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The new border question that goes beyond politics

Publication: Business Post

Date: 26 April 2020

Author: Aiden Corkery

The pandemic has sparked off a fresh round of thinking about how the two parts of the island of Ireland could and should cooperate, during the Covid-19 period and beyond

How best Covid-19 should be tackled on both sides of the border continues to be a concern. Picture: PA

Last fortnight’s Easter weekend was a surreal one for Damian McGenity. Having spent much of the last three years warning about the possible dangers of re-imposing border checks, as one of the leading figures in the Border Communities Against Brexit campaign group, the Armagh man suddenly found himself in the bizarre situation of being happy to see them appearing overnight.

“They stayed over the Easter period, which was welcome,” he said.

“Given our history over the last three years campaigning against Brexit, we were obviously very opposed to border controls of any nature, but in this instance with the pandemic it made sense from the point of view of curtailing unnecessary journeys.”

The temporary checkpoints have since been lifted but the question about how best Covid-19 should be tackled on both sides of the border continues to exercise both McGenity’s and others’ minds.

Damian McGenity has spent much of the last three years warning about the possible dangers of re-imposing border checks

The fact that the two parts of the island were pursuing significantly different approaches to tackling the pandemic became glaringly apparent on March 12, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a televised announcement in Washington DC that all schools would be closing in the South.

The early morning telecast caught the Northern administration unawares, prompting six days of bad-tempered wrangling between First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill over when the North should follow suit.

Eventually, six days later, when London announced it was shutting schools in England, Foster agreed to a closure.

Public frustration and confusion over the differing approaches – as well as differing approaches to testing and self-isolation – ultimately prompted Belfast and Dublin to agree a memorandum on holding regular meetings in order to improve cooperation.

However, apart from keeping one another generally informed as to actions being taken and ensuring that any advice to the public is similar, there has been little sign that both administrations will adopt the same approaches when it comes to testing or restricting movement onto the island, as has been called for by such respected medics as Dr Gabriel Scally and Professor Sam McConkey.

This failure to take advantage of Ireland, as an island, in fighting the pandemic has prompted renewed soul-searching over the status of the border and the ability of both parts of the island to work in tandem when faced with a major crisis.

“This should never have become an orange and green issue, just as it did with Brexit,” McGenity said. “It should be about what is the best way to keep Covid-19 off this island to protect everyone that lives on it.”

Ian Marshall, a unionist who lost his seat in the Seanad last month, noted that while hindsight was a “wonderful thing”, it was clear that the north and south of the island should have worked much closer to tackle the pandemic.

Ian Marshall says it‘s clear that the north and south of Ireland should have worked more closely to tackle the pandemic. Picture: Bloomberg

He said the ongoing distrust within the power-sharing executive was part of the issue.

“I’m disappointed with Northern Ireland at the moment, in that the two bigger parties [Sinn Féin and the DUP] are at loggerheads on some of the issues. That should be happening behind closed doors,” he said.

Andy Pollak, who is a former director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh, said Ireland had squandered its advantages as an island.

“The obvious thing to have done at the beginning, if Belfast and Dublin had been in lock-step from very early on, would have been to have done what New Zealand did and Taiwan did and say: ‘We’re closing the borders’,” he said.

“As Dr Gabriel Scally said, we squandered our advantage as an island.”

While such an approach wouldn’t have been easy, the all-island approach to the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 showed there is a precedent for such action. Pollak acknowledges, however, that it was unlikely that a DUP First Minister would ever agree to diverge from London’s approach and instead work in tandem with Dublin.

“Not with Arlene Foster and the DUP in Stormont. It’s inconceivable that she could overcome her deepest unionist instincts and say: ‘Maybe the Irish have got it right on this one’,” he said.

Pollak said he was impressed by a suggestion by McConkey that the recently revived North-South Ministerial Council could be used to improve cooperation between the two health systems on the island.

The Council held its first meeting in March since the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont, a move which Pollak said was very positive.

“While recognising it’s a small body with little or no implementation powers, it is a mechanism by which the relevant civil servants and public health specialists could devise and help implement an all-island system to tackle Covid-19,” he said.

Ultimate buffer

Retired Brigadier General Ger Aherne;

While retired Brigadier General Ger Aherne, of the Irish Defence Forces, believes a more vibrant North-South Ministerial Council could have resulted in the Irish Sea being employed as the ultimate buffer to Covid-19, he said that given the near-impossibility of this happening, another option should have been available to the government in Dublin.

