Northern Ireland’s open border with Republic of Ireland is only safe with Britain in the EU

Osborne stresses Brexit economics in Northern Ireland, but the stakes are much higher


George Osborne has kicked off a two-day visit to Northern Ireland to persuade voters to opt for remaining in the European Union.

Declaring that Northern Ireland will face an ‘economic shock’ if the UK came out of the EU, the chancellor will warn that such a situation would cost the Northern Ireland economy £1.3 billion with unemployment likely to increase by 14,000 over the next two years.

Dire though such predictions are, the issue of what would happen with Northern Ireland’s border with the rest of Ireland is proving most contentious, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Northern Ireland Secretary and Brexiteer Theresa Villiers has asserted with some confidence that the north-south border would remain as ‘free flowing’ as it is today. Indeed, she denounced those arguing otherwise as being engaged in ‘scaremongering of the worst and most irresponsible kind’.

It’s an assertion shared by DUP Leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, whose party is campaigning to leave the EU. Just a few weeks ago she told the Andrew Marr programme:

‘The common travel area between ourselves and the Republic of Ireland was in existence before we entered the European Union and it will be there when we leave the European Union if that’s what the people of the United Kingdom decide to do.’

With the chancellor today arguing that border checks would be inevitable between the North and the South in the event of Brexit, the question is, who is telling the truth?

The answer is no one really knows. The Leave campaign can make all the assertions in the world about what might or might not happen to the border, but in the end it is not a decision that the UK could take unilaterally. It would require the agreement of the Irish government as well to maintain the open border.

On that, the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has already warned of the potential of customs checks along the border and former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, in an interview with the Guardian over the weekend, slapped down what the Leave campaign has been saying.

Addressing Theresa Villiers’s assertions, he told the paper:

‘Villiers keeps telling us all the time that we have a common travel agreement from 1921 that ensures freedom of movement between Irish and British people across these islands.

Yet her point is wholly irrelevant in a completely different from world from back then.

We are not talking about freedom of movement between the Irish and the British. If the UK leave the EU we are talking about both EU citizens and non-EU nations still seeking a way into Britain.

And the only land border between a post-Brexit Britain and the EU is on this island.’

Ahern went further, arguing that the Leave campaign would need to have border controls between the north and south if it was to meet its ambitions to secure greater limits on immigration into the UK.

Why does this all matter? Other than the likely economic dangers, a vote to leave the EU with the potential for border controls would serve only to embolden Sinn Fein’s call for a vote on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future in such a scenario.

It is clear therefore that the only way to guarantee an open border between the north and south is to stay in the EU.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.