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Brexit, the Irish Border and Coronavirus

Jonathan Evershed, University College Cork

As I write this, working from home at the tail end of a period of ‘self-isolation’, the Brexit crisis and its fraught debates about borders, backstops and frontstops feels like a distant (and even fond) memory. All seems – to coin that hackneyed phrase so often deployed in discussions of Irish politics – changed, changed utterly. But the Brexit clock is still ticking, and even in the midst of the present crisis, there have been reminders that the vexed question of implementing the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland remains to be resolved. A generous interpretation is that the EU and the UK are at odds as to what implementation requires. More worryingly, it arguably appears that the UK is actively seeking to resile from its commitments under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. Particularly in light of today’s news that the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been diagnosed as having Covid-19, it is increasingly clear that attempts at settling this and other disputes are liable to be parked for the foreseeable future. Despite Boris Johnson’s protestations to the contrary, an extension of the current phase of negotiations seems increasingly inevitable. And Northern Ireland is, as ever, caught in the middle.

The way that this public health crisis has unfolded in Northern Ireland has borne some of the hallmarks of the same piggy-in-the-middleness that has shaped its experience of Brexit. Divergent opinion in London and Dublin as to how best to approach the Coronavirus pandemic has strained relationships in Belfast and tested the unity of the newly restored Northern Ireland Executive, with some arguing that it has led to a sectarianisation of the crisis. Northern Ireland Ministers have found themselves caught between conflicting advice from health experts; managing differing timetables for school closures; negotiating different approaches to community Covid-19 testing; and, ultimately, navigating the ethical distance between an approach based on ‘flattening the curve’, on the one hand, and one premised (initially) on the cultivation of ‘herd immunity’, on the other. There has been a tendency to polarisation along orange and green lines, with Unionists tending to favour alignment with the rest of the UK and Nationalists advocating greater synchronicity across the island of Ireland. There have been visible tensions within the Executive, and Sinn Féin Ministers have been vocally discomfited by the UK government’s light-touch approach (which, it should be noted, was also questioned by the WHO).

The net result has been a confusing mish-mash: some schools have stayed open while others have closed. Pubs have remained open for business while people have simultaneously been advised not to frequent them. Many people have had to make their own calls and muddle through on the basis of often conflicting and even contradictory advice. This has been particularly true in border communities, where people have been forced to navigate a gap in British and Irish policy approaches which has only recently begun to narrow. It is notable how many people in Northern Ireland – Unionist, Nationalist and ‘other’ – were so emphatic in commending Leo Varadkar’s St. Patrick’s Day speech, and what was perceived as the care-taker Taoiseach’s cutting through the mixed messaging to offer clear and decisive leadership.

The evolving public health emergency has so far done little to bridge the gap between Merrion Street and Downing Street which Brexit had served to (re)open. Nor has this been helped by the British government’s decision – in the midst of the crisis – to unilaterally redesign the structures for dealing with the past that had previously been agreed by both governments and Northern Ireland’s parties at Stormont House. The Coronavirus has also offered new opportunities for the UK’s ‘knowledge gap’ on Ireland to reveal itself in ways that remain as frustrating as they are dangerously misleading.

It is noteworthy that the first reported case of Covid-19 on the island of Ireland was that of a woman who had returned to Northern Ireland from northern Italy via Dublin airport. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the need for a coherent, cross-border and unified approach to this most monumental of challenges on the island of Ireland and beyond. As Brexit should already have made clear, the myriad ways in which our lives and livelihoods are intertwined across these islands have been starkly revealed by this pandemic. We are bound together by the Good Friday Agreement, by the Common Travel Area, by our shared culture and heritage, and by our family ties (I can’t help but think of family and friends on the other side of the Irish Sea who feel both so close and so far away). We will need to trust and feel able to rely on each other in order to confront this crisis as it continues to evolve over the coming months. For better or worse, we are, as the Taoiseach suggested on St. Patrick’s Day, all in this together. And this calls for a Brexit extension, attempts to (re)build bridges (and not the imaginary Northern Ireland-Scotland kind) and a greater degree of co-ordination than has so far been in evidence.

Jonathan Evershed is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork

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