Opinion: Security issues as much of a priority as economics in Brexit negotiation


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British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/PA
John Downing

John Downing

We rarely get good news about Brexit. It's not a happy theme - but it's one we have to continually face because of its huge ramifications for Irish farming, agribusiness and the economy generally.

Every other day we learn of a new complication - one that was not previously foreseen, but once cited, its implications become instantly clear. In a sense the focus on the economic fallout is entirely understandable - but it is also vital that other aspects are not neglected.

Every EU member state has its economic woes and there is only so much sympathy available in a busy, competitive world. However, peace and security are more elemental and can command more EU attention.

The Irish Government has led on the issue of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the need to keep underpinning a fragile peace in Northern Ireland with prosperity and trade. But the spectre of a "hard Brexit," with the UK leaving both the single market and customs union, inevitably risks creating a "hard Border".

We have had warnings from the Northern side that this risks encouraging so-called "dissident republicans" (an appalling misnomer in itself) to return to violence with attacks on customs installations. Leading figures in the PSNI have raised the issue.

There is ample historical precedent. The IRA border campaign of the 1950s majored in customs and police station attacks. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, last Friday reiterated her determination that there would be "no physical infrastructure on the Irish border".

That assertion implies there will be an electronic border, with the prospect of customs declarations, causing expense and needless work. Secondly, there will have to be customs installations of some kind, and they will need to be defended from residual self-styled patriots.

Two gardaí have raised the issue as viewed from An Garda Síochána's standpoint.

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James Morrisroe of Cavan/Monaghan and Brendan O'Connor of Donegal, wrote frankly in the Irish Independent this week about the challenges of trying to police the Border from Dundalk to Derry. They harked back to the foot and mouth outbreak in March 2001 which brought the country to a near standstill for three months. It meant the Border had to be patrolled to prevent illegal animal movements which could spread the disease.

This involved the transfer of hundreds of gardaí to border stations - a temporary solution to what happily turned out to be a temporary problem. People familiar with Border country will be aware of the problems which already exist as many paramilitaries slipped seamlessly into rackets.

Criminals avail of the two jurisdictions to evade arrest. A more formalised Border would further aid this nefarious endeavour. But policing a hard Border would also require the dedicated work of many hundreds of extra gardaí.

What a further waste of time, money and human endeavour. The taxpayer would be hit with further bills for extra gardaí and their training for new roles.

The alternative would be to stretch existing policing already under enough pressure. This dispiriting prospect must be a message to Government to re-double efforts to ensure a hard Brexit just does not happen.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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