Sunday 18 March 2018

Return to customs posts and visas unlikely as many will still cross the Border to work

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers speaking in Belfast in the wake of Brexit. Photo: PA
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers speaking in Belfast in the wake of Brexit. Photo: PA

Ed McCann

It was the day after the night before and ostensibly little had changed. On the A1/N1 Belfast road crossing the Border last Friday, there was little sign you were travelling across the new frontier between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

It's a route that I know well, as I cross the Border several times a week by car or on the train.

I am one of an estimated 25,000 people whose primary residence is in Northern Ireland but work in the Republic.

Similarly, thousands of people from the Republic work in Northern Ireland, with many of them travelling from Co Donegal to Derry. These workers have benefited from one of the four cornerstones of the single market: free movement of people.

It's hardly surprising then that Border constituencies in the North voted heavily in favour of remaining in the EU.

So what now?

The general impression after the shock at the Brexit vote had subsided was uncertainty.

If anyone had a plan in London, Brussels, Dublin or Belfast, they certainly haven't revealed it.

The only immediate and tangible impact for cross-border workers is that sterling's value has dipped but currency fluctuations are nothing new.

The rest is up in the air but it is unlikely that customs posts and visas will return.

This would surely be impractical and a retrograde step both north and south.

A simple example would be the main route from Donegal to Dublin, which cuts across the Border twice through Co Fermanagh.

Uncertainty, though, is corrosive.

For Northern Ireland, which has been unstable to greater and lesser degrees for most of its existence, uncertainty looms over its relationship with its largest trading partner and neighbour, the Republic.

The uncertainty comes at a time when a stable, devolved administration had finally seemed to have been put in place following a rapprochement between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Some unionists who were rejoicing at the result of the vote may live to regret this if the UK is destabilised by a surge in Scottish and potentially English nationalism.

Furthermore, a clear majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU but will now be forced against their will to leave.

Another impact could be on foreign direct investment, which Stormont had hoped to target with a cut in corporation tax.

The North may be a less attractive destination now that it will potentially no longer have direct access to a single market of 500 million people.

However, as Britain grapples with its relationship with Europe and internal fissures exposed by the referendum vote, it seems ironic that the political debate in Northern Ireland, too often shrill, has been relatively calm compared with the rest of the UK.

In the meantime, life will go on and possibly not much will change in the short term apart from a surge in people from Northern Ireland, including unionists, applying for Irish (EU) passports.

Thousands of people will continue to cross the border to work.

But lingering in the background will be the uncertainty over what lies ahead.

Irish Independent

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