Of all the issues thrown up by Brexit that of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could prove to be one of the most intractable. Ewan Pate reports.
As things stand the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be the only land boundary between the UK and the EU.
If it stays open and free of customs and immigration posts how will movements of people be controlled and how will import and export duties be collected along a border some 310 miles long?
The border, settled in the 1920s, runs tortuously from Lough Fyne in the north-west to Carlingford Lough in the East, largely through open country and with innumerable road and rail crossings.
Farmers Guardian queries on border issues to both the newly-formed Department For Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and to Defra have gone substantially unanswered.
The DEEU deferred to Defra where a spokesman said only: “ Supporting our farmers and protecting the environment will form an important part of our exit from the EU.”
A cynic would suggest this particular Irish conundrum has been put in the ’too difficult’ box for the moment.
But it will have to be tackled at some stage. Adding to the complexity there are Customs Union and Common Travel Area agreements between the UK and the Republic of Ireland which long predate either country joining the EU.
Hoisting the warning flag, Martin Anderson, Sinn Fein MEP, has already said: “Europe is not going to allow the free movement of goods and people into its territory without some sort of checks and balances. There is not going to be this back door left wide open.”
At the same time Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade is reportedly putting pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to withdraw from the Customs Union in order to give him maximum freedom to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world.
Theresa Villiers, who, until the July reshuffle, was Secretary for State for Northern Ireland, was a prominent Brexit supporter.
Addressing the possibility of the Irish border becoming the ’new Calais’ in terms of a route for migrants into the UK she said: “There may be some risk non-Irish EU citizens might enter the UK over that land border, but the way to tackle this is through measures such as cracking down on those employing illegal workers.”
Meanwhile David Davis, in charge at the DEEU has, as yet, not confronted the issue head on.
A clue can be found however in television comments when he was asked about the possibility of the Brexit vote resulting in an independent Scotland seeking EU membership.
One land border with the EU was quite enough, he replied.
Meanwhile, farmers on both sides of the Irish border face a long period of uncertainty over their trading arrangements.
The people of Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU but at a pre-referendum farmers’ meeting addressed by EU Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan a show of hands came down heavily in favour of Brexit. It is not known of course to what extent these sentiments translated into votes on June 23.
Red meat (tonnes)
To UK from ROI From UK to ROI
Beef 170,100 36,600
Sheep meat 4,200 6,800
Pigmeat 33,800 41,500
Live cattle exports from ROI to GB – 9,100
Live cattle exports from ROI to NI – 55,200
(Source: Quality Meat Scotland)
A recent meeting in Armagh between the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and the Ulster Farmers Union UFU addressed some of the major issues facing farmers on both sides of the border.
Both bodies agreed to work together during UK and EU negotiations.
IFA deputy president Richard Kennedy said the maintenance of the strong trading relationship between both sides of the border was of critical economic importance.
“Many farmers have farms on both sides of the border and their concerns in relation to trade and farm schemes must be taken into account during the negotiations,” he said.
“Both organisations are clear that there cannot be an additional burden of red tape resulting from the changed circumstances arising from the UK exit from the EU. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland must remain open to trade and the free movement of people."
UFU deputy president, Victor Chestnutt added: “Given that the farmers in the south are our closest neighbours, understandably there are common concerns that will affect everyone on this island and perhaps the most prominent issue at the minute is the impact of Brexit.”
Mr Chestnutt went on to highlight historically strong links between the farming industries north and south of the border and that over the years this trade has been ‘hugely important’ in developing agri-food into the largest industry in each of the respective economies.
“Any future trade negotiations between the UK and the EU must take this into consideration,” he said.
The facts and figures
Agriculture in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) depends heavily on food and drink exports worth over €10bn (£7bn) annually. Of this, €4.4bn (£3.7bn) worth comes to the UK either by sea or over the border to Northern Ireland.
Bord Bia, the Dublin-based food and drink promotion board has warned producers that currency fluctuations pose the biggest risk. The pain has already been felt in ROI since Brexit, with sterling weakening by 6 per cent making Irish goods more expensive in the UK.
Bord Bia has proposed a two-pronged approach of boosting its marketing effort in the UK, while at the same time looking for other markets.
Of total food and drink exports 41 per cent comes to the UK, 31 per cent to other EU countries and 28 per cent to the rest of the world. There is also trade in the opposite direction in red meat and other products. About 200,000 tonnes of mostly feed grains have been shipped to ROI from UK ports from the 2015 UK harvest.
It is also estimated that of the 1.65m prime pigs slaughtered in NI abattoirs some 31 per cent or 510,500 originate from ROI.
Dairy products account for €3bn (£xbn) of all food and drink exports from ROI in 2015 with €963m (£828m) worth destined for the UK.