He said the South would have been in a position to shut the border with the North had it not hollowed out its security capacity there since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Aherne, who, previously had responsibility for 263km of the 499km border as commander of the 4th Western Brigade, said the state had successfully sealed the border during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, but would not be able to respond in such a way now.

During the Troubles, the Defence Forces had eight barracks and up to 1,400 troops stationed on or adjacent to the border but now this has been reduced to just two barracks.

He said “unqualified people” in the Irish government had decided after the Good Friday Agreement that, as peace had broken out, border security would no longer be needed.

“We now have a situation,” he said, “because of the negligence of the state in reducing the capacity of An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, Department of Agriculture and Customs, we cannot now seal the border with Northern Ireland for political reasons, for security reasons, for Covid-19, for foot-and-mouth disease, swine flu or avian flu or any other disease, with the current resources.”

Closing the 139 rural garda stations has saved the state just €500,000 a year, he added. The questions of the border and relations between both governments on the island took another twist in the last fortnight when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael published their joint framework document with a view to creating a coalition government.

Amid plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ramp up construction of social housing, was the eye-catching proposal to create a unit within the Department of the Taoiseach that would “work towards a consensus on a united island”.

Marshall said he was a little concerned when he saw the proposal as he felt it could be considered threatening by some unionists. While fully recognising republicans’ right to aspire to a united Ireland, he felt the language wouldn’t encourage closer relations between both sides of the island.

“That’s actually very contentious language, if you read that in the North,” he said.

Talking about setting up a “united island” department immediately alienates unionists as they’ll assume that those working in the unit have already decided what their “end game” is, he said.

“The analogy I always use is if there was a department set up in Belfast to maintain the Union, people in the South would say: ‘Why would we engage with them? They’ve already made their mind up’.”

Marshall, who sees huge potential gains from greater cooperation on the island, said that while a conversation on the future of the island needed to happen, it should be an open conversation about what it would mean for the economy, for health systems, for education, business and all other areas of life.

“The important thing for this department would be to open up a conversation, break down barriers, break down prejudice, break down myths,” he said.

Building consensus

Professor Peter Shirlow, who is the director at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies, also comes from a unionist background but doesn’t see the proposed “united island” unit as a potential threat.

While the Ulster Unionist Party responded to the proposal by stating that it would not engage in “single-direction discussions”, Shirlow said he believed it was a genuine effort to build consensus on the island.

“I’m someone from a pro-union background, and I didn’t read it as automatically leading us to four green fields,” he said. “When you read what political unionism has to say, you see a certain reaction, but remember there is a diversity in unionism.”

Despite the main unionist parties’ often reluctant approach to dealing with the South, Shirlow said that there were many unionists who believe there are advantages to improved cooperation across the border.

“You can be pro-union but support the Good Friday Agreement and want to end up with an Ireland where you can have constitutional difference but the border becomes increasingly invisible,” he said.

While the united island unit may be seen as a response by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to growing speculation that a border poll is imminent, Shirlow said that research he and his team have carried out indicates that this is far from the case.

His polling research showed that 54 per cent of those surveyed favoured maintaining the union, while just 27.6 percent wanted a united Ireland.

“When you look at non-voters, and this comes out of all the surveys we do, the majority of non-voters are pro-union,” he added.

The polls also find that more and more young people are turned off at the prospect of identifying simply as unionist or nationalist.

But while a border poll isn’t imminent, Shirlow said his work indicated that Brexit could result in greater cooperation between both parts of the island.

The revised protocol agreed as part of last October’s Brexit deal – which effectively placed the EU-British trading border in the Irish Sea – will mean a slew of paperwork for business between the North and the island of Britain. This will leave many Northern businesses looking south, he said.

“If you’re sending goods to England and you have to pay for this paperwork, that makes it unprofitable or not worth the effort. But if there’s a place down the road you might want to trade with and it has good links to Europe, why would you not take that opportunity?” he said.

Back in Armagh, Damian McGenity no longer has makeshift checkpoints operating near his home, but disagrees with Shirlow’s view that the constitutional plates between both sides of the island aren’t shifting rapidly.

“With Boris Johnson‘s mishandling of the coronavirus and when you look at how Brexit was mishandled, it makes people on this island look at where they are being best served politically,” he said.

“With which policy platform are we best served as citizens, by our political leaders? You don’t need me to give you the answer. People know.”

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