Referendum Blog: May 22

Referendum Blog: May 22

BORDER TROUBLES?: On the BBC Weekend News this evening, the main item was hinged on that Vote Leave was wrong to suggest that the UK could not veto Turkey’s application to join the EU. At the end of the bulletin, reporter Chris Buckler presented a package which examined  whether border controls would be introduce between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire in the event of a UK exit from the EU.

In some respects senses there was ‘balance’ in that there were a mixture of concerns about what might happen. But Buckler was oddly unfocused and unclear in elements of what he told the audience and his main goal appeared to whip up the idea of trouble in store.

First, there was a major omission that affected the veracity of his entire package.  What he did not say was that  the current border arrangements between the UK (including Northern Ireland ) and Eire are nothing to do with the EU, and never have been .  They are based on a bilateral agreement between the Irish and British governments formulated under the title the CTA (Common Travel Area). The CTA stipulates that there is free movement between all parts of the UK and Eire. The arrangements have evolved considerably over time, but, in effect, have been in existence since Eire’s independent in 1923.

It is hard to understand why Buckler did not explain or mention this. Instead, he focused on that   there had been checkpoints on the Eire/NI border during the Irish troubles (presumably referring to the political and civil unrest that began in the 1960s and continued until 1998, though he did not say so) and added that ‘some are asking whether checkpoints would return if the UK was to vote to leave the EU’. The question here is why this would happen, and who was suggesting it would; Buckler’s narrative gave no clue. Such checkpoints on the border he was describing only existed because of security reasons linked to the political and civil unrest, the CTA free movement principles were not suspended.

Buckler then jumped to trade. He observed  that ‘some had suggested’ that the £1bn trade each week between Ireland and the UK would be affected adversely by Brexit. Was he claiming that problems would arise because of the new border checkpoints that he had imagined might be introduced?  He did not say, nor did he explain that most of the trade between Eire and the UK is not via border roads in Ireland.

His next point was another non sequitur: that towns along the Eire/Northern Ireland border had benefitted from ‘European peace money’. His example was a new sports centre where boxed Barry McGuigan trained. His statement was both disingenuous and misleading.  Yes, Northern Ireland and Eire have received from the EU (not ‘Europe’) millions from a specially established peace fund. Relevant here, however, is that the cash ultimately comes from the UK’s overall contribution to the EU and that the peace fund further relies on the UK government because elements of its contributions are dependent on match funding from national and local government, and from private enterprise.

Buckler concluded by acknowledging (again without mentioning the CTA) that concerns about immigration if Britain was outside the EU ‘some had suggested’  border controls and passports could be needed in future.  There was a vox pop from one woman who wanted such restrictions on ferries to stop terrorism, then from another female who thought the reintroduction of controls would be ‘completely insane.

He concluded:

Britain and Ireland have always sat apart from the rest of Europe geographically, but this referendum is about where the UK sits politically, and the final decision will make a difference across both islands.

The implication – from all that had gone before – was clearly that Brexit would lead to significant changes in the border arrangements, and the impact could be severely inconvenient and financially negative.  The spectre he had invoked was a return to the arrangements of the troubles, border checkpoints, restricted trade. The bias here can only be fully identified  through very careful fact-checking and examining alternative perspectives. Again the devil is in the detail.  Why did he not start from the premise that the long existence of the CTA suggested that free movement would continue?


Transcript of BBC1, Weekend News, EU Refrendum and Northern Ireland, 10.49pm

MISHAL HUSAIN:       What would next month’s EU referendum mean for Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK to have a land border with another European country? In the first of a series of reports hearing views from around the UK – our Ireland correspondent Chris Buckler has been travelling along that border. Chris?

CHRIS BUCKLER:              Mishal, I’m standing right at the border, not that there is much sign of it today. Of course, it was very different during the years of Northern Ireland’s troubles when there would have been checkpoints, often queues of cars. And Leave and Stay campaigners have been involved in a heated debate about what would happen if the UK were to leave the EU. Could it mean a return of checkpoints and the end of completely open roads? As it is, the easiest way of knowing whether you’re in the north or the south is by looking at the speed limit signs. In the Republic, they’re in kilometres per hour, in the North they’re in miles per hour. And I’ve been taking a journey along that border, and I should warn you my report does contain some flashing images. Fermanagh sits at the edge of the UK. There is a point in this land where Northern Ireland ends and the Republic begins. But could that invisible border soon mark the line where the UK meets the EU? What looks like a haphazard red line on that map is actually the border and on this one road, as you’re travelling down it, you move in and out of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland several times. In fact, coming up here we’re just going back into Fermanagh, back into the UK. But during the violent years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, there was huge security where the two countries met, and some are asking whether checkpoints would return if the UK was to vote to leave Europe.

ARLENE FOSTER MLA First Minister of Northern Ireland: We have such good relations now that we will be able to build on that, and I don’t foresee watchtowers going back in South Armagh, if that’s what the question is.

CB:        Nobody means watchtowers, but we need some kind of checkpoints, or something that says there’s a physical border there?

AF:         Well, as I say, there are borders all across Europe and those things will be negotiated if there is to be an Out vote.

CB:        Northern Ireland’s First Minister is a supporter of the Leave campaign. But other parties at Stormont are worried about the potential impact of an exit on the economy here, and the government in the Republic share some of those concerns. Approximately £1 billion of goods and services is traded between the UK and Ireland every week. Towns along this shared border have benefited from European peace money. It’s helped to build among other things this sports facility in Clones in County Monaghan. The town’s most famous son is former world boxing champion Barry McGuigan. But in the fight over Europe, he’s not sure which corner to be in.

BARRY McGUIGAN:        The south has benefited enormously from being part of Europe. I’m still relatively undecided about whether I now live in the UK or whether they should be part of Europe or not, and none of the politicians have convinced me, that’s the interesting thing. But my gut feeling tells me that the UK should be part of Europe.

CB:        Politically and practically, checkpoints on Irish roads might not be an option, but if Britain was outside of the EU and the Irish Republic within, migration controls might be necessary. Currently, you don’t need a passport to travel between these islands. But with modern security concerns, some have suggested that that could change.

VOX POP MALE:                            I think you should have to show passports regardless. You’re on a ferry, it could be anybody getting on this ferry. It could be terrorists getting on the ferry.

CB:        But other travellers, used to crossing seas and borders, don’t like the idea of new restrictions.

VOX POP FEMALE:          Where we live borders is completely . . . it’s completely insane, like again to re-establish a border.

CB:        Britain and Ireland have always sat apart from the rest of Europe geographically, but this referendum is about where the UK sits politically, and the final decision will make a difference across both islands. Chris Buckler, BBC News.

Photo by Christopher Elison

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