Brexit and the Border – Why I’m Going to Newry
“Just who does Gina Miller – a Londoner and a woman who’s not even involved in politics – think she is going to Newry to talk about Brexit and the Irish Border?” I can hear what the Brextremists and their friends in the media will have to say about my trip to this city and my reply is simple and it is unapologetic.
I go with a sense of humility that hasn’t been much in evidence among the architects of Brexit. I go with a desire to learn about what it will mean, in practical terms, when we leave the EU to the people living on both sides of the Border. I go with a heartfelt wish that the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland get to be heard on this issue when, up until now, it has been expedient to ignore them.
I go, too, out of a sense, frankly, of self-interest, as someone who can remember only too well the bloodshed and misery we have seen in our recent history – both here and across the Irish Sea – and I have a genuine terror of those days returning.
When the meeting I have arranged at the Arts Centre in Newry gets underway, we will have just 175 days to go before we exit the European Union. In terms of the plans that Mrs. May is drawing up, we are talking now almost certainly in terms of just a few months until they are finalised. Let’s be clear: time is no longer on our side.
There are voices that say the Irish Border doesn’t matter, that it has all been “exaggerated,” that it is a “red herring,” but these are English voices that are saying these things, not Irish voices. In Northern Ireland and in Ireland – particularly in Newry, where the reality of a return to hard border may well soon be a daily and unavoidable reality – there is an understandable sense of apprehension about what happens next.
The unravelling of our EU membership brings into question the future of the cross-border institutions created by the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the vitality of Ireland’s economy and the strength of her communities. We are talking about – and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has conceded this will happen in the event of the increasing likelihood of a “no deal” – a return to a hard border. That will mean border guards, control points and barriers, fences, disrupted traded, bureaucracy and divided families and communities.
The people of Northern Ireland, in particular, have every reason to feel aggrieved. This is not being done in their name. They voted decisively in 2016 to remain in the EU, by 56% to 44%.
Let’s put aside for one moment all the emotive headlines, the appeals to the spirit of Dunkirk and a war that few, if any, of us fought in. Let us consider how lives on the island or Ireland are going to be changed 365 days from now. Northern Ireland will find itself stuck in no man’s land, still a part of the EU Single Market and facing border inspections when its residents cross to the UK mainland. The technological solution we have heard so much about will not be a whole lot of use, for the simple reason that it does not exist.
The city of Newry could all too easily – if you think it through – start to look a lot like Calais as people from all over the world see it as the entry point to Great Britain.
Imagine, meanwhile, if you live further along the border in Clones and want to get to the Cavan Road along the A3 and N54. You will have to cross the border four times on that six-mile journey. The day to day impracticalities of this policy – what happens when there are sporting fixtures and thousands of people will want to cross this border – become more alarming the more you think about them. I think of food, medicines, animals – all the basics of ordinary people’s lives – somehow getting across this border. I think of a border of 310 miles and the Border Force – already woefully understaffed – assigning six new staff to help the existing staff of 57 to ensure its integrity.
Sir John Major, when he first entered into the complex negotiations that would eventually lead to the Good Friday Agreement under his successor Tony Blair, had the humility and the good grace to begin by saying he didn’t know all the details, all the history, all the background to the story of the island of Ireland and the Troubles, but he was willing to learn. That was a good way to start.
I wonder frankly if men such as William Rees-Mogg and David Davis – who have both been holding forth recently on the issue of the Irish Border – share that humility.
I wonder if they appreciate how much hard work it took from Sir John – and, for that matter, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George Mitchell, the late Mo Mowlam, and, yes, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, among so many others – to get that historic agreement signed off.
What arrogance it must take for anyone to think they can improvise a new kind of border in Ireland – that will please all sides and that will also preclude the possibility of a return to the bad old days – that will also somehow miraculously fit into the bewilderingly complex Brexit jigsaw.
I want Newry to be the place where we start to face up to the realities of what Brexit will mean for the whole of the island of Ireland.
We have heard enough now from Westminster: it is time to hear from the people whose lives they are now in the business of changing. They have every right to be heard because it is their lives that are about to be changed.
Gina Miller and a panel of individuals and experts in their fields – with an open Q&A session; will be talking at the Arts Centre in Newry on Friday, October 5, 10.00 for 10.30 – 12.30.