Brexit, Immigration Controls and the Border in Ireland

This is the text of a presentation at a panel discussion organised by the Ireland branch of the European Network for Anti-Racism (enar-Ireland). The event was held in Dublin on March 7, 2019, before the date on which the uk was due to leave the eu. It draws on material from a more extensive article, by the author, on Brexit, the Irish border and human freedom.

The Brexit quagmire

Brexit is a mess. And the debate around Brexit is a mess. The public debate, in the news media, on social media and in the uk (United Kingdom) parliament, has been filled with hyperbole, obfuscation and petty adversarial point-scoring. Take the case of the “backstop” (the legal insurance against a hard border on the island of Ireland). The Remain camp claim that the backstop is necessary to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and, thus, prevent Northern Ireland from returning to violent conflict. The Leave camp dismiss the idea of a descent into violence as scaremongering. The Leave camp claim that the backstop is an eu (European Union) plot against the uk. It is either, depending on which flavour of Leaver you ask, designed to break up the uk by driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the uk, or it is a plot to tie the uk into the eu forever. Brexit has raised profound questions about the nature of the uk, that the uk parliament and public are ill-equipped to deal with. Brexit is a mess, and there is currently no force that can cut through that mess.

Brexit is irresolvable. There are basically three options on the table. Revoke Article 50 and Remain in the eu. Crash out of the eu without a Deal. Or, negotiate some kind of deal with the eu. The latter, whether it is staying in the Customs Union (the Labour Party’s preferred option), Canada+, efta, Norway++, or one of the myriad other options that have been floated, will share one significant feature with the Withdrawal Agreement that Teresa May negotiated with the eu. They will involve the uk in some kind of ongoing relationship with the eu, in which the uk will have to adapt to future eu trade policy, without having a say over shaping that policy. The irresolvability of Brexit can be seen in the fact that none of the three options can happen. The uk cannot Remain in the eu, that option was rejected by the electorate in the referendum in 2016. The uk cannot crash out without a deal. That option has been rejected by a majority in parliament. The uk cannot accept the Withdrawal Agreement. That option has been rejected by the largest ever vote in Westminster against a government policy. None of those options can happen. Yet, one of those options has to happen. The uk parliament can try to postpone the decision, but a decision has to be made. Brexit is irresolvable, but it must have some kind of resolution.

In the midst of all this mess there is, however, one thing that we can be sure about. Whatever the final resolution ends up being, there will be more, and stricter, immigration controls on the island of Ireland. In all of the Brexit discussion on the Irish border it is easy to lose sight of this fact.

Brexit and border controls in Ireland

The discussions on Brexit and the Irish border has focused on the “backstop,” the legal guarantee against border controls on the land border on the island of Ireland. These discussions show the disregard that Brexiteers, and many Remainers, have for human beings. The discussions are about frictionless movement of goods, not people. There is more concern and debate about the movement of cattle, cheese and milk, than there is about the movement of human beings. Neither the eu, nor the Irish government, has sought guarantees about the free movement of people across the border on the island of Ireland.

Discussion of Brexit, migration and the Irish border involves obfuscation and myth-making. The two governments have said that free movement across the border, and between Ireland and Great Britain, will continue after Brexit. They point to the Common Travel Area (cta), a free movement agreement between the uk and the Republic of Ireland that pre-dates both countries joining the eu. The cta, however, is not an agreement about free movement of people between two jurisdictions. It is a reciprocal arrangement for free movement of only some human beings, British and Irish citizens. The cta does not guarantee the free movement of eu citizens, it is the eu which does that. In the event of Brexit (whether it is “No Deal,” “May’s Deal” or Corbyn’s proposed customs union), eu citizens will have no right of free movement between the Republic of Ireland and the uk. In the event of Brexit, the border on the island of Ireland will become the eastern outpost of Fortress Europe.

