At 5 o’clock on the morning of 31 January 2020, a handful of reporters and press photographers huddled in the pre-dawn rain at Dublin Port, where a group of senior Fine Gael politicians had donned yellow high-viz vests for a photo op. Then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney; Minister for Finance, Pascal Donohoe; European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee; and MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, Máiread McGuinness watched as the first ferries of the day docked and freight and passengers began to disembark. They also received a tour of new port facilities, purpose built to accommodate the potential infrastructural, procedural and regulatory demands placed on Dublin Port by the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union, which took legal effect at 11.00 pm that evening. In the midst of a general election campaign in which Brexit had featured surprisingly little, this Fine Gael Brexit-day photo-call was intended to serve as a reminder that the key issue around which Irish politics had turned since 2016 had not gone away.
Perhaps nowhere have the cultural, political and economic aftershocks of UK voters’ 2016 decision to leave the European Union been more acutely felt than on the island of Ireland, where Brexit has posed a profound, even existential, risk. Appropriately, attention has focussed on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and considerable political capital has been invested in ensuring that this border remains open to the free flow of both people and goods. This openness – underpinned by joint British and Irish membership of the European Union – was both a necessary condition for and a key component of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought to an end the period of violence known euphemistically as ‘the Troubles’. After proving something of a sticking point in Brexit negotiations, measures to protect the openness of the land border on the island of Ireland were ultimately a key part of the Withdrawal Agreement ratified by the UK and the EU in January 2020.
Brexit’s impact on the land border, and the deep concerns of those who live on or near it have, broadly (and for good reason) been well-examined (even if they have not always been substantially addressed) during the Brexit process. However, Brexit has also created profound challenges for those whose lives and livelihoods are shaped by traversing the border in the Irish Sea. While, on paper at least, the status quo has been largely protected on land, at sea, disruption is all-but guaranteed.
In this regard, Dublin Port has been what Irish Times columnist Simon Carswell has called Ireland’s Brexit ‘ground zero’. Some 90 percent of Ireland’s road freight traffic passes through Dublin Port. In just one of the four ‘waves’ of ferries from Holyhead, Liverpool and Heysham that dock at the port daily, the equivalent of 13 km of ‘roll-on, roll-off’ (ro-ro) freight is unloaded before 6.00 am. Speed and timing are of the essence, with many of these lorries carrying food and other perishable goods. With no customs or regulatory checks on much of their cargo, lorries make their way out of the port via the Dublin Tunnel and on to Ireland’s motorway network in a matter of minutes. Hauliers travelling the other direction are able to make use of the UK’s inspection-free ‘land-bridge’ to get Irish goods to mainland Europe in less than 20 hours. With the UK and Ireland due to find themselves in divergent customs and regulatory regimes, and with the threat of a no-deal crash-out (with attendant increases in tariff and non-tariff barriers) still clear and present, the extent to which this will still be possible after the Brexit transition has remained a thorny question.
Dublin Port has invested some €30 million and re-purposed some 10 hectares of land in preparation for Brexit. In anticipation of a new regime of checks, inspections and paperwork, for the first time since the completion of the EU single market in the early 1990s, customs posts have been built rather than dismantled, and revenue officers have been newly recruited. The delays that border checks might mean for ‘ro-ro’ freight entering and leaving Dublin Port could have knock-on effects for the city and country more widely, with contingency plans in place to limit congestion in the Port Tunnel, on the M50 and M1. There are further plans for new warehouses, cargo unloading areas, inspection bays and areas for live animal storage, in order to facilitate new regulatory checks for food, medicines, animals and other products entering the EU’s single market from the UK.
Superficially these new infrastructural developments are simply a practical (and, depending on the nature of any new trade agreement reached between the UK and the EU, potentially redundant) response to the material challenges posed by Brexit. More subtly, and arguably more profoundly, they are a physical manifestation of the strain that Brexit has placed on (already complicated) political, cultural and social relationships within and between ‘these islands’. As suggested by the Guardian’s Rory Carroll, “new infrastructure is usually a source of pride [in Dublin Port], a sign that the gateway to Ireland’s economy is expanding”. However, there will not be “any ribbon-cutting ceremony” if and when new customs inspection posts are forced to open. Dublin Port’s new border posts mark a new chapter in relationships across the Irish Sea, which will be defined in one way or another, by new barriers and frictions, the full extent and impact of which remain to be seen.