N. Ireland Politics

Brexit: How the Irish border issue was viewed during campaigning

A map of Northern Ireland Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has become the major sticking point in the Brexit talks

How the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland looks after Brexit has dominated the news cycle over the past three years - but some British media and politicians have claimed recently that the border was barely mentioned in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Conservative peer Lord Forsyth, who was part of the Vote Leave campaign, was the latest to make that assertion during an appearance on Question Time several weeks ago, saying it since had been turned into an issue by those who want the UK to stay in the EU.

But a quick scan back to articles from 2016 proves there was discussion long before the crucial vote about what Brexit could mean for the 310-mile long Irish border.

Ahead of the June 2016 referendum, then Home Secretary Theresa May said it was "inconceivable" that there wouldn't be any changes to border arrangements regarding security and checks if Brexit happened.

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Media captionBorder controls 'would follow Brexit'

Her words echoed much of the debate that had been taking place for months in the Northern Ireland Assembly between the political parties - not to mention discussion about it among local businesses, academics and households.

The then Chancellor George Osborne also suggested there would have to be a hardening of the border after Brexit, reflecting that if the UK left the EU's customs union then some sort of checks or controls would need to be introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland - unless another solution could be found.

Ex-political opponents and PMs Sir John Major and Tony Blair even made a rare joint intervention, visiting the peace bridge in Londonderry to stress the importance of the border issue.

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Media captionSir John Major and Tony Blair warned a vote to leave the EU will impact the border and NI peace process

It also goes back further than that. In 2015, before the decision had been taken to hold the referendum, a report for the Oireachtas joint committee on European Union affairs said Brexit could impact on cross-border travel.

All the messages, however, seemed to go under the radar when it came to the national Brexit debate - or perhaps some weren't listening?

'Disingenuous'

Matthew O'Toole, from County Down, worked in Downing Street as a Europe spokesperson during the referendum campaign and recalls the mood.

"It wasn't just an afterthought for voters - it was an afterthought for people involved in the campaign. It definitely was not a first-tier issue," he acknowledged.

He put forward several reasons for that, the key one for London officials being that the Irish border would not be the "decisive" matter for the English electorate when they cast their vote.

"In order to get people to understand why it's an issue you have to do a level of education to even get voters to understand the challenge," said Mr O'Toole.

"It wasn't talked about enough, but it's disingenuous to say it wasn't talked about - the key thing is the leave campaign did not engage with it.

"I was personally talking about it in Number 10, I did debate and push them to make it more of an issue and to explain why it should be a bigger issue."

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Media captionWould you notice if you crossed the Irish border?

Downing Street's argument was perhaps not aided by the fact that the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, was also a staunch supporter of leaving the EU.

She took a totally different view to many of her cabinet colleagues, facing criticism for saying that if Brexit happened, the UK would keep an open border with Ireland and described claims to the contrary as "scare tactics".

Mr O'Toole believes Ms Villiers' stance meant the Northern Ireland Office was stuck when it came to the overall Brexit debate.

'Unchanged'

"It's shameful now to think back on it, it's ridiculous that her position prevented this from being talked about by the NIO," he said.

Other Brexiteer MPs also talked about the Irish border ahead of the referendum, arguing they were not ignoring the issue - but rather trying to allay concerns about it.

Among them, Boris Johnson during a visit to Northern Ireland in February 2016, when he said Brexit would leave border arrangements "absolutely unchanged".

The following month, another senior leave campaign figure Nigel Farage spoke at a Ulster University debate about Brexit, taking a similar view to Mr Johnson on the Irish border - but both men seemed to suggest solutions that have since been dismissed.

'Drowned out'

After the vote, some leave voters admitted they did not realise the consequences of what it could mean for Northern Ireland.

Journalist and commentator Peter Oborne even travelled to the border several months ago to make a video for the website Joe.ie, where he acknowledged that before the referendum, he had little understanding of the potential impact it would have on people living on both sides of the Irish border, ramifications for cross-border trade and the peace process.

Kevin Maguire, associate editor at the Daily Mirror, said he even struggled at times to get his newspaper to cover the border as an issue in its pre-referendum coverage.

"It got drowned out because of the focus on money and immigration," he said.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Parliament has been unable to pass a Brexit deal, despite negotiations lasting more than two years

The journalist added that he believed national coverage of Northern Ireland had decreased massively after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.

"It was almost as if everything was fine, it became that Northern Ireland was out of sight - but the border issue was always obvious and we can see now that it was massively underplayed.

"I'm not sure covering it more would have changed the outcome of the vote, but we'd be better educated."

Reflecting on the events of more than three years ago, Mr O'Toole agrees the British media played a part in failing to emphasise the Irish border during the campaign - and not just about what it would mean for trade and the flow of people.

"It's also about how people feel about identity, consent and belonging - those are really profound, big questions that are difficult to put back in a box once they've been taken out," he said.

"I don't think in 2016 that people in London on either side of the debate reckoned with how difficult it was going to be."

In 2019, the issue has certainly gained much more attention, but even with the added discourse there is no meeting of minds about how to resolve it.

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