Securing the Border- an Impossible Task

Yesterday the EU put into legal form the Phase 1 agreement between the EU and the UK. As David Allen Green (DAG) says, very little of this should come as a surprise.

I agree completely with DAG on this point. He has an excellent legal mind and his  Brexit by Timetable Parts 1, 2 and 3 in the FT are well worth reading. He was (still is?) a “Leaver” and his criticism of the UK is based on the ineptitude of the way the process has been handled by the UK, in total contrast to the EU. More of his thinking is in the FT Brexit: 10 observations on the draft withdrawal agreement.

There has been some wonderment as to why the UK government had not attempted to put the December phase 1 agreement into legal text as the UK has the capacity to turn political agreements to legal text very quickly. There are expert teams who work overnight sometimes to do exactly this.  Even with a very much hollowed out Civil Service this is of such prime importance that it could have been expedited very quickly. Therefore, the reason it has not been done must be political. As DAG observes:

“So to the third thing: those Brexit supporters who object to the contents of this draft should ask why the UK did not bother to prepare its own version. In both diplomatic and commercial negotiations, the party that produces the first draft invariably starts with and keeps the advantage until the deal is done. For Britain not to have provided its own document is nearly as negligent as sending the Article 50 notification without preparation in the first place. Imagine if the UK had prepared its own draft withdrawal agreement before sending the notification.”

Another remarkable thing is that throughout the entire Brexit process the professionalism of the EU and the chaotic and amateur nature of the UK has been evident. Observation five is:

“But the fifth thing is that this is not a draft out of nowhere. Most of it is merely the translation into formal legal prose of December’s joint report. That key document, in turn, followed an array of published position papers and negotiation documents. There is a certain neatness in how the draft ties together the strands. It is almost as if the EU knew what it was doing and working towards all along”.

The reaction of the British media has been extraordinary. The once great BBC more and more resembles the TASS news agency, and its reporting on the Irish border question resembles pro-Brexit brainwashing. The “report” on the Today programme this morning on the border issue was extraordinary. From Dublin it concentrated on Ray Basset of Policy Exchange  who is an outlier – one of the 10% in Ireland who support Brexit (and probably flew back to Dublin from his right wing UK based think-tank). Moving North, I had lost interest at that stage but in Belfast there was a pro Unionist blogger interviewed, possibly Jamie Bryson? Even by the recent abysmal standards of the BBC this was a new low.

It is worth however looking at the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland and the shifting sands of demographics which means major change is possible within the next few years. Unionists have never been so worried and Nationalists so hopeful. Brexit has proved a catalytic force for a United Ireland.

Geographical and Sectarian Divide in Northern Ireland

The Nationalists and Unionist have fundamentally different views on sovereignty. There is of course a spectrum.

The more extreme Unionists (Loyalists) see themselves as British and have a detestation for  Irish culture and language. As an illustration I would recommend a short article,  “We protestants fear Gaelic and we were raised to mock it” by Richard Irvine (who has now seen the error of his ways). There is a siege and a give not an inch mentality. There is  a love of symbols: the Union Jack, God Save The Queen, the Royal Family and a passion for marking territory through parading and bonfires. There are aspects of the DUP which are similar to UKIP, and indeed Tom Peck of the independent attended the last DUP conference and penned I went to the DUP Conference and what I found was disturbingly familiar – this is our new UKIP. One way to tell if you are in a Loyalist area is if you see Israeli flags flying. There are a number of loyalist Terrorist Groups, including the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), The Ulster Defense Association (UDA),  The Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), and Red Hand Commando (RHC).

The more extreme Nationalists (Republicans) see themselves as Irish and believe the Northern Ireland Statelet is totally illegitimate. They value Irish language and culture. They see themselves as second class citizens in their own country. They see themselves as the French might have during Nazi occupation. Whereas few would resort to Terrorism, low level civil disobedience and destruction of crown symbols if not actively encouraged is tolerated. They think Westminster should have no jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. They see themselves as being repressed by a tyrannical regime. One way to tell if you are in a Republican area is if you see Palestinian Flags flying. The main Republican terrorist organisation is the Provisional Irish Republican Army, PIRA (Commonly referred to in NI as the RA).

