Brexit and the Irish border

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The UK–Republic of Ireland border crosses this road at Killeen (near Newry), marked only by a speed limit in km/h (Northern Ireland uses mph).

The Irish border question is a controversy about the impact that Brexit, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, will have on the Republic of Ireland–United Kingdom border on the island of Ireland, in particular the impact it may have on the economy and people of the island were customs or immigration checks to be put in place at the border. It was prioritised as one of the three most important areas to resolve in order to reach a Withdrawal Agreement.

The UK voted to leave the European Union in a referendum on 23 June 2016 which, if implemented, would make the Republic of Ireland–Northern Ireland border an external EU border. All parties have stated that they want to avoid a hard border in Ireland, due particularly to the historically sensitive nature of the border.


Irish independence[edit]

In 1922, the Irish Free State[a] was recognised as a self-governing dominion under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, setting the stage for full national independence, while Northern Ireland remained under the governance of the United Kingdom. Consequently the dividing line between these two parts of the island became an international border. Trade in goods and services across this frontier became subject to differing tax and tariff arrangements and an infrastructure of Customs posts was put in place at designated crossing areas. All traffic was subject to inspection by the jurisdiction it was entering. This could entail full vehicle searches with consequent delay and inconvenience. However, passport checks were not applied because the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were part of the Common Travel Area.

Closer links[edit]

A number of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements made goods checks less intrusive, the completion of the European Single Market in 1992 meant that checks on goods were phased out. However, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were British military checkpoints on main border crossings and UK security forces made some, although not all, of the remaining crossings impassable. In 2005, in phase with implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement , the last of the border checkpoints was removed.[1]

As of February 2019, the UK and the Republic of Ireland are both members of the European Union, and therefore both are in the Customs Union and the Single Market, and will remain so until March 2019. There is freedom of movement for all EU nationals, within the Common Travel Area, between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and there are no customs or fixed immigration controls at the border.

Good Friday Agreement[edit]

The British and Irish Governments:

Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union;
Reaffirming their commitment to the principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect and to the protection of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights in their respective jurisdictions;
Have agreed as follows:

British-Irish Agreement (appended to the Good Friday Agreement)[2]

Since about 2005, the border has been perceived as being invisible with little or no physical infrastructure, due to processes put in place by the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998.[2][b][3] This agreement has the status of both an international treaty between the UK and the Ireland (British-Irish Agreement) as well as an agreement of the parties within Northern Ireland (Multi-Party Agreement).

Following Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will become an external EU border.[4] In theory a "hard" border could return, with both fewer and supervised crossing posts, to support the necessary customs infrastructure.[5] Both EU and UK negotiating teams have made clear that this outcome would not be acceptable in any final exit agreement.[6][7]

US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the negotiations for the Belfast Agreement, has commented that he believes the creation of a border control system between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland might jeopardise the agreement.[8] Research published on 18 February 2019 by Irish Senator Mark Daly and two UNESCO chairmen indicated that reinstating a hard border would result in the return of violence.[9][10][11][12]

Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland[edit]

In the June 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to 44.2% in favour of remaining in the European Union. In a November 2018 opinion poll commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland and RTÉ (Republic of Ireland), 61% of those polled believed that Brexit should not go ahead if the price is a hard border (versus 36% that it should, 3% don't know).[13]

Positions on the Irish border[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

The UK government has said that Brexit will not mean a return of the hard border.[14] According to statements in 2016 by UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, it is intended to maintain this arrangement after the United Kingdom leaves the EU.[15]

In September 2016 the UK Brexit Secretary, David Davis, stated that the UK government would not seek a return to a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.[16]

British suggestions that a hard border could be avoided by having UK immigration controls introduced at Republic of Ireland ports and airports[17] were quickly rejected by Ireland.[18][19]

In its white paper on Brexit, the United Kingdom government reiterated its commitment to the Belfast Agreement. With regard to Northern Ireland's status, it said that the UK Government's "clearly-stated preference is to retain Northern Ireland's current constitutional position: as part of the UK, but with strong links to Ireland".[20]

Republic of Ireland[edit]

The Irish Government position has been to reduce public mention of border checks to avoid confrontation with opposition parties in the Dáil and to calm nationalist concerns in Northern Ireland. Repeated statements have been made by senior politicians in government denying plans are being made for a hard border.[21] Concerns have been raised by opposition parties that the government is not being forthright about the risk of, and planning for, a hard border.[22] A private admonishment by Tánaiste Simon Coveney of Minister for Transport Shane Ross in the wake of a press conference was caught on the live microphones. In reference to border checks, Coveney stated, “We can’t get into where they’ll be at this stage. They could be in the sea. They could be...but once you start talking about checks anywhere near the border people will start delving into that and all of a sudden we’ll be the Government that re-introduced a fiscal border on the island of Ireland.”[23]

