Postcard from Ireland: Brexit's forgotten frontier

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Theresa May crossed the Irish channel last week for a quick meeting with her Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, to discuss President Donald Trump. Well, according to the official agenda she was actually there to discuss Brexit. Yet you wouldn't have guessed it from the subsequent press conference in which every single question from the media - except one - concerned the American president. Even the gaelic language question was about Trump. (I know this because it was the only word I understood).

I appreciate it is hard for us to take our eyes and ears off the extraordinary developments unfolding minute-by-minute over on Capitol Hill. Yet, the blind eye turned last Monday to the fate looming over the future of Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. and the independent Republic of Ireland, reflected the afterthought status accorded to them up to now throughout the Brexit process.

The Northern Irish voted by 56 percent to 44 percent for the U.K. to remain within the European Union. This is quite astonishing given that, according to data from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the most common characteristics of "Leave" voters were high levels of poverty, low income, poor education and white ethnicity. Northern Ireland checks all of these boxes and yet the majority still saw a brighter future within the EU.

This makes strong rational sense from both a political and economic standpoint. Despite Kenny's and May's heartening vow that "there will be no return to borders of the past" between Northern Ireland and the Republic once the U.K. leaves the EU, neither has yet offered a single workable suggestion about how they will get this past the other 26 members of the EU, who have clearly articulated their very dim view of the possibility of member states establishing bilateral deals with the U.K.

Both heads of state repetitively used the phrase "frictionless and seamless border" last Monday but this ideal is at complete odds with the U.K.'s red lines of remaining in the single market or the existing customs union. Many officials and citizens have sounded fearful warnings about the dire financial, social and political consequences of reinstating physical checkpoints along the 325-mile frontier. The idea of a less aesthetically abrasive electronic border control system has been dismissed as unworkable for economic and practical reasons.

Turning to economics, both territories stand to lose. Northern Ireland has benefitted from significant EU support for regional assistance as well as €2 billion ($2.15 billion) for peace projects. It sends nearly two-fifths of its exports to its southern neighbour and depends heavily upon the open border to do so. Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland sends 15 percent of its goods exports to the U.K., with certain sectors particularly exposed, such as food and drink, for which Ireland is the U.K.'s biggest single country supplier. While the plunging sterling has already sent many Irish farmers out of business and margins for many others plummeting to unsustainable levels, concerns are high that diverging standards and regulations may add to additional expenses in the form of tariffs in a post-Brexit world.

All these worries before we even get to the matter of people – for example, the estimated 600,000 Irish living in the U.K. or the 25,000 Northern Irish who cross the border every day for work in the Republic.

All this a superficial scan of some of the issues facing the Emerald Isle as the Brexit process barrels along. In London, the majority of journalistic attention paid to Ireland in the Brexit context is a suspicious sideways glance that Dublin may sneakily snap up some of our banking jobs. Yet as both the Irish and British governments keep stressing, the circumstances for Ireland are "unique" compared to other EU nations. As Kenny has warned, the EU talks could get "quite vicious". Having fought so hard to clamber its way out of the devastating post-financial crisis recession, it would be an undeserved and cruel twist were Ireland to be broken by Brexit.

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