Yes, it can be done (borders and Brexit)

Yesterday, I saw a video posted on Twitter by the Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib (for London region) in which he and a bunch of his colleagues stood on the Irish border and pointed out how the only thing that indicated there was a border was a speed limit sign in kilometres per hour and then proclaimed that there was no way the border could be closed and the “whole thing is a misnomer and a red herring”. It’s true that right now, you can cross the border freely using any number of major and minor roads, one of which famously crosses the border four times, changing numbers from N54 to A3 and back again, between Cavan and Monaghan (both in the republic) and then a fifth time to reach Armagh in the north. Benyamin Habib is 54 years old and so is well old enough to remember the Troubles, although if you weren’t there, you will not have known much about the border. There was one.

It’s spectacularly stupid to assume that just because there is no border infrastructure on an actual international boundary, that one cannot be built. Such borders have been built in places where there was previously no national boundary; look at how the allied powers carved up Germany from 1945, installing a border across central Germany where people had previously crossed freely from town to town but was now heavily guarded and more or less impenetrable. Similarly in Berlin, and on the new German-Polish border (east of which was formerly part of Germany), in Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion, and in so many other places around the world. In most of those places, following the reunification of Germany and the accession of Poland to the EU and Schengen accord, all the border infrastructure is gone, with only a few disused buildings remaining and motorways running freely, but it was very much there during the Cold War and, depending on which country you were coming from, you could be taking your life in your hands trying to cross it. As for roads like the N54/A3, Germany had roads that crossed the border several times; they were closed during the Cold War. There was even a motorway that was half-built at the end of the Second World War that crossed what became the east-west German border three times (now the A4). It didn’t get completed until after reunification.

A watchtower painted in camouflage colours with a soldier peering out of one of the windows. Two more soldiers, in camouflage uniform with red berets, stand on the ground in front of it. The tower stands between two sections of wall, both painted in the same camouflage colours.
A border watchtower during the Troubles in Northern Ireland

As for Ireland, even before the start of the Troubles, you could not cross the border freely anywhere you liked; you had to use official border crossings, and other crossing points were blocked by physical barriers or by ditches or blown-up bridges. Pictures of these abound, but you can see it on any late 20th century map: the N3 from Dublin to Enniskillen, for example, was closed when Loyalist paramilitaries blew up a bridge over the border, and anyone needing to travel between Enniskillen and Cavan, the nearest big town on the south side, had to made a detour via Swanlinbar and Ballyconnell until the new George Mitchell bridge was opened in 1999. There are photographs of queues of traffic on main roads between concrete blocks with uniformed men inspecting documents. Although the object will be to police a trade barrier, not to intercept terrorism, scenes a lot like these will be a reality again if we are outside the EU’s customs union; it might be less militarised, but the queues will return and there will be much less freedom to cross where one likes, especially for goods traffic.

So, while it’s true that the British government does not want a hard border on the island of Ireland, if we leave the EU with no deal and end up outside any trade agreements (as we will, because we are part of the WTO through the EU and do not automatically become a WTO member after leaving the EU), there will need to be a border as the north will no longer be part of the EU, and the republic of Ireland will still be. Therefore, if the Tories are serious about leaving, they will need to stop throwing weight around that they do not have and buckle down and get a deal, or end the process of leaving, because a border has been installed in Ireland in the same places as Ben Habib shot that video in the past, and it will be again if we are isolated following our departure from the EU.

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