Could Brexit take Northern Ireland back to the bad old days?

UPDATE: Last week's election has thrown the spotlight on Northern Ireland's status post-Brexit. Earlier this year MT visited the province to see how businesses felt about leaving the EU - and the potential of a hard border.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2017
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It’s one of the many curious facts of modern political life that besides buying into Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘sweets for everyone’ offer, many young people in the UK are barely aware of the DUP and its curious, archaic ways.

One of the great failures of the Good Friday Agreement has been the progressive polarisation of Northern Irish politics. The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP - the moderate faces of Protestantism and Catholicism in the province - have faded, losing all of their Westminster seats last week. This has left the hard-liners of Sinn Fein and the DUP slugging it out - when Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley weren’t having a good old chuckle together. Funny how bullies always find plenty in common to amuse them.

Now the DUP have got Theresa May in a grip that is likely to make her eyes water. They bring the art of ruthless negotiation to a new level. John Hume, the one time leader of the SDLP once said to his old adversary DUP leader Paisley, ‘Ian, if the word "no" were to be removed from the English language, you’d be speechless, wouldn’t you!’ To which Paisley replied, ‘No, I wouldn’t!’

Here's a sneak peak of how negotiations are proceeding thus far, courtesy of Harry Enfield: 

It’s likely that last week’s election will bring Brexit and what happens to the border between North and South into even crisper focus. During the whole referendum campaign, few paid much attention to the grim prospects that might befall the peace process is a hard border were to return. If, for example - freed from the fetters of EU membership - we do a slick trade deal with Brazil involving importing tens of thousands of tons of cheap, testosterone-enhanced beef, then Michel Barnier won’t be too thrilled if it starts finding its ways over the border into the Irish Republic. The IRA made a mint over the years smuggling goods to and fro.

Back In January I visited Northern Ireland to see how the region’s businesses were feeling about Brexit and the potential reintroduction of a hard border - an issue that’s become all the more pertinent in light of last week's election. Read on...

When we all woke up on 24 June last year, few were more surprised than the inhabitants of Northern Ireland. The population there voted heavily for Remain: 55.8% to stay put, 44.2% to Leave. But the province is small and lacks clout. Accounting for a mere 789,879 votes of the 33,577,342 UK total, the Northern Irish are now living with a Brexit reality the implications of which are even more profound than those faced by other Brits over on the mainland.

Set apart across the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK - Gibraltar aside - to share a land border with another EU member, the Irish Republic. This distance and difference leads many Northern Irish to believe they are of marginal significance to those in England, especially those in Westminster. The divisive importance of religion emphasises that sense of otherness. Catholic and republican Sinn Fein was strongly for Remain. The DUP was for leaving but clearly did not take anything like the whole Protestant population with it - the current religious split is thought to be 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic.

Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1999 and an end to The Troubles - which had caused the deaths of more than 3,500 people since 1969 - Northern Ireland's economy has edged forward. The centres of Belfast and Londonderry are buzzing with a new 'cappuccino culture' and appear, in some ways, barely recognisable from the bad old days. The majority of growth since 1999 has been thanks to EU largesse. The North received almost £2.5bn in the last EU handout round and a further £2bn had been promised before 2020. This is now in doubt.

The economy remains fragile. The proportion of the population employed by the state is the highest in the British Isles: 27.6% work in the public sector compared to 25.2% in Wales and 16.2% in South East England. Levels of entrepreneurialism are low. In addition, there is currently no devolved government since the Stormont system imploded in February after a row concerning a hapless 'cash for ash' energy subsidy deal which somehow went £490m over budget.

With the exception of splinter groups on both sides of the divide, violence has largely subsided. But those religious divisions remain stark: 90% of the province's children are educated along sectarian lines, and 90% of social housing remains segregated. As soon as Brexit was confirmed, Sinn Fein moved quickly to demand a plebiscite on unification with the Republic of Ireland which, while highly unlikely for the time being, has the potential to undo much of the delicate hard work of the peace process.

