The hardest part about Brexit is the borders. As part of the European Union, the united Kingdom's borders have been relatively open for years. Trades carried out freely with other member countries and people coming through only need to show the EU passport. But in June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU so that it could reassert control on its border and decide who and what it wanted to let through. Imagine these boundaries turning into hard borders. The impact of that on these maritime borders is complicated in terms of trade, but it could have serious implication for the people living along the UK's only over land border in Northern Ireland. These border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, is one of the reasons why Brexit negotiation continue to reach a deadlock. That's because this isn't just a boundary between two countries. It's also a compromise, a symbol of identity and a solution to a trouble history. And it's been keeping the peace in Northern Ireland for 20 years. Hardening this border could put one of the Europe's greatest success stories in jeopardy.
History of Northern Ireland
The border was first drawn in 1920 by the British, who had ruled over the island for centuries. The Irish had rebelled several times, but not everyone wanted the British to leave. So eventually the UK divided the island into two states based on its population. Most people in this part were historically Catholic and identified as Irish, wanted independence. They were known as Nationalist. But in the North many people were Protestant identified more closely as British and wanted to stay in the UK known as Unionists. After the partition, this part remained in the UK as Northern Ireland. The south continued to move away from the UK, until it gained complete independence and became new country the Republic of Ireland. At first this 499 km border was pretty porous. But the UK and Ireland continued to be hostile. Over time, customs check were set up at the border crossing and the two countries descended into a trade war, tariffs were placed on its agricultural produce and goods like steel and coal. By late 1960s, things turned violent. The Northern Ireland fierce conflict broke out between extremist groups. Nationalist paramilitary like the Irish Republican Army, believed that Northern Ireland was rightfully part of Ireland and that the British were oppressors of the Northern Ireland's Nationalist population. Unionist paramilitary fought back, defending their place in the UK.
Both groups blew up buildings, set off car bombs and engaged in bloody street fighting. The UK deployed thousands of troops to Northern Ireland during this time and became a common target of Nationalist paramilitary attacks. Especially at the border, which for Nationalist was the ultimate symbol of British occupation. As Violence surged, the UK military tried to secure the border with walls, towers, heavy guns and patrols. They tightly controlled the 20 official crossings and screened people and vehicle passing through. The conflict over Northern Ireland turned this into a hard border. The violence lasted for more than 30 years, killed over 3600 people and come to known as The Troubles. It came to an end in 1998, when Nationalist and Unionist Party leaders came together for a historic peace deal. They reached a compromise: Northern Ireland would remain in the UK but people would be eligible for both Irish and UK citizenships. And in the future, Northern Ireland could vote to join Ireland. This deal came to be known as the Good Friday Agreement. It allowed Nationalist in Northern Ireland to be part of Republic of Ireland while the Unionist remained the part of the UK. Which meant that the hard border wasn't needed anymore. So, the British military left. The watch tower came down and more roads opened. There are now around 270 official crossing most of which are completely invisible. And they're all part of a border that stands as a symbol of the compromise that ended decades of conflict.
In June 2016 the UK voted to leave the EU, even through Northern Ireland was overwhelmingly in favor of remaining. The UK's argument in favor of Brexit was to control its own national borders but there was little mention of its Irish border at the time. That changed when the UK and EU stated negotiations, the status if Irish border became one of the first three things to figure out. Now more than a year later, it's still unresolved. But there are a few options: The UK could reimpose a hard border by bringing back the police and the walls. But that would isolate the population of Nationalist in Northern Ireland. Alternatively they could put the border in the mainland leaving Northern Ireland in EU customs Union. But this would betray the Unionists. See either way both these options risk violating the Good Friday Agreement. A third option is for the UK to stay in EU Customs Union meaning it wouldn't need a customs border, but that's unacceptable for the Brexiters in the UK government who specially want control over their own borders.
The UK needs to put a border somewhere but just can't decide where. But there's a fourth option that would be in line with the Good Friday Agreement, its the idea of reunification. In the past both Ireland and the UK were in EU and the borders were open, there was little incentive for Northern Ireland to vote to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. But if the UK went with the option f hard borders Northern Ireland would be isolated and the only way t rejoin the EU would be through reunification. Typically this would be an overwhelming victory for the Nationalist and a loss for the Unionist. Bit Brexit seems to have changed some opinions. A recent poll found that 28% of the respondents who supported Northern Ireland's place in the UK, would now vote to join the Republic of Ireland.
While not a perfect solution, it would give Northern Ireland a voice about its own place in Europe, a voice that's barely been heard so far.