In a February 2019 Sky Data poll, 79% of respondents supported the Irish government holding out for a legal guarantee that there will be no hard border, even if it risks a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. In the same poll, 81% supported cutting economic ties with the UK if forced to choose, with 19% supporting cutting ties with the EU in favour of the UK to maintain the open border.[24]

Northern Ireland[edit]

A Sinn Féin protest against a hard border. Post-Brexit border controls are a controversial issue

There have been worries among unionists that the Irish government's position is a covert attempt to gain more power over the province in to promote a united Ireland,[25] a position the Irish government has denied.[26] The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposes a hard Irish border,[27] and wishes to maintain the Common Travel Area.[28] The DUP was the only major NI party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.[29]

A referendum on the reunification of Ireland was suggested by NI Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness immediately after the UK EU referendum results were announced,[30] a stance reiterated by the new party leader Mary Lou McDonald in 2018.[31]

A week after the Brexit referendum the then First Minister of Northern Ireland, the DUP's Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness issued a joint letter in which they said that the border must not become a catalyst for illegal activity or create an incentive for those who wish to undermine the peace process.[32]

Wider EU reaction[edit]

In April 2017 the European Council agreed that, in the event of a united Ireland, Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU.[33]

In January 2019, German foreign minister Heiko Maas urged British MPs not to let UK leave the EU without a deal, saying that "some people call us stubborn, but the truth is avoiding a hard border in Ireland is a fundamental concern for the EU, a union that more than anything else serves one purpose – to build and maintain peace in Europe".[34] Nevertheless, the European Commission's chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas stated on 23 January that it is "obvious" that there would be a hard border were the United Kingdom to leave the EU without a deal.[35]

Effect on the withdrawal negotiations[edit]

Importance of the Irish border[edit]

In the withdrawal negotiations the Irish border has been set as one of the three most important areas to resolve before moving to negotiations on the future economic relationship, along with British financial contributions to the EU and the rights of EU citizens in the UK.

The Irish and UK governments, as well as EU representatives, have stated that they do not wish for a hard border in Ireland, taking into account the historical and social "sensitivities" that permeate the island.[36]

EU's negotiating stance[edit]

Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, has indicated that he would look to the United Kingdom and Ireland for "solutions" to threats posed to Ireland's trading links, the common travel area, and the Good Friday Agreement.[37] Denying UK media reports that Ireland expects the effective border to become the Irish Sea, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that "the onus was on British officials to come up with an imaginative solution but [the Irish Government] would not support a proposal which would see a hard border return on Ireland".[38]

Backstop proposal[edit]

In order to keep a friction-less border, the European Union proposed a "backstop agreement" within the Withdrawal Agreement called the Northern Ireland Protocol. This would come into force only if there were no other solutions at the time, and thus Northern Ireland would continue to operate some EU Single Market rules and remain within the EU Customs Union, for as long as may be necessary to avoid the need for border checks.[39] Although the British government agreed with the principle of such a backstop at the December 2017 meeting,[40] it rejected the legal text prepared by Michel Barnier's office because it created a legal and regulatory barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.[40] The British side asserts that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from any other part of the United Kingdom.[41][42]

In the draft UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement released on 14 November 2018, it is proposed that (from the end of the transition phase on 31 December 2020), the UK and the EU customs territories will operate as one until the parties agree jointly that a mutually satisfactory alternative arrangement has been reached. This alternative arrangement must be such as to continue to ensure that there is no evident border in Ireland. In addition, Northern Ireland will maintain "regulatory alignment" with the EU Single Market, again until a mutually satisfactory alternative arrangement can be put in place for Single Market regulations as well as Customs and Excise.[43][44]

On 15 January 2019, the UK parliament rejected a government motion to approve its draft withdrawal agreement. As of late January 2019 many Brexit-supporting Conservative and DUP MPs continued to oppose a backstop without a specified end-date, concerned that it could tie the UK to many EU rules indefinitely.[45] On 28 January 2019, May expressed opposition to the backstop that she and the EU had agreed and urged Tory MPs to back a backbench amendment replacing the backstop with unspecified "alternative arrangements".[46][47] On 29 January, this proposal, which was presented by MP Graham Brady, passed in the House of Commons by a margin of 317 votes to 301 votes.[48]

Policy areas[edit]

External EU frontiers under different trade and customs regimes
Norway–Sweden border (European Economic Area, selective border control and random customs checks. Both in Schengen Area.)
Germany–Switzerland border (European Free Trade Area, no border control, but random customs and immigration checks. Both in Schengen Area.)
Bulgaria–Turkey border (European Customs Union, full border and customs control)
Finland–Russia border (full border and customs control, visas normally required)

Common Travel Area[edit]

In 1922 the newly established Irish Free State entered into a Common Travel Area together with the United Kingdom. This meant that passport checks were not applied as the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and predates the freedom of movement provisions arising from membership of the EU, which to some degree superseded it. In 2011, the British and Irish Governments agreed informally to continue their common controls on entry to the CTA [for non-EEA nationals].[49]