Currently there are 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, seven Sinn Féin (SF) MPs, and one independent Unionist (Lady Silvia Hermon), in Northern Ireland as of the 2017 General Election. Belfast is a Nationalist majority city but gerrymandered; the boundaries are such that W Belfast has a super-concentration of nationalists (2017 GE SF 27,107 votes, DUP 5,455). If voters were spread evenly three out of four Belfast seats could have been nationalist. Also, an electoral pact between SF and the SDLP would have given the Nationalists a seat in South Belfast (2017 GE DUP 13,299 votes, SDLP 11,303, SF 7,143). One very important factor is that all the border communities have a Sinn Féin MP – as illustrated in Fig.1. This is very important for implications of securing the border, which I will discuss later.

Figure 1. NI GE Result 2017. Red DUP, Green SF, Grey Ind Unionist.


Support for the Union

When Northern Ireland was set up in 1921 it was chosen as the largest area in which there would be a permanent protestant majority and even as recently as 1964 there was a clean sweep of Unionist seats. Consequently, fifty years ago the Union seemed absolutely secure:

  1. There was solid support for the Union in Westminster, particularly amongst the Tory party.
  2. NI was very prosperous and whereas it may not have been a major economic asset to the UK at least it was not a major drain on the exchequer.
  3. The RoI was an insular, cultural backwater. After independence the secularists lost out and De Velara’s vision of a Catholic rural Ireland with comely maidens dancing at the cross roads won out.
  4. The RoI was financially very poor, with low wages, lack of industrialisation and infrastructure.
  5. The inbuilt permanent Protestant/Unionist majority was holding strong.

Fifty years ago the electoral map was very different. As shown in Fig. 2 in the UK General Election 1964 for example  the Unionists for the last time had a clean sweep.

Fig 2. NI GE Results 1964. Unionist Clean Sweep.


Things are very different today

  1. The Labour Party, and particularly its leader Jeremy Corbyn, support a United Ireland and whereas the Tory party are officially agnostic it seems only about thirty or so actively support a United Ireland. (The current DUP pact prevents them from speaking openly).
  2. NI is getting comparatively poorer and poorer despite the fact that the UK treasury pumps about £5,500 per capita into NI ever year, costing the Treasury about £10bn per annum.
  3. The RoI is becoming one of the most progressive countries in the world, being the first to pass a referendum on gay marriage, for example, and has an openly gay half Indian Prime Minister in Leo Varadkar.
  4. The RoI has been transformed from being one of the poorest to one of the richest and most highly industrialised countries in Europe with rapidly improving infrastructure (more than 1000 km of motorway built in the past 25 years) and the fastest growth in the EU for four years in a row (7.3% 2017 for example).
  5. The inbuilt Unionist majority is paper thin at best  and demographics are such that it could disappear completely within a decade.

Securing the Border is next to Impossible

  1. As I have discussed previously in Bordering on Madness, there are about twice (some estimates say over 3 times) as many border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic than the entire Eastern border of the EU.
  2. During the Troubles 20,000 British Soldiers could not secure the border.
  3. Nationalist communities live on both sides of the border and believe they live in the same country, as carefully recognised in the Good Friday Agreement.
  4. Technological solutions such as those suggested by Boris Johnson in his Camden and Westminster analogy have been widely derided.
  5. Even if such solutions did exist, unlike Sweden/Norway, for example, where people actually want a border, cameras etc would not last 24 hours.
  6. And there is no point in escalating border ‘security’ by providing manned guards as they will be seen as an illegitimate occupying force and fair game for the hardliners.

The Future?

Some months ago there appeared to be a number of options but it seems increasingly likely that there are now just two: a Hard Brexit or no Brexit at all. No Brexit is obviously close to the Status Quo but may be politically impossible. For Northern Ireland a Hard Brexit will likely produce a majority for a United Ireland once a Border poll has been called in line with Fig 4.


Fig. 4 In the context of a Hard Brexit would you support a United Ireland?


The view south of the border will not be overwhelming joy but likely a dutiful acceptance that it needs to take NI on. I have argued that reunification might more resemble Cyprus than Germany but ultimately I think they will bite the bullet. There are two issues – economic and political.

The economic difference between the South and North is ever increasing and Fig 5 – taken from Prof Brian Lucey’s article Northern Ireland’s economy has a lot more to lose from a hard Brexit than the Republic’s – is illustrative of one difference between the two economies. However, think of  the difference between East and West Germany at the time of unification and you will not be far from the truth.

Fig. 5 Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Exports


The political difference is even more of a worry. The DUP voting Unionists are not well understood by the Southern Irish and there is a worry of civil disobedience or even renewed terrorism. But possibly they worry overmuch as younger Protestants tend to be far more tolerant, as illustrated in Fig 6.

