Further dimensions to the border question

Further dimensions to the border question

After Brexit, could the Common Travel Area be the next bunfight between Ireland and Britain? KEVIN MEAGHER investigates

THE boat people might sound like a 1960s English folk group, but they represent the biggest impediment to the Tories re-election in next year’s general election.

The arrival of tens of thousands of migrants on the shores of Kent each year is causing utter panic in the British government.

First, it makes a mockery of lusty Brexiteer claims to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders.

Second, there is simply nowhere to house them, with low-cost provincial hotels being pressed into service - causing no end of fury from voters who live nearby, many in target seats.

To meet growing demand, ministers promise to convert former army camps, or even to build special barges (reminiscent of how many Catholics were interned in Belfast Harbour in the 1970s).

The public mood in Britain is febrile, with immigration rocketing to near the top of voters’ concerns in opinion polls.

A controversial bill in parliament promises to address the problem and Rishi Sunak has made it one of the big five themes of his premiership.

And if he can’t deliver by the autumn party conference his jittery backbenchers, scared of losing their seats, might choose to cast Rishi into the sea instead.

Might Ireland now compound his problems?

Could the Common Travel Area (CTA) agreement, stemming from the time of partition - which provides for passport-free travel between Ireland and Britain - become a backdoor route for migrants to head to Britain?

Possibly, but here’s the irony.

It’s Ireland raising the question of migrants coming the other way.

Last month, Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that he was reviewing Irish border security to “make sure that people who shouldn’t get into the State aren’t able to get into State”.

To that end, he had met with the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) and the Border Management Unit of the Department of Justice to discuss growing concerns.

In particular, he said there has been an increase in people ‘coming from north to south, people coming from Britain or Northern Ireland into the Republic and seeking international protection here.’

Desperate, no doubt, to find a better life and escape Britain’s flatlining economy, collapsing public services and increasingly unstable political system.

With its galloping economy and progressive politics, it’s hardly surprising that it is Ireland that is now fast becoming the destination of choice.

How times change.

Might the Tories reunite Ireland?

'Back my Brexit deal or face a united Ireland, Rishi Sunak tells DUP.’

A headline from the Sinn Féin newspaper, An Phoblacht?

Or perhaps the Morning Star?

Try The Daily Telegraph.

The Conservative Party’s bulletin board, no less.

The paper quotes Rishi Sunak addressing the recent Queens University conference on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

In a coded rebuke to the DUP, the Prime Minister said: “I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again. That’s the right thing to do on its own terms, and I’m convinced it’s also the right thing to do for our Union.”

Subtle, as British prime ministers tend to be, but the real meaning was obvious: ‘Get the show back on the road – and keep it there – or all bets are off.”

His Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, delivered a blunter message at the same conference.

“Real leadership,” he chastised, “is about knowing when to say yes, and having the courage to do so.”

The people of Northern Ireland had a right to expect better public services, economic prosperity and a brighter future for their children.

“The biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the union is failing to deliver on these priorities,” he added.

The DUP’s refusal to re-enter the Northern Ireland Assembly and restore the Executive is causing domestic political problems for Rishi Sunak.

And he’s not happy.

His plan to get re-elected in 18-months-time revolves around developing a reputation for fixing problems and keeping his word.

Rishi the management consultant patiently unpicks a problem that has bedevilled less energetic minds.

That’s the image he wants to project at any rate.

He had hoped that pulling a few more concessions out of the European Commission might enable him to sell his Windsor Framework to recalcitrant unionists.

It worked with the British media, who were effusive about the end of the Brexit War.

Job done. Move along.

But unionists were buying none of it.

The ‘Windsor Whitewash’ as Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party dismissively refers to Sunak’s deal, is simply not palatable.

The DUP is already on-course to lose top place to Sinn Féin in next month’s local elections – for the second time in two years after last year’s assembly result.

They dare not climb in from the window ledge before then and accept the deal in case Allister shouts, ‘Betrayal!’

Believe, me, such paltry considerations will not be forgotten in Westminster.

The Windsor Framework was the best deal that any British Prime Minister could have negotiated (a point Bill Clinton made at the same conference). Unionists have so lost touch with reality that they cannot see that.

More sympathetic to Irish Nationalism, there’s a casual assumption that it will take a future Labour government to call a referendum on Irish unity, as promised in the Good Friday Agreement.

Don’t be so sure.

My own hunch is that it will be the Tories who eventually preside over the creation of a united Ireland.

The Tories have little affinity with the unionists these days – and their stock is dropping.

The willingness of the DUP to make Rishi Sunak’s re-election hopes that bit more uncertain just might rebound on them one day.

Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About,’ and ‘What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division’

Kevin Meagher