The good news of the past 18 years has been made possible by significant amounts of economic cooperation with the South. The Belfast-Dublin roads and rails are very busy indeed. In the context of Brexit, it's also important to remember that any individual born in Northern Ireland is entitled to a passport from the Republic, and therefore could elect to retain EU movement and domicile rights whatever the split from Brussels involves. Thus Brexit has the potential to draw the two territories closer together.

The question of national identity in Northern Ireland is complex. Catholics who live in highly Protestant areas are more likely to self-describe as British and less likely to call themselves Irish. A poll in 2015 found only 25% of Catholics in favour of unification and there's no doubt that middle-class Catholics have been the big winners since 1999. It's also doubtful whether the Republic could cope with the cost of subsidising the North which is a net beneficiary from the UK Treasury.

The critical issue is what now happens to the 310-mile border created jointly by man and nature. It twists across the island from its eastern origins in Carlingford Lough, dips through the freshwater Lough Erne in the Ulster-Ireland midlands and, having almost reached the Atlantic, turns sharply northward to dive into Lough Foyle. During The Troubles it was attacked and defended, bombed and blocked with monotonous regularity.

Exit from the single market and/or customs union would - in the absence of an exceptional arrangement - almost certainly mean tariffs between the two countries and some restriction on movement. Since The Troubles ended, the border has been open - there are no stops or checks and it's estimated that 40,000 cross each day from their homes to work on the other side of the border. Goods also move freely which, in theory, they have been able to do since the South gained independence back in the early 1920s.

The border is poorly marked and traversed by hundreds of small country roads, many of which were barred by the British army during the conflict. The memories of smuggling, violence, long queues and sometimes humiliating encounters with the security forces remain fresh in many minds of those over the age of 20. The fact that the border currently hardly feels as if it is even there is of vast symbolic significance to many Catholics from the North who feel a strong kinship with the inhabitants of the South.

Theresa May, in her Remainer days, could not have put the dilemma better than in a speech she did just before the Referendum: 'If you pulled out of the EU and of free movement how could you have a situation where you have an open border with a country within the EU and with access to free movement?' Now she has to work out a way of solving that dilemma without causing serious damage to the peace process and both countries on either side of the border.

In the Sperrin Hills above Strabane, close to the border with the Republic, sits Martin Gallen in his used shipping container converted into a workshop. Outside the wind howls. Originally an architect, when the Crash of 2008 and downturn occurred he had to retrain. Now Gallen is the world's only end-to-end maker of 'Irish bagpipes', the uilleann or elbow pipes. He fashions the bag, bellows and chanter himself from hardwood, metal and leather and his 'Banba' product is currently flying out the door assisted by the weak pound - despite costing £6,000 a set. Ninety-five per cent are exported.

Bagpipe maker  Martin Gallen is worried about the possibility of a hard border 

'I genuinely detest politics,' he notes. 'They are God's way of telling you you have too much time on your hands. Brexit hasn't affected me much initially but I cannot see that lasting. How are they going to police the border without checkpoints? I have a workshop in Donegal (across the border). In a worst case scenario, if I was moving my materials from my workshop there to here or vice versa, then I'm technically a smuggler.

'If it starts to cause me problems, I'll just move myself and the business to Donegal. I just cannot see there being the budget for checkpoints, anyway. It might be handier just to cut Ireland off - we're hardly a benefit to the UK.'

Down the hill in Strabane town, life is already tricky for Colm Gallagher who manages the SuperValu supermarket only a few hundred yards from the River Foyle and the Lifford Bridge, which marks the border. You'd think that the cheap pound would mean a shopping bonanza for customers coming from the South. But the instability caused by Brexit and currency fluctuation means that his rivals in the Republic offer EUR1.40 for a pound to entice trade - '30% of my customers used to be from the South. Now it's down to nearer 10%.'

His organisation is owned by a conglomerate from the Republic and many products on the shelves are sourced from the parent company south of the border. So tariffs will mean serious trouble for Gallagher. 'This is the major, major point with Brexit. Theresa May needs to sit down and look at our situation. See what we've done in the last few years. We cannot afford to go back to a border. It's not sustainable for freedom, movement of people, never mind goods. We are a special case.'

