about the problems and the efforts of Cameron, who did actually seem to understand the complexity (in a large part due to  Matthew O’Toole who was Cameron’s chief press officer), were ineffectual. When Frances O’Grady tried to raise the issue in the final Brexit debate she was largely ignored and indeed largely ignored ever since. Despite Ian Knox’s amusing cartoon as depicted in Fig. 1, I suspect until a few days ago at least the Brexiteers would have been sleeping soundly in their beds.

In contract to the complete lack of serious engagement by the UK, the Irish Government has been extremely successful in raising the profile of the border with the EU26, leading to para 49 of the 8th Dec phase 1 progress document and  culminating with an announcement a few days ago by the  Ireland First policy by Donald Tusk:

“As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations. If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.”

The sea border is of course a backstop; the third of three options. My preference would be the first option, which is an overall trade deal which gives the UK open borders with the the EU as a whole. The 2nd option using Si-Fi technological solutions has been widely ridiculed bit still a favorite blagging tact of the Brexiteers and the DUP in the hope that the Irish and EU will agree to kick the can down the road until it is too late to do anything about it.

In a widely praised set of four slides produced by Dr Katy Hayward the effect of various options are examined. Here we present the forth of the slides. The full set is available at the Queen’s University of Belfast policy unit, QPOL.  Katy is in the process of producing V3 of the slides so it is worth checking the Queen University QPOL Unit for updates.

Fig. 2 Effect of various scenarios on the NI/GB, NI/EI and GB/rEU border from Katy Hayward.


Fig. 2 highlights the difficulty of maintaining the open border and an indication of the vast amount of work that needs to be done to make option 3 workable.

The Heart of Nationalism

David Davis, shortly after taking up his post as Brexit Secretary, famously said “one of our really challenging issues . . . will be the internal border we have with southern Ireland” and only a week or two ago Boris Johnson compared the Irish border to traveling between Camden and Westminster. Fintan O’ Toole in the Irish Times writes “Usefully, Brexit has reminded us of that stratum of English political life in which it is still perfectly okay – indeed compulsory – to treat Ireland with an arrogance undiminished by absolute ignorance.” 

I’m sure this is true but possibly runs deeper. Essentially the Irish have a Westphalian view of sovereignty. Each state, no matter how large or small, has equal rights to sovereignty. We do not see England as having more rights  simply because it has a larger population and consider the Irish  as an equal, deserving of respect. We are very comfortable with our nationalism, despite the difficulties it causes in Northern Ireland. English nationalism is a far more complex beast and still very entangled in Imperial British nationalism and the past “glories of empire”. This has been analysed at length in the Lure of Greatness by Anthony Bartnett. At the more extreme end there is a belief that the English are genetically superior to everyone else and have a God given right to rule. This view is also held by some of the more extreme Unionists in Northern Ireland (the DUP). Somehow the Irish (and the Scots to the English but the not the DUP) are considered lesser beings, not as inferior as proper foreigners such as the French but not quite English nonetheless. Steve Bullock in the 3rd of the CakeWatch podcasts neatly summarised by stating “Well they are just Paddies and Micks so they don’t matter.”

More commonly this is manifested in a totally unconscious feeling of superiority and entitlement. There is a very strange attitude towards Ireland a combination of willful ignorance and a disbelief that the country could ever amount to anything without the oversight of the English. The lack of knowledge most English people have of Ireland (both North and South) is explored in this excellent podcast (a bit out of date but still very relevant): The Irish Passport – The Knowledge Gap.


Two Polls

It is worth looking at the state after the Brexit referendum and the current state of play in term of opinion polls. In Northern Ireland there are two major unionist parties, the UUP and DUP and two main nationalist ones, the SDLP and SF. The other significant party is Alliance which draws support from both communities and was historically unionist leaning, but the opposite is supposedly now the case. Fig. 3 shows the result by constituency

Fig. 3. Results of NI EU referendum by Constituency


The NI result was far more conclusive than the UK result,  but of course in the opposite direction. The data have been extensively analysed but where middle class and degree educated people on both sides of the divide voted Remain, Protestant working class people voted leave whereas the Catholic working class voted Remain. A few things are directly obvious from Fig 3.

  • No border constituency voted for Brexit.  (Foyle which contains Derry has the highest remain percentage in the UK  – 2nd only to Gibraltar).
  • Belfast and North Down voted Remain. (North Down is very strongly middle class Protestant).
  • The DUP heartland voted leave.

More up to date is the Lucid Talk February opinion poll as is shown in Fig. 4. Polls from multiple sources indicate that younger voters are predominantly nationalist, older ones unionists and this trend shows no sign of reversing.

Fig. 4 NI Voting Intentions over and under 45


The demographic difference between under an over 45s again seems to stress that NI is on borrowed time, with SF having a c 10% lead over the DUP in the younger cohort but with an  almost  perfect mirror image in the older cohort, with the DUP being c 10% ahead. It again reinforces the view that NI is past its sell by date. The nationalists are quite happy with a delayed GFA border referendum as they know that for every year that passes the likelihood of victory grows, unless against all the odds Brexit is a triumph. The DUP  rather than extolling the virtues of Brexit for Northern Ireland seem increasingly drawn towards making doom-laden predictions of the effect of Brexit on the Southern Irish economy, much to the amusement of those in the South, particularly as their figures seem to be about 50 years out of date, but lapped up by the BBC.