Fig 6. NI Identification by community.


To summarise: the prediction is either No Brexit or a United Ireland by its hundredth birthday in 2021.


  1. Peter May -

    It is a fantasists world – May said no British Prime Minister would agree with the legal text the EU has produced and yet she already agreed to it in December – as did her Arlene.
    As the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said about his troops, he didn’t know whether they frightened the enemy but they certainly frightened him. I feel much the same about ‘our’ government.
    They care for nothing but themselves.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      To be fair to Arlene the DUP only agreed because paragraph 50 was included in the draft agreement stating there would be no border on the Irish Sea.
      As the EU considers this entirely a UK internal matter there is no mention of this in the Legal Document. This was totally predictable however. The DUP have continually snubbed the Irish Governments
      offer of friendship and talks so it is to some extent poetic justice.

      1. Peter May -

        But, nonetheless, agree she did! Her argument is now as you suggest, with the UK government which her party holds together (just).

  2. Samuel Johnson ;-) -

    Well laid out for even the slowest learner. The tragedy is that NI would prosper as part of a united Ireland and nobody wishes to treat unionists as they treated nationalists in the past (or even now, with their refusal to implement the St Andrew’s Agreement and enact an Irish language act). Nobody in the rest of the country hates the British despite their (unionists) pathological animosity and contempt.

    And weirder still in some ways, many in the Republic would be only too happy to have them join an anti-Sinn Fein coalition and help us all bury the historical tribal divisions in a modern inclusive European society. Sinn Fein and its armed fellow travelers was a threat to the Republic too in the days before the Good Friday Agreement. Remove the border and its raison d’etre largely disappears. In the Republic much of its vote in recent years is borrowed from disillusioned Fianna Fail voters and it will melt away with rising prosperity.

    It is certainly interesting to see the brexiters protesting that their kamikaze mission must proceed because parliament has never not acted on the will of the people. One can only imagine the blank looks one would receive on mentioning the 1918 general election. Their ignorance of history and their certainty is a latter-day “Home by Christmas” (1914) for this century.

    I predict that Scotland will break free of this farce soon and NI as we have known it will change shortly afterwards.

    1. Peter May -

      “Remove the border and its raison d’etre largely disappears.”
      I completely agree. Time to move on.
      Meanwhile in the British mainland the posh Brexiters are leading everyone backwards to the past.
      What does everyone think of persuading Sinn Fein to attend the House of Commons per Polly Toynbee? Probably SF would think that a united Ireland would be promoted by letting the b**s stew.

      1. Sean Danaher -

        SF was elected on an abstentionist ticket. There was an alternative Nationalist party in the SDLP who do attend Westminster but they were defeated even in their Derry heartland. It would be electorally very difficult for them to attend Westminster.

        Also you are correct. SF are very much taking the lead from Napoleon “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”.

    2. Sean Danaher -


      thanks. One thing that continually surprises me even after many years living in England is how little the English know about Ireland. There is almost deliberate ignorance, a guilt perhaps which will be very painful in particularly for those who support Brexit.

      I agree with your points and think if Brexit goes ahead both NI and Scotland will be out of the UK within the next decade. It is England I worry about but Anthony Bartnett argues that it is necessary in his “Lure of Greatness.”

  3. Peter May -

    Well I wonder “The willingness of the EU to offer a Jersey option to Northern Ireland does not automatically imply that it would be willing to offer the option to the whole UK. But could the EU argue that an arrangement that would be practical and acceptable in principle for one part of the UK should not also be practical and acceptable for the UK as a whole? It is reasonable to interpret the Commission’s draft as indicating that it is willing to contemplate the Jersey option for the whole of the UK.”
    It seems to me what might be acceptable to a small island of Normandy would be okay for a small island off Europe which is currently a mjor economy.
    But I don’t think this would satsfy the Republic would it?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Its an interesting option. I’m not sure the EU would agree. NI is small about 1.8M people and is one of the poorest parts of the UK with a very small economy. I think it is around 1.5% of the total UK economy. Also all citizens of NI have the right to become EU citizens. Even Ian Paisley (Jr) one of the most hardline DUP members has advised his constituents to take out Irish passports. NI already has special status. The UK economy of course is around the size of France so the economic impact would be major.

      Regarding the Republic, I’m not sure if they would object. There is no joy that the UK has chosen to leave the EU. Along with the c 15% of exports it is used as a major transshipment route. Regarding a United Ireland there are many with St Augustine “Lord make me celibate but not yet.” I’m not sure the Republic is ready to take on NI. It is certainly true the economy is doing extremely well but the depth of the recession after the 2008 GFC was such that in some ways it has not fully recovered.