In September 2018, the British government guaranteed that free movement of EU citizens across the UK–Ireland border would continue.[50] It has been suggested that the Norwegian model might be used.[51] Along the Norway–Sweden border, major road crossings have customs control where all lorries are checked, but cars only occasionally, and on minor border crossings there is only video surveillance where lorries can pass with permission and pre-clearance.[52]

Customs and VAT[edit]

Former UK Prime Minister John Major has argued that Brexit might lead to a hard border since the European Union and the UK need to control their borders for customs purposes.[53] The European Research Group faction of the Conservative Party believes that the UK might have the choice between not controlling its border if VAT is not enforced, or controlling the border in order to apply possible VAT on imported goods post-Brexit.[54][55]

In March 2019, the UK government announced that it would not perform customs checks at the Irish border after a no-deal Brexit.[56] The plan was quickly dubbed a "smuggler's charter",[57][58][59][60][61][62] and criticised for likely breaching WTO rules.[57][59][62][63][64][65][66][67]

Health issues[edit]

Cooperation exists between the UK and Ireland on health matters, including the mutual recognition of qualifications. The Northern Ireland branch of the British Medical Association warned that a hard border "could risk patient care".[68] The CEO of Cooperation and Working Together, a body that organises cross-border cooperation in health matters, suggested that the Norwegian model might be used.[68] Along the Norway–Sweden border and other Nordic borders there is some cooperation on ambulance and helicopter pickup and on child birth clinics and some more, but otherwise health care is separated.

Proposed technical solutions[edit]

No technology solution to address these issues has been designed yet or implemented anywhere in the world, let alone in such a unique and highly sensitive context as the Northern Ireland border.

Theresa May, 20 July 2018[69]

In the proposed withdrawal agreement, the special arrangement for Northern Ireland would end when a solution can be found that delivers a border as imperceptible as it became from the Good Friday Agreement until Brexit. As of January 2019, such a solution remains to be identified. Partial solutions have been proposed but have not been judged adequate.

A leaked memo by Industry Minister Richard Harrington, obtained by Sky News, said “This [technical solution] idea was considered and rejected by both the UK and the EU in summer 2018, as both parties concluded that it would not maintain an open border. That is why we ended up with the current backstop. There is currently no border in the world, outside a customs union, that has eliminated border infrastructure.”[70]

Smart Border 2.0[edit]

Lars Karlsson, former director of the World Customs Organisation and deputy director general of Swedish Customs, proposed how such a 'Smart Border 2.0' might operate.[71][72] As of January 2019, the proposal remains a theoretical one.

"Drive through border"[edit]

The information technology division of Fujitsu is reported as having pitched an artificial intelligence solution that would analyse social media posts.[73] Fujitsu said that the report in The Sun was incorrect to claim that the technology involved automatic number plate recognition cameras on a restricted number of authorised border crossings.[73] A spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the EU said that "this proposal was not taken forward as it does not work for the unique circumstances of the Northern Ireland border".[73]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Subsequently renamed as Ireland in 1937, also known since 1948 as the Republic of Ireland.
  2. ^ See "Security"


  1. ^ Georgina Lee (29 November 2017). "FactCheck: What are the options for the Irish border after Brexit?". Channel4 News. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  2. ^ a b The Good Friday Agreement – Department of Foreign Affairs, Government of Ireland
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  4. ^ Smith, Evan (20 July 2016). "Brexit and the history of policing the Irish border". History & Policy. King's College London and the University of Cambridge. Retrieved 21 July 2016.
  5. ^ Robertson, Nic (6 April 2018). "Brexit: the unexpected threat to peace in Northern Ireland". CNN. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
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  12. ^ "Brexit: Hard border would bring new wave of violence, says report". Belfast Telegraph. 18 February 2019.
  13. ^ Northern Ireland rejects hard border - and 62% say united Ireland more likely after Brexit – Victoria Leonard, Belfast Telegraph, 13 November 2018
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  68. ^ a b Brexit: Hard border 'could risk patient care' says BMA – BBC News, 2 June 2017
  69. ^ Theresa May takes a swipe at Boris Johnson as she says his Irish border solution hasn't been designed yet – Daily Mirror, 20 July 2018
  70. ^ Stewart, Heather; Sabbagh, Dan (31 January 2019). "Theresa May faces pressure to clarify backstop changes". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  71. ^ Ultra-hi-tech invisible Irish border ‘perfectly doable’, ex-customs chief says – Josh Loeb, Engineering and Technology Magazine, The Institute of Engineering and Technology, 5 April 2018
  72. ^ Smart Border 2.0 Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for customs control and the free movement of persons: At a glance (with link to full briefing. – European Parliament Brexit Committee paper and presentation, 26-02-2018
  73. ^ a b c Fujitsu pitched stalker-y AI that can read your social media posts as solution to Irish border, apparently – Rebecca Hill, The Register, 6 Feb 2019

External links[edit]