Even without Brexit, people from outside the eu, whether legally residing in the eu or not, have no right of free movement across the border in Ireland, or between Ireland and Great Britain. Even before the eu referendum was proposed migrants, mostly people of colour, were made to feel the power of the border. Over the last two decades the Garda National Immigration Bureau (gnib) have been collaborating with the uk Border Agency, the psni (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and Police Scotland, to control the movement of people across the border. In Northern Ireland, the psni, and other state forces of border control, have been controlling the movement of people within the uk. People traveling to the North from other parts of the uk, particularly people of colour, have been stopped for id checks at Northern Ireland’s three airports, as well as at the ferry terminals at Larne and Belfast. Every year thousands of people have been stopped and questioned, using Prevention of Terrorism powers, and hundreds have been imprisoned, without trial, in state immigration detention centres.

One thing that all sides of the Brexit debate at Westminster agree on, is that there need to be more restrictions on immigrants. I say all sides, because under the term of both Teresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed customs union, there would be more restrictions on immigration and immigrants. I say all sides, because whether it is a “hard” Brexit, or a “soft” Brexit, there will be more restrictions on immigration and immigrants. I say all sides, because both the official Remain camp and the Leave camp want to place more restrictions on immigration and immigrants. I say all sides, because even those businesses, and members of the political class, who are saying that the uk needs immigrants, only want some kinds of immigrants. The discussion of migration in the uk is dominated by a nationalist outlook. ukip, Migration Watch and other anti-immigrant groups say that there are too many immigrants. In response the pro-migration lobby says, “but we need migrant doctors and nurses to work in our nhs. We need migrant workers to pick fruit and veg for our farmers. We need overseas students to come and subsidise our universities.” In the policy discussions on immigration, migrants are not discussed as human beings, but as units of production, or consumers of services. This anti-human discussion and policy, and its nationalist framing, is something that needs to be challenged.

Who can challenge the anti-human nature of the immigration issue? And on what basis?

Challenging the inhumanity of immigration controls

Already there are people challenging the anti-human nature of anti-immigrant policy and debate. In the Republic, immigrants in Direct Provision are protesting the denial of their humanity. In immigration detention centres in the uk, immigrants are resisting their imprisonment and deportation. Across Ireland and Britain activists are acting in solidarity with the self-organised struggles of migrants. Across Ireland and Britain, migrant workers are actively challenging the us/them nationalist dichotomy through workplace-based struggles. There are two main emancipatory ideas underpinning these acts of resistance and solidarity: our common humanity, and proletarian internationalism.

The struggle against Direct Provision, against immigration harassment at airports and ferry ports, against immigration detention and against deportation, are struggles against oppression. They are struggles for the recognition of our common humanity. They are, to paraphrase the slogan of Black Lives Matter, struggles which say Migrants Lives Matter. They are struggles that proclaim “all lives will not matter, until migrants’ lives matter!”

The workplace-based struggles of migrant workers actively challenge nationalist ideology. They challenge the ideology that divides humanity along racial, ethnic and national lines. They say the real us/them divide is worker and employer. They say that workers have an interest in uniting, on a class basis, to free ourselves from exploitation by employers. They say that there is no white working-class. The working-class, internationally, and within every nation, is multi-ethnic and multi-national. The white working-class is not part of the workforce, it is a political stance which divides the workforce. Workers can never be free as long as we place ourselves on the side of the exploiters and oppressors. The only route to freedom for workers is to stand together against the exploiters and oppressors.

The challenge for anti-racists in Ireland today is to bring these struggles together. Brexit poses new threats, for migrants and for workers. It also creates possibilities for resistance to border controls that are not just migrant struggles. Already we have seen opposition to the border from local communities who are going to be directly affected. The international nature of migration, and the struggles against immigration control, also create possibilities for reinvigorating internationalism. Resistance to the border in Ireland can, all too easily, be appropriated to an Irish nationalist agenda. Internationalist solidarity work is already taking place, and can be further developed, through making connections with migration activists outside Ireland.

Chris Gilligan is a veteran migrant rights activist in Northern Ireland and Scotland. He is the author of “Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism.” His writings on Brexit have been published in a number of publications, including: OpenDemocracy, the Rosa Luxemburg Institute Brexit Blog and With Sober Senses (the online publication of the Marxist-Humanist Initiative).

Add Your Comments

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>