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The Irish border dispute that threatens to derail Brexit

Theresa May to outline her border plans at crunch meeting on Monday as Irish demands threaten to scupper a trade deal between Britain and the European Union

Farmer David Crockett at his farm that straddles the border on the outskirts of Londonderry. (Paul Peachy for The National)
Farmer David Crockett at his farm that straddles the border on the outskirts of Londonderry. (Paul Peachy for The National)

For more than 100 years, four generations of the Crockett family have overcome wars, economic crises and petty bureaucracy to run a prosperous farming operation straddling the border that divides the island of Ireland. But the Brexit vote has proved the final straw.

When David Crockett, 56, switched on his television in June 2016 to learn that the United Kingdom had voted by a narrow majority to leave the European Union, he was almost physically sick.

The result means that he plans to sell the farm established by his grandfather on the outskirts of Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, Londonderry, and move the operation into the Irish Republic, which will remain a member of the world’s largest free trade bloc.

“The EU has been good to agriculture,” said Mr Crockett. “That’s the way we’re looking at it. Nothing makes more sense than to move our operations to the Republic."

Mr Crockett cannot be accused of giving up easily. The border — drawn up in 1920 to split the island into two — passes through his land 150 metres from his farmhouse. While the kitchen where he sits is in Northern Ireland and part of the United Kingdom, his cows are grazing across the border in the Republic of Ireland.

It means that he has to deal with two farming ministries and use abattoirs on both sides of the border to fulfil food, health and animal standards. He has two sets of identity tags to show which side of the border his animals are from.

The extra paperwork has been the least of his problems. As a child, he slept on the floor for five years to avoid being hit by stray bullets from the night-time gun battles during a campaign by militant Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland independent of the UK.

The strict border controls and the British army checkpoint at the bottom of his road meant the Crocketts needed two sets of farm machinery to run the two halves of their farm. The family managed to escape unscathed from the three-decade conflict known as the Troubles with only the loss of a cow killed in the crossfire.


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A ceasefire in 1994 started a peace process that swept away the checkpoints and coincided with the creation of the European single market that helped Irish farmers on both sides of the border to export their produce.

Now the border close to Mr Crockett’s farm is marked by nothing more threatening than a discount farm shop by the side of the road selling potatoes. Heading south, there are few visible signs that you have crossed the border other than road signs switching from miles to kilometres.

“I remember what it was like before we were in Europe,” said Mr Crockett. “I don’t want to go back to that.”

The new plans for the post-Brexit future of the border are expected to be laid out on Monday by Theresa May, the British prime minister, during a crucial meeting with the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

She will be pressing the UK’s case for starting talks on a new trading deal with the remaining 27 nations in the bloc once Brexit is triggered in March 2019. The EU will only discuss a new deal once the two sides have resolved a number of outstanding issues, including the amount that Britain has to pay to settle its bills, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and the state of the border, which has emerged as a major sticking point in talks.

The British government’s rationale for embarking on Brexit was to take firmer control of its borders and give it the freedom to to strike trade deals independently of the EU, using its network of former colonies and global diplomatic clout to build new alliances. The logical consequence would be checkpoints at its only land border with the EU along the 310-mile partition line.

But the Irish government has insisted that it does not want to see a return to the border of the past, described by prime minister Leo Varadkar as “a place of bloodshed and violence, of checkpoints … a brutal physical manifestation of historic divisions and political failure”.

He has the power to veto any British border plans.

“Let me say very clearly: if the UK's offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said on Friday after meeting Mr Varadkar.

Mr Varadkar has called for a customs union between the EU and UK, which would allow for tariff-free trade across the border. Businesses have called for a unique customs union for the island, where tariffs, duties and regulations would remain in line with the EU.

“The only place to have it [the border] is in the middle of the Irish Sea,” said Declan Fearon, a spokesman for the pressure group Border Communities against Brexit, which would put the responsibility for border checks at ports and airports on the UK’s mainland.

The prospect of a distinctive Ireland-only solution is politically toxic for the Irish party that is propping up Mrs May’s minority government at Westminster.

Her failed gamble to increase her electoral majority in elections this year has left her reliant on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party — whose members’ key aspiration is to keep Northern Ireland as part of the UK, and oppose any move towards a reunited Ireland.

One of its MPs, Sammy Wilson, warned that Mrs May’s government could not rely on its support if “there is any hint” of attempts to placate Dublin by treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

“In the last week, we have rescued the government four or five times in crucial votes,” said Mr Wilson. “We expect her to honour her side of the agreement.”

Negotiators are left having to grapple with keeping Dublin happy to keep trade talks on track while trying to keep its government partner happy.

“This is becoming the Gordian knot of Brexit,” said Mike Johnston, the director of a trade body representing the Northern Irish dairy industry, which would be hit hard by any border restrictions. “There just does not seem to be any solution that meets all the criteria that have been put on the table.”

The dispute over the borders is felt keenly in Londonderry, the scene of one of the most divisive incidents of the Troubles. Fourteen people died when British troops fired on a nationalist civil rights march in 1972, an event which became known as Bloody Sunday.

The story of the killings and the inquiry that led to a declaration by the UK government that the shootings were “unjustified and unjustifiable” is told at the Museum of Free Derry, part-funded by the European Union and opened this year.

Museum manager Rossa O'Dochartaigh said any return to a hard border would be unlikely to trigger a return to violence, despite discontent over high unemployment and lack of prospects for young people in the area. “There’s no appetite for it,” he said. “Things are more or less peaceful.”

Whatever the outcome of negotiations, Mr Crockett says that he will have to make the best of Brexit before he finally sells up and moves the farm to the Republic.

“No matter what happens, we have to go out in the morning and feed the cattle,” he said. “We have to make the best of it. And we’re used to that.”

Updated: December 3, 2017 10:37 PM