Strabane is a reminder of how tough life in border towns can be. During The Troubles it had the highest unemployment rate in the industrialised world. Its problems were to an extent eased by individuals like Aidan Gough who was brought up on the Falls Road but is now director of policy and strategy at InterTradeIreland, a quango which helps SMEs benefit from cross-border opportunities. 'Ireland exports over a billion euros of goods each month to the UK,' says Gough. 'Ireland is also the UK's fifth biggest trading partner and the main area of trade is agri-food. North to South trade is about six billion, which is very very important for the smalland medium-sized businesses on the island.'

Gough says that 97% of businesses surveyed at the end of last year said that they had no Brexit plan in place. In the absence of an agreement - transitional or otherwise - the WTO rules would apply to trade with the requisite tariffs.

'For 80, 90% of products, tariff levels are quite low. I think in 80% of cases, they're below 5%. So it may not have a substantive impact.' However food tariffs tend to be high, in some cases as much as 50%, as Gough knows. And many food producers in the North are already working on a 3% margin.

Declan Billington of John Thompson and Sons supplies many of these producers. His business and its massive Belfast mills produce 800 tonnes of animal feed annually and turn over more than £200m. Billington says that while his industry has been 'circling the wagons' and delaying investment decisions there is the possibility for a rethink of our attitudes towards food.

He points out that 42% of British food is imported and even in areas we are strong - beef, dairy, pork and poultry - a quarter is imported. We could become self-sufficient but our producers cannot compete with the likes of Brazil or New Zealand due to the costs of welfare and greener energy. Incidentally total income from farming in Northern Ireland last year was up by 20% - almost entirely down to currency fluctuations and grants being in euros, EUR244m up from EUR199m.

'Northern Ireland exports its surplus,' he notes. 'It exports probably around half of what it produces to England, and a quarter of it to Europe and the rest of the world. So we're disproportionately exposed for probably in the region of a quarter or a third of our exports, because suddenly we're going to find we're on the wrong side of trade deals.

'That is the biggest challenge we're facing here - a hard exit with no trade deals meaning we lose access to the markets that take a third of our products and we lose access to a supply chain across the border that processes our products.'

He wonders why we haven't, for example ever tried harder to export the parts of animals we don't use - offal or chicken feet - to those outside the EU who may want them. We may have to now.

In contrast to unwanted chicken feet... a cool example of the brave new Northern Irish world post-1999 is Suzanne Saffie-Siebert. Her biotech company Si-Saf is based in a science zone hard by Belfast's Titanic Experience and the legendary Game of Thrones studio. Saffie-Siebert who came to Belfast in 2008 is a classic globalised citizen - she is of Iranian and Armenian heritage with a German husband.

Her products use nanotechnology to improve the performance of drugs and Si-Saf has developed a promising remedy for serious acne. But Brexit means trouble, not least because she has three sources of funding from the EU.

'I'm an immigrant and did not support it. I've worked in several countries with people from many nationalities. Access to capital is important but talent is vital. If we are limited by who we can hire that will damage our progress. It's scary for our people who feel very nervous about the situation. They want to know what my plan is and I have to handle it in a positive way. The vote means that my two main markets - the US and China - will become even more important. In such a crowded, competitive market as a young company you need freedom to operate. Too much new red tape would not be at all good.'

With important US investors it was bad news when Belfast lost its one direct flight to New York late last year.

The Titanic Experience (above), completed in 2012 at a cost of more than £100m and hard by the famous cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, is a real gem. Part-museum, part-ocean-going liner theme park, it has won awards from all over the world and is well worth the £17.50 ticket price. When Titanic set sail back in 1912, included in the manifest were 11 cases of orchids, 40 thousand fresh eggs, six Steinway pianos, not to mention the sex-on-the-back-seat Renault from the film, plus 800 bunches of asparagus. On one wall, are the slightly doggerel words of Thomas Hardy's poem Convergence of the Twain:

       And as the smart ship grew

       In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

       Alien they seemed to be;

       No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history

There is something peculiarly British in creating such a runaway success out of a historic disaster: Titanic was, after all, a comprehensive calamity of planning, engineering and execution. Across the province many are hoping Brexit won't turn out to be the iceberg they founder on.

Hear Matthew's programme on Northern Ireland on BBC Radio 4 on 13 April


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