The most striking thing about Ireland’s only land border is its absence. No posts or fences mark its circuitous 310-mile length. There is neither razor wire nor checkpoints.
When, a couple of years ago, I often took a rickety bus from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, I would occasionally pass the time by trying to figure out if we had crossed the invisible line based on when my cellphone switched providers. I was seldom certain. The hedgerows and fields, the fog-capped hills, look the same on either side.
Now, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the border has returned to Irish politics. When Britain leaves the European Union, which is expected to happen some time before the summer of 2019, the undulating border counties will become a European Union frontier, raising the prospect of dislocation, violence and political disintegration in Ireland — and in Britain.
On March 2, elections will be held for Northern Ireland’s Parliament, which is responsible for devolved issues like health and education. Ostensibly, the vote — the second in less than 10 months — was set off by a scandal over spending on renewable heating. But it is as much the product of the European Union referendum as local incompetence.
Nearly 56 percent of people in Northern Ireland voted in last June’s referendum for Britain to remain in the European Union. The government in Belfast was split: Sinn Fein, the erstwhile party of the Irish Republican Army, advocated remaining; their coalition partners, the evangelical-aligned Democratic Unionist Party, spent almost half a million pounds backing the Leave campaign.
Under Northern Ireland’s complex power-sharing system, the government cannot function if the two largest parties refuse to take part. But since the Brexit referendum, relations between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein have deteriorated so badly that many doubt the two parties can return to their mandatory coalition after the March 2 vote. Even more troubling, Brexit undermines the fundamental premise on which the Northern Irish peace process rests: respect for diversity. Despite the wishes of its electorate, Northern Ireland will be leaving the European Union on the same terms as the rest of Britain.
This is not just a democratic deficit. Economically, Northern Ireland, the poorest region in Britain, has become increasingly integrated with the Republic of Ireland. Cross-border trade, particularly in agriculture, has grown steadily. A single energy market was one of the first tangible fruits of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of sectarian violence.
In the almost two decades since, Northern Ireland has quietly slipped from Britain’s national consciousness. The seemingly endless television reports of bombings and killings have been replaced by silence. The Conservatives, in particular, have little affection for what Winston Churchill called “the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.”
Churchill’s distant successor, Prime Minister Theresa May, spent the second half of last year promising “no return to the borders of the past.” Now Ms. May says that the Irish border will be as “fluid” and “friction-free” as possible. What this means in practice is anyone’s guess: James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, is reputed to placate queries about the border by saying, “Ms. May is aware of your concerns.”
Awareness alone will not, however, solve the border problem — or the broader problems. Some 300 roads cross this border, some winding from one jurisdiction to another multiple times in short stretches. Customs posts and border checks would be both vertiginously expensive and an attractive target for emboldened Irish republicans opposed to the peace process.
A solution could — in theory — be possible. Ireland is not part of the European free-travel zone set up by the Schengen Agreement and, as the British government has repeatedly pointed out, an island-wide common travel area predates the European project. Such an accommodation for Northern Ireland, however, would require Brussels’ imprimatur — something Ms. May seems unwilling to even ask for.
Northern Ireland’s economy, so precarious that it requires an annual transfer of around 10 billion pounds a year from Westminster, will be badly hit by a hard border. Under current arrangements, Northern Ireland will receive around 600 million euros annually from the European Union until 2020. After that? Nobody knows.
The tyranny-of-the-majority logic inherent in Brexit also risks destabilizing Northern Ireland’s demographic balance. When the newly partitioned state was founded in 1921, two-thirds of the population was Protestant. Today almost half the people in Northern Ireland are Roman Catholic.
Brexit was sold as a chance for Britain to recover former glories. It could yet precipitate the end of the last vestige of the empire: the United Kingdom itself.
Many moderate Irish nationalists have been content to support the union underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. But will they be so acquiescent when faced with a hard border in Ireland, and a Little Englander political culture in Westminster? Even some liberal Northern Irish unionists balk at the hard-line rhetoric from London.
The Scots — who overwhelmingly voted to stay in the European Union — are pushing for a new referendum on independence from Britain. A poll on Irish unity is unlikely in the short term, but seems inevitable, too. All of which raises the question of whether the British government actually cares that much about the union anymore.
In July, shortly after becoming prime minister, Ms. May told reporters: “Not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.” By October, she was denouncing “divisive nationalists” who demanded a Brexit arrangement that reflected the split vote across Britain. The prime minister even publicly snubbed an invitation to address the Irish Parliament in Dublin; the weak Irish government is arguably the only true friend Britain has left among the other 27 European Union member states.
The United Kingdom was always a pragmatic enterprise, a bargain between more-or-less willing participants for commercial and military gain. Imperial spoils held Welsh, Scottish, English and Northern Irish together for centuries. Those bonds are quickly deteriorating. The fracturing of British politics along national lines — the Conservatives hold just a single seat in Parliament from Scotland or Northern Ireland — only adds to the sense of a listing, disunited kingdom.
Ms. May says that Britain will “make a success” of Brexit. On the Irish border, such Pollyanna visions meet cold, hard reality. Without a radical change in course, the British prime minister might end up leading her country out of not one union, but two.
Peter Geoghegan is the author, most recently, of The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again.