A trip to the Northern Ireland trade border
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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ADRIAN MA, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.
PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:
And I'm Paddy Hirsch. Brexit, Britain's departure from the European Union, formally occurred on the 31 of January 2020. Back then, supporters of the withdrawal expected to see the United Kingdom separate from the EU like a stately galleon leaving a harbor, all sails set and striking out to sea.
MA: Yeah, well, three years later, the good ship Brexit is still struggling to get beyond the breakwaters, with one pesky sail noisily flapping in the wind.
HIRSCH: That unruly sail? Northern Ireland - it's part of the United Kingdom, but awkwardly it's also part of the island of Ireland. That means it's the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with the EU, and that is causing all sorts of problems.
MA: Three prime ministers have tried to get this Northern Ireland situation under control - Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. But now Britain's new premier, Rishi Sunak, appears to have found a solution. He's negotiated a compromise that could, if he can get the right politicians to agree, get Brexit done once and for all.
HIRSCH: This is a big deal, not just because it could finally allow the U.K. to get on with living life outside of Europe, but also because it could put to bed for once and for all the ghost of the Troubles, that 30-year period when Northern Ireland was torn asunder by bombings and shootings that took the lives of more than 3 1/2 thousand people.
MA: Today on the show, we'll take a trip to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We'll look at why this has become such a sticking point in the U.K.'s withdrawal from Europe and why the stakes are so high for the people who live there.
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HIRSCH: Eamon Fitzpatrick (ph) owns a hardware and fuel business right on the border between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland. It's a cluster of warehouses and vehicle sheds and retail outlets deep in the countryside, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of hilly green fields and woodland. Here he is talking about his hardware business.
EAMON FITZPATRICK: Hey, boys. You know, it's - you know, you could come in here and basically from your foundation to your finished product, you'll get it here, you know?
MA: Now, Eamon's hardware business is not unusual, but its location is. And that's because the land that it's built on is split by the border, right? So one part of his operation is on the U.K. side, and the other is on the Ireland side, which of course is part of the European Union.
HIRSCH: Now, four years ago, this wasn't a big deal. Because the U.K. and Ireland were both in the EU, the border meant very little. There were no tariffs or even differences in trade laws to worry about. Goods and people were free to move back and forth, and it was kind of easy to forget that there was a border there at all.
FITZPATRICK: To the naked eye, you wouldn't have thought there was any border there. Like, the border would have been a forgotten thing there from the Troubles, because there's nobody, you know, minding them or not there. And now - all good-natured and peaceful till Mr. Brexit came along.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mr. Brexit (laughter).
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Brexit - he screwed the whole thing up. So he did, now, to be honest with you. So he did. He - you know, he just laughed at (ph) that - you know, the uncertainty. Nobody knew what was going on or anything else. And that's where your - that's probably where your problem was.
MA: Eamon says Brexit - you know, the whole business of dealing with tariffs and laws and different currencies - cost him time and money.
FITZPATRICK: Like, I have a person in the office here now - costs me a week's wages every week - because of Brexit. They're - all they're doing is working on tariff numbers, which seems silly. It creates a lot of hassle in the sense that you have two currencies. You have two tax returns. You have...
HIRSCH: Having your business split in two by a border is a pain, but at least the border isn't a physical one. Well, not right now anyway. If British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak isn't able to get his party to agree to his deal with the EU on how to handle Northern Ireland's unique situation, the virtual border could become a real one, a hard border with fences running through Eamon's property and customs officers and checkpoints.
MA: The last time there was a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was during the Troubles. That was this 30-year period between the late '60s and the late '90s when Northern Ireland was wracked by political violence and the British military patrolled the province. And during that time, to fortify the border, the British authorities closed most of the 200-some roads that went across it. And Eamon remembers some of the lengths they went to do this.
FITZPATRICK: They would have put up big concrete bollards or whatever and spikes under them and that, and they would have dug the roads (ph) and whatever. That would have been the way that they would have worked it at that stage.
