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The view from across the nation’s borders

21 September 2018

Brexit will bring about significant changes in Ireland and Scotland, says David Chillingworth


An anti-Brexit poster on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland

An anti-Brexit poster on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland

THREE or four times a year, we make the journey back to Edinburgh from our holiday home in Donegal in the Irish Republic. We cross the Irish border, leaving the part of Ireland where we were both born and where our passports come from.

We drive across Northern Ireland, where I grew up and where we lived for 29 years, working and bringing up our children during the years of the Troubles. We then take the ferry across the Irish Sea to Scotland, which has been our home for the past 13 years.

I am going to offer a personal view on how Brexit looks to people in both parts of Ireland, and in Scotland, and on the particular implications for the Union in respect of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Brexit raises strong emotions. Many wonder whether the promoters of Brexit either didn’t think about the implications for Ireland and the devolved nations — or didn’t care.

Let’s begin with the Irish border, which is now a significant issue in the Brexit negotiations between the British government and the EU. On a dark night, you would miss it if you didn’t know where to look. It is little more than a change of texture in the road surface, and the confusion of Irish petrol prices expressed in sterling on the southern side.

I am old enough to remember a “hard border” in Ireland — the queues at the customs post, the book to be stamped, my parents “filtering” their wedding presents northwards across the border during the 1950s. During the Troubles, it became an uneasy place with a strong military and police presence; crossing involved roadblocks and searches.

Nobody is advocating a return to all of that — but the issues involved in avoiding it are complex. What changed it was the Good Friday, or Belfast Agreement of 1998. With studied ambiguity, it affirmed the place of Northern Ireland within the UK while allowing many aspects of the border simply to melt away as people travelled, traded, and built relationships across it.


IRELAND has been an enthusiastic member of the EU and of the Eurozone. Brexit raises two issues of particular concern to the Irish government. First, the Irish border will no longer be a border with another EU member — they will feel somewhat cut off from their EU partners.

Second, Brexit puts at risk the delicate architecture of the Belfast Agreement, of which the British and Irish governments are the guarantors. All kinds of cross-border co-operation have grown up, in tourism and health care to name but two.

Last week, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council in Ireland said that the “size and nature of potential impacts” from various Brexit scenarios were “highly uncertain and may not fully capture the extent of the Republic’s and the UK’s closely integrated supply chain”. Those concerns are present on both sides of the border, particularly in the agricultural sector. Twenty-five per cent of the milk and 40 per cent of the lamb produced in Northern Ireland are processed in the Irish Republic. Regulatory issues raised by Brexit put that trade at risk.

Leaving the border behind us, we drive across Northern Ireland. It is a place which has largely left behind the violence of the past, but has yet to find a contented peace. In the Brexit referendum, 56 per cent voted Remain, but the major Unionist party, the DUP, supported Leave. Indeed, the referendum result largely mapped on to the traditional sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland. So Northern Ireland, still without an Assembly and Executive after 18 months, faces a confused post-Brexit situation without functioning democratic structures.

Brexit brings many concerns, particularly about cross-border trade and the common regulatory regimes which facilitate it. Exports to Northern Ireland from the Republic were worth €1.9 billion last year, while trade in the other direction was worth €1.3 billion. Of greater concern is the risk to the stability of the Good Friday Agreement: the various options for the Irish border are viewed with particular concern. Neither the option of seeing the land border become a “hard border”, nor of what would in effect be a border in the Irish Sea will find broad acceptance.


WE CROSS from Larne to Cairnryan, in Scotland, sharing the expensive ferry crossing with large numbers of trucks. The EU “fallback” position for maintaining a frictionless Irish border would mean customs checks between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Common customs and regulatory arrangements could then apply in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The British Government is deeply opposed. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that these trucks will be lining up for customs checks at Larne and Cairnryan.

Scotland voted 66 per cent Remain. That strong anti-Brexit vote raises the obvious question: is a second independence referendum, leading to Scottish independence, now more likely?

There are a number of reasons that the answer to that question is “probably not for now”. The polls do not show any “Brexit bounce”, and Scotland’s fiscal situation remains unsatisfactory — with a deficit of £11.4 billion. It may also be because, as one commentator suggested, a large part of the electorate has been “scunnered” by two high-pressure referenda in rapid succession, and will be unlikely to vote for further change in a third.

My personal feeling is that the strength of the Remain vote in Scotland means that some change will come. Relations between Holyrood and Westminster are at an all-time low. Shortly after the referendum, the Scottish government published a helpful document called Scotland’s Place in Europe. This looked at different ways in which the Brexit vote might be carried into political reality. In particular, it explored the possibility of differentiation — that Scotland, for example, might have a different future relationship with the EU from the rest of the UK, perhaps to the extent of remaining in the single market. This, of course, went absolutely nowhere. But it remains a helpful contribution to the wider debate.


AS OUR journey ends back at our home in Edinburgh, it is time to reflect on the impact of Brexit on the two parts of Ireland and on Scotland. Brexit is probably one of the most significant changes that will take place in any of our lifetimes. Yet in each of the places through which our journey took us, there is a feeling that the passions that have driven this issue are not experienced as they seem to be south of the Scottish border.

Clearly, there will be short- to medium-term impacts on trading relationships, and on regulation, on the ease of travel which we have been enjoying in Europe. But beyond that lies the possibility that, in the longer term, it will bring shifts in relationship. Some wonder about Irish reunification. I think that is inconceivable — but it is possible to see changes both in the demographic balance between the two communities and in attitudes, which might make some kind of pragmatic realignment in Ireland logical or desirable.

Scotland, too, may seek change, possibly some form of independence or some movement that would allow Scotland to have a closer link with Europe. It is possible, also, to see circumstances in which something akin to a Celtic Federation might begin to emerge.

But these are dreams for a new political generation.

The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Read an interview with him here.

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