  4. Pingback: The end of the Union?
  5. Derick Tulloch -

    Interesting read.

    Table 5 is quite an eye opener! Perhaps it’s common knowledge but wasn’t to me (in Scotland).

    One observation that may or may not be relevant. Without the 18 NI seats Mrs May currently has a majority in smaller Westminster Parliament that results. While the Tories on the whole have an emotional attachment to the Union, the electoral and financial logic does not support its existence

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. The Northern Irish might argue that whereas the RoI figures include exports to the UK and the NI figures don’t, Fig. 5 is a bit misleading. Of course “exports” from NI to the UK are internal. It would be possible to present the data slightly differently, but it would still show NI was dramatically behind the Republic.

      The Tories attachment towards NI is certainly not practical but emotional. May seems to be stressing this attachment very strongly at present, whether this is to appease the DUP or not I’m not sure. Ditching NI would certainly get rid of the border problem. Under the GFA only 50%+1 need to vote to leave the UK and should a referendum be called there is a real possibility that the NI people would vote for a United Ireland. The DUP are effectively vetoing a referendum at present but the government won’t last for ever.

      Of course the same could be said of Scotland. I currently live in England north of Hadrian’s Wall and getting rid of Scotland would do a lot more to cement a Tory majority. Had I lived in Scotland I would have voted Yes, but I was pleased the Scots stayed in as I thought England would become even more unbearable with a locked in Tory majority.

  6. Dave O'Neill -

    Interesting article. Certainly a hard border is a fantasy. I crossed it may times in the 70’s and 80’s when the UK could deploy huge numbers of troops (which it couldn’t do today) and it was impossible to police. So in reality there won’t be a hard border and in practical terms if HM Custom’s want to check anything it will have to happen at the Northern Ireland ports. Also the Southern economy has no enthusiasm for a hard border with the North due to the agriculture industry so the only PRACTICAL border is the East West border for both the EU and the British. Think in terms of mobile customs patrols dipping cars for agricultural diesel. In terms of basic politics the DUP in the North and Fianna Fail in the South are probably quite close in terms of ideology apart from Michael Martin making a solo run regarding abortion. So far Fine Gael have alienated the DUP due to puerile nationalist antics. It is a tricky situation but Irish politicians should bear in mind that historically when Irish Nationalists have aligned too closely with the European powers against Great Britain then Ireland has always come off worst of all and that is the potential danger at the moment. Irish politicians maybe need to be a bit more reserved and focused on what is in Ireland’s interest and not give in to atavistic desires to kick the Brits when they seem in trouble. The Brits seem to have a knack of coming up trumps (no pun intended) in these situations even if it seems incredibly unlikely at the moment. And while another possibility is a United Ireland I think that would come as a shock both north and south of the border.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I agree that an Irish Sea border is the only thing that makes sense; indeed this seems to be the favored option in NI bizarrely even more so by those who supported Brexit. I’ll post a link to the QUB study if you haven’t seen it. The DUP seem to be very out of line with the NI electorate.

      The Irish Government is in a very difficult position. I have now lived in the UK for over 35 years and fervently hope things will turn out well. The UK has been extraordinarily lucky in the past but this seems very different. I have never known the country more divided. The recent round of speeches has done nothing to help. May seems to confuse the Tory party with the UK as a whole and her speech (mean for Tory party consumption) is fantastical. As Prof Simon Wren Lewis said a while ago “Brexit is fantastical. There is nothing about the case for Brexit that is based in reality. This is why everything Brexiters say is either nonsense or untrue.” There is no coming together in the UK. I would say the exact opposite is happening with Remainers becoming more and more active and Leavers becoming more and more bitter.

      This is well understood on the continent as Guy Verhofstadt said “The UK Government must understand that the EU is a rules based organisation, as there is little appetite to renegotiate the rules of the single market to satisfy a compromise crafted to placate a divided Conservative party.“

      I think Ireland has to do everything it can to help the UK but this Brexit crisis is very different with little recent historical precedent apart from perhaps Suez. Some have compared it to the disastrous war with the American Colonies.

      Perhaps I should also add that my wife who is a very senior NHS consultant and had the job of telling Jeremy Hunt his flies were open recently, is convinced Brexit will be catastrophic for the NHS and detests Brexit with a passion I can’t match.

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