HIRSCH: The closures forced people to use just one of a handful of crossing points. These so-called permanent vehicle checkpoints were made of reinforced concrete and hardened steel. They were manned by armed police officers and soldiers, and they were equipped with heavy weapons. Eamon remembers that going through these checkpoints could be an unpleasant business that could take up a lot of your day.
FITZPATRICK: You could be just ransacked. You could be there for four hours. If you had a vehicle with you, the vehicle could be searched thoroughly, and so that could take five minutes. It could take two hours. You know, it was just - how long's a piece of string?
HIRSCH: Eamon isn't making this up. Sometimes cars and people were detained for hours at a time. I know this because I served in Northern Ireland with the British military myself. In fact, I used to command one of those permanent vehicle checkpoints. Both Eamon and I agreed that neither of us wanted to see a return to those bad old days.
MA: With a bit of luck, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's deal with the EU would prevent this from happening. Now, for more than three years, the U.K. and the EU have been arguing over this thing called the Northern Ireland Protocol - basically, how to treat Northern Ireland after Brexit. Successive politicians have come up with different proposals, and Sunak is calling his the Windsor Framework. You might think of it as Northern Ireland Protocol 3.0.
HIRSCH: Yeah, it puts the trade border between the U.K. and the EU right in the middle of the Irish Sea. As a result, Northern Ireland may look on the surface as though it's part of the EU trading bloc, but it won't be treated as such when it comes to currency or to trade.
MA: The proposal calls for two channels for goods crossing the sea frontier. You got a green lane with no or maybe just a few checks for goods destined only for Northern Ireland, and then a red lane with all the usual customs checks for stuff going back and forth to the Republic of Ireland and hence the EU.
HIRSCH: And European rules on trade will apply in Northern Ireland, but the Parliamentary Assembly there will be able to request a veto of any laws that it doesn't like. Here's Sunak touting the deal at a factory in Northern Ireland last week.
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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: We get the executive back up and running here. Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position - unique position in the entire world, European continent - in having privileged access not just to the U.K. home market, which is enormous - fifth biggest in the world - but also the European Union single market. Nobody else has that - no one, only you guys, only here. And that is the prize. I can tell you, when I go around...
HIRSCH: The prize, huh? That's an interesting thing for a pro-Brexit prime minister to say.
MA: I mean, you know, politician's going to politician.
HIRSCH: That's true.
MA: Anyway, Sunak is hoping the concessions he has wrung from Europe will be enough to sway two constituencies of elected officials in the British Parliament. Some of those are hard-line Brexiteers - right? - in Sunak's own Conservative party. They don't want to give an inch to Europe. The others are Northern Ireland officials in the Democratic Unionist Party. Those folks have been opposed to any measure that might separate Northern Ireland from the U.K. in any way.
HIRSCH: If those ministers can't be convinced, the border could go up again. Roads could once again be closed and border posts erected. Customs officers could be stationed, possibly with police to protect them, and criminal gangs could well show up looking to exploit price differences on either side of the border. And if those gangs were affiliated with paramilitary groups, as they often were during the Troubles, the British army might once again be called in to patrol. The border would be hardened once more. Businesses like Eamon Fitzpatrick's and the lives of the people that he employs would be devastated.
FITZPATRICK: We'd be employing up again 30 people there overall, right? Now, like, there's no way - if it did go wrong, there's no way - I can only keep a handful of them. So, like, you know, it means a lot to have a good workforce, a loyal workforce, and, like, for that to be maybe destroyed over something silly, that's - you know, you wouldn't want that to happen.
HIRSCH: Pretty much no one wants that to happen - not the vast majority of people of Northern Ireland or the Republic, and certainly not the thousands of young men and women who for more than 20 years stood on either side of the Irish border watching each other over the barrel of a gun.
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HIRSCH: This show was produced by senior producer Viet Le with engineering from Brian Jarboe. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Kate Concannon edits the show. I'd like to say a special thank you today to producer Morgan Ayre, who helped out so much with this show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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