Belfast Shows the Price of Brexit

Withdrawing from the EU might shatter the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

A mural in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast displaying an image of an IRA gunman
A mural in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast displaying an image of an IRA gunman (Cathal McNaughton / Reuters)

Updated at 6:59 p.m. ET on March 7, 2019.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland—If Monty Python ever produced an updated “What Has the EU Ever Done for Us?” sketch, Belfast would be as good a place as any to situate it.

If any place in the British Isles risks being thrust into an economic and political crisis by the impending Brexit, Belfast is that place.

Three weeks before the United Kingdom’s scheduled exit from the European Union, I took a guided tour of some of the scenes of the Troubles. The tour was led by a former IRA paramilitary, now working with an association of former prisoners partially subsidized by EU funds. A few hundred meters to the north, former Loyalist paramilitaries lead tours on their side of the defensive barrier that still separates predominantly Catholic from predominantly Protestant neighborhoods. The EU helps underwrite those tours, too. All told, about 230 million euros of EU funding will go to support the Northern Ireland peace process during the 2015–2020 budget cycle. The peace that has settled on Northern Ireland since 1998 remains a chilly one in the hearts of the former combatants. But peace it is.

The hard work of peacemaking was done by the British and Irish themselves, assisted by the United States. But it was the existence of the European Union that made the post-1998 settlement possible. The core of that settlement was this postmodern concept: Some in Northern Ireland passionately wish to remain British. Some urgently wish to quit Britain and be recognized as Irish. What if … they can do both?

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, signed by Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, conferred dual nationality on every resident of Northern Ireland. My former IRA guide now proudly travels the world on an Irish passport, even as the British government pays the costs of his health care and will pay his old-age pension. On the other side of the barrier I walked, the Protestant and Unionist population of Belfast remains as British as ever.

But other barriers have come down. The customs and security border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the south has vanished. People who live on the island of Ireland cross the border to work, to shop, or to visit a doctor as easily as Americans cross state lines. Vehicles cross the border an estimated 30 million times a year, slowed only by traffic. A retired senior official told me of rural milk routes in which a truck will cross the border 20 times in a day as it transits from farm to farm. The hospital in Londonderry is funded by the EU to serve Irish people across the line in Donegal, on the same basis as National Health Service patients of British nationality.

The currency differs on the two sides of the border. So do the cellphone carriers. VAT rates diverge. Ireland is not united. But Irish people can live as if it were, if they wish—or not, if they don’t wish.

That partnership applies not only on the island of Ireland, but on both sides of the Irish Sea. Ireland-bound mail from beyond the EU is processed in the U.K., sparing Ireland the need to inspect for drugs or explosives. Irish beef, cheese, and mushrooms are sold in British supermarkets within hours of being packaged on the other side of the water.

Would-be criminals and terrorists are policed by services that cooperate as intimately as if they served only one sovereign. Britain and Ireland have found a way to be one marketplace, one travel area, one energy grid, one food emporium, one security partnership—while maintaining two independent political systems, two distinct historical and cultural narratives.

All of this could have been done without the European Union, but the existence of the European Union hugely lowered the inhibitions against doing it, especially on the Irish side.

When Ireland complies with a European arrest warrant, or imports gas via the EU-regulated pipeline between Britain and Ireland, or shares data governed by common privacy laws, or raises and slaughters beef according to the exact same standards prevailing across the Irish Sea—it can do all those things without any sense of domination by a historically oppressive neighbor. It is doing so within a context whereby both the stronger and the smaller country have pooled their sovereignty with two dozen other countries, and within which both the stronger and the smaller partner daily discover that they have much more in common with each other than either does with its fellow EU members across the water.

It was an Irishman, James Joyce, who wrote the phrase “History … is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” Those words could have come as easily to a Pole or a Catalan. From 1968 to 1998, 3,500 British and Irish people died violently, and perhaps 50,000 were wounded. As in Alsace-Lorraine and West Prussia, as in Iberia and Italy, in Ireland, the Anglo-Irish Good Friday Agreement  (and the successor agreements built upon it) seemed to show that “Europe” could bring peace by building new identities to encompass and reconcile murderous, ancient quarrels.

After the Brexit vote, British politicians insisted that nothing need change on the island of Ireland. That promise will be extremely difficult to honor. What happens when Afghan refugees in Germany start flying to Dublin, taking the bus to Belfast, and flying from Belfast to work in London? The Irish border is bound to harden. Perhaps at first it will be only cameras. Based on past experience, cameras will be cut down and destroyed by offended nationalists in the border area. So the border will have to be manned. The border guards will become targets. Even today, with both Ireland and the U.K. in the EU, criminal gangs exploit arbitrage opportunities. (Ireland lightly taxes diesel fuel sold to farmers. The fuel is dyed red to identify it. Criminal gangs have learned to bleach the dye and smuggle the cheap fuel into Northern Ireland.) As those arbitrage opportunities multiply, so will the criminal gangs. Many gangsters began as IRA paramilitaries. They have kept their weapons—and even sometimes their ideology.

Sooner or later, a border guard will be shot at.

Then what? Right now, police in the U.K. and Ireland answer to the same ultimate arbiter of law, the European Court of Justice.* Britain and Ireland are both bound by EU law on data privacy. As the two legal systems diverge, though, police cooperation is bound to deteriorate, even with the best of will on both sides. If the U.K. exits the EU warrant system, it will have to stand up its own—and if that new system does not pass muster with EU courts, Irish police might not be allowed to extradite wanted criminals.

The harder border will militarize.

Over the past three days, as I’ve had many conversations with Irish politicians and officials, both with those still serving and even more with those who are retired, the word that recurred most often in discussions of Brexit was betrayal. They imagined that they had at last awoken from Joyce’s nightmare. Now it has returned, scarier than ever.

*  This article originally misidentified the European Court of Justice.