Surf or Turf?

I have discussed the impossibility of a land border in Ireland previously but from a purely economic point of view  for the Republic and for Northern Ireland, trade with Britain is more important than trade across the Irish Border. There was in fact a sea border between Northern Ireland and Britain between 1939 and 1952. Given the intransigence of the DUP on this issue it may surprise some that  polling actual people in NI paints a very different picture.


Our new survey sheds light on the views of the public. In September, we asked a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population to react to the statement that: ‘People should be prepared to accept border controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, if this is agreed in the Brexit negotiations between the Government and the EU’.

Overall, 49% agreed with this, and 39% disagreed (with 12% neither agreeing or disagreeing). But, perhaps surprisingly, willingness to accept such controls was stronger among Leave voters (64% agreed), supporters of unionist parties (59%) and Protestants (54%).

The DUP is however adamantly against a sea border as they forever pursue there ultra pure no-surrender circle the wagons strain of extreme Unionism.

Here is analysis by Kevin Breslin on the advantages and disadvantages of a land/sea border.

East-West … Economic/Stuff problems …

  • Delays.
  • Queues.
  • Contingencies.
  • Loss of Ease of Doing Business.
  • Out of sight taxation and red tape changes.
  • ROI becomes continental as GB becomes insular, and NI is stuck in between.

North-South … Political/People problems …

  • Physically present infrastructure on people’s doorsteps.
  • Invasive Police and Customs Measures.
  • Disjointed policing between PSNI, GS and NCA.
  • New regulations for intimately linked supply chains.
  • New charges for intimately linked supply chains.
  • New paperwork for intimately linked supply chains.
  • Visible taxation and red tape changes.
  • “Borderism” (not sure what Kevin means here).
  • Smuggling.
  • Strict control over animals due to divergent regulations.

Kevin’s conclusion:
People are much more important than stuff, the Irish border question is far more important than the inter-island or either island’s continental links. The biggest political risk and threat to Ireland is the land border, not the loss of east west connections … to claim it is no big deal because greater bulk in goods move out of Dublin and Roslare is missing a massive point.

I think that is right but would add a regional argument in that the border region is one of the poorest areas in Ireland on either side of the border and the last place one would want to put additional shocks. The reasons for the comparative poverty of the border area has historically been partly the existence of the border in the first place. The border area has done much better since the GFA.

There is of course considerable regional variation in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. There is a capital city effect with Dublin and Belfast historically doing well. The Republic has however been making great strides in recently and has ambitious plans (Cork for example is richer than Dublin in GVA per employee) and Waterford, Limerick and Galway have improved massively over the past two decades and EI is much better than the UK in terms of regional disparity.  The west of NI (west of the river Bann) is very undeveloped, with only 3/54 railway stations and pretty much all of NI’s 60 miles of motorway being east of the Bann. The Protestant heartland has much better infrastructure than Catholic areas. There is deep suspicion that this is deliberate economic policy.

The UK Reaction

The UK reaction has been extraordinary. The draft legal text faithfully follows the 8th December political agreement as analysed here. PM May presumably with one eye looking over her shoulder  at the DUP has stated that she would “never” put her name to any Brexit treaty that divided Britain and Northern Ireland and the right wing UK press has been in overdrive. Why then did she agree to this in the 8th Dec? The fact that the UK have not bothered producing a legal text of their own is damning. What minimal reputation the UK Government has for honesty and integrity is rapidly disappearing. They come across as con-artists who will promise anything to get their way.


Battle lines are drawn. The UK will not be able to fudge the Irish Border issue much longer, despite ridiculous hyperbolic statements and sabre rattling. The UK Gov will as ever try to kick the can down the road. There are three possible outcomes:

  1. Brexit will collapse completely under the weight of its contradictions. Either a second referendum will be called or the Government will simply call the whole thing off.
  2. The UK will simply walk away with a no deal Brexit (WTO) .
  3. The UK will stay in some CU/SM arrangement which facilitates open borders.

My own preference is number 1 followed by number 3 but the right wing Brexiteers and their allies in the Mail, Express and Telegraph will do everything to push option 2.


  1. Marco Fante -

    A customs union is inevitable as it just saves so much trouble. Not merely on on this account but with regard to customs and logistics elsewhere in the UK.

    Labour has now conceded this and I suspect that the PM knows it as well which is why she has already made commitments to the EU with regard to the Irish border.

    The only people who don’t know it are the right-wing Brexiteers who really just can’t win on this issue. All the circumstances are against them.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      I do hope you are correct and rational minds will prevail. There is this constant lure however of fantastical trade deals with distant lands, which PM May seems to believe in. A customs union normally means common external trade agreements for the union and the inability to forge ones own trade deals.

      Your point re total lack of customs infrastructure in the UK both physical and in the form of working software systems is absolutely valid.

      I think leaving the EU has been a mistake, but the mistake has been compounded by government incompetence.

  2. Nile -

    Please don’t refer to the No-Deal option as ‘WTO’ – we would walk into a brick wall of WTO trade disputes that would have the effect of a global trade embargo against the UK.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I suspect you are right, but the Brexiteers are not reacting rationally and as predicted the right wing press is blaming the EU. I can’t see the DUP helping very much with clarity of thought.

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