As the shock of the British Referendum result to leave the EU reverberates around Europe and the world, the stock exchange and money markets are set to record their worst day ever. As the UK’s closest trading partner Ireland will be disproportionately affected by Britain’s exit. The process of “uncoupling” from the EU will commence straight away and while our main focus is naturally on the economic implications, the geopolitical ramifications of our shared border require immediate and careful attention. As someone who has served in both the British and the Irish Army and who grew up with “The Troubles” the fragile peace process which has been forged and carefully nurtured by citizens and politicians from both sides of the border is always foremost to my mind. Central to that peace process has been the dismantling of the “hard border” between North and South with all of its attendant security checks and border controls.
Anyone who has travelled to the North of Ireland in the last decade will have noted the invisibility of the border and the seamless ease with which one can travel and indeed work on both sides. Only when your mobile service provider changes on your phone do you realise that you have crossed into a different jurisdiction.
It is true that while there is no reason why the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK which existed for decades prior to accession cannot be retained, the UK and Northern would be outside the scope of free trade arrangements and customs borders would be required. In an IIEA policy brief earlier this year we were reminded that if the UK remains part of the Single Market through membership of the European Economic Area or through a special arrangement, passport controls will be unlikely but custom controls possible. On the other hand if The UK cannot negotiate Single Market Access, receives no ‘Special Arrangement’ with the EU, and trades on the basis of WTO rules, both passport and custom controls would be required.
Thus the possible re-establishment of a border between the North and South requires careful consideration. Central to the success of this will be informed contingency planning by the Defence Forces and an Garda Siochana. However the cannibalisation of the Garda and Defence Forces resources by successive Governments has had an obvious impact on their ability to adequately mitigate both identified and unidentified risks in this context. In addition, based on issues identified by all the Representative Associations, these forces do not have the capacity or organisation structures to adequately address the latest developments.
The closure of barracks and the consolidation of the Defence Forces formations into a smaller number of locations was a key objective of the White Paper on Defence and since 2009 Army barracks have been closed in Lifford, Letterkenny, Monaghan, Cavan, Castleblaney, Cootehill and Longford. In 2012 the Army’s 4th Cavalry Squadron, which was formerly based at Connolly Barracks in Longford, was stood down along with the disestablishment of the 4th Western Brigade. Staff from the two remaining barracks at Finner in South Donegal and Aiken Barracks in Dundalk are regularly redeployed to McKee barracks in Dublin leaving the border regions further depleted.
Allied to the closure of barracks is the even more serious issue of what RACO general secretary Commandant Earnán Naughton calls a “loss of organisational corporate memory and specialist knowledge” I believe that successive budget cuts and decreased investment in the training of specialist officers has left the force depleted to unacceptable levels. RACO and PDFORRA who represent officers and enlisted army personnel have been flagging this for years. The question must also be asked is what contingency planning has been conducted by the Departments of Defence & Justice in advance of this scenario presenting itself?. It would be difficult to believe that this scenario has not been “war gamed” in order to inform Government on the range of capabilities and resource commitments required.
Today, I call on the Government and Enda Kenny TD as Taoiseach and Minster for Defence to immediately engage with RACO, PDFORRA, the GRA and the AGSI to establish the scale of resources that will be needed to man the border and to immediately make them available. As well as the day to day challenges of operating a border with an non EU country the Taoiseach himself said earlier this week that said that the reintroduction of a “hard border” would present an opportunity for others, with malign agendas, to exploit for destructive purposes.”
Brexit is one of the greatest political and economic shocks that Ireland has ever encountered. While we have been taken completely by surprise at the referendum result we can be prepared, we must invest now to ensure security and ease of operation later. This is the plan B that everyone has been talking about, it is here, it is now, and it’s a reality.