Irish border question

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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 the UK's withdrawal 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 would effectively 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] repatriated its national legislature from London, 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 2018, 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.

Belfast Agreement[edit]

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 1998 Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement. The Belfast Agreement, signed on the Christian holiday of Good Friday (10 April 1998), has the status of both an international treaty between the UK and the Republic of 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.[2] It is theorised that a "hard" border may return, with both fewer and supervised crossing posts, in order to support the necessary customs infrastructure.[3] Both the EU and the UK negotiating teams have expressed a sentiment that this ought to be avoided, where possible, in the outcome of the treaty negotiations around the UK's exiting the European Union.

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.[4]

Positions on the Irish border[edit]

United Kingdom government[edit]

The UK government has said that Brexit will not mean a return of the hard border.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

British suggestions that a hard border could be avoided by having UK immigration controls introduced at Republic of Ireland ports and airports[8] were quickly rejected by Ireland.[9][10]

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".[11]

Reactions from Northern Ireland parties[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 order to eventually unite Northern Ireland with the Republic,[12] a position the Irish government has denied.[13] The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposes a hard Irish border,[14] and wishes to maintain the Common Travel Area.[15]

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,[16] a stance reiterated by the new party leader Mary Lou McDonald in 2018.[17]

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.[18]

Wider EU reaction[edit]

In April 2017 the European Council agreed that, in the event of Irish reunification, Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21] 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".[22]

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 EU Customs Union, for as long as may be necessary to avoid the need for border checks.[23] Although the British government agreed with the principle of such a backstop at the December 2017 meeting,[24] 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.[24] The British side asserts that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from any other part of the United Kingdom.[25][26]

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.[27][28]

On 10 December 2018, the Government withdrew from Parliament its motion to approve the withdrawal agreement, noting substantial opposition to inclusion of the Northern Ireland protocol as it stands.[29]

Policy areas[edit]

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].[30]

In September 2018, the British government guaranteed that free movement of EU citizens across the UK–Ireland border would continue.[31] It has been suggested that the Norwegian model might be used.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[35][36]

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".[37] 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.[37] 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.

Technical solutions[edit]

Border 2.0[edit]

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 has been pre-Brexit. Lars Karlsson, former director of the World Customs Organisation and deputy director general of Swedish Customs, has proposed how such a 'Smart Border 2.0' might operate.[38][39] As of the proposal remains a theoretical one a long-term disastrous solution for religious and sectarian confessionalism among British unionists is Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland the best solution to be taken as an example in the United Kingdom and as happened in the former Yugoslavia that divided the nations like the current Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The current Great Britain consisting of the 4 constituent nations such as England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the latter or as a nation independent of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom or the reunification of Ireland as an Irish nation as the best solution and Independence Scotland of the United Kingdom the same and Northern Ireland which irish border question solutions reunifies with the Republic of Ireland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Subsequently renamed as Ireland/Éire, also known as the Republic of Ireland


  1. ^ Georgina Lee (29 November 2017). "FactCheck: What are the options for the Irish border after Brexit?". Channel4 News. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Robertson, Nic (6 April 2018). "Brexit: the unexpected threat to peace in Northern Ireland". CNN. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  4. ^ "George Mitchell: UK and Ireland need to realise what's at stake in Brexit talks". Belfast Telegraph. 8 April 2018. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  5. ^ Lyons, Niamh (31 January 2017). "Brexit will not mean hard border, leaders vow". The Times, Ireland edition. Retrieved 29 April 2017. (Registration required (help)).
  6. ^ Keena, Colm (26 July 2016). "Britain does not want return to Northern Ireland border controls, says May". The Irish Times. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  7. ^ McDonald, Henry (1 September 2016). "Brexit secretary: no return to 'hard' border in Ireland". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  8. ^ McDonald, Henry; O'Carroll, Lisa (10 October 2016). "Irish Republic signals support for UK plan to avoid post-Brexit "hard border"". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  9. ^ "UK officials at Irish ports ruled out". RTÉ News. 23 March 2017. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  10. ^ O'Regan, Michael (26 October 2016). "Brexit: Ireland has no agreement with UK on use of Irish ports". The Irish Times. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  11. ^ The United Kingdom's exit from and new partnership with the European Union HM Government, February 2017
  12. ^ David Trimble: Ireland risks provoking (loyalist) paramilitaries over post-Brexit border. Henry McDonald, The Guardian, 6 April 2018
  13. ^ David Smith Brexit threatens Good Friday agreement, Irish PM warns The Guardian, 14 March 2018
  14. ^ Hughes, Laura (9 June 2017). "Who are the DUP and will they demand a soft Brexit to prop up the Tories?". The Telegraph. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  15. ^ Syal, Rajeev (9 June 2017). "From climate denial to abortion: six DUP stances you should know about". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  16. ^ Fenton, Siobhan (24 June 2016). "Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister calls for poll on united Ireland after Brexit". The Independent. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  17. ^ Irish reunification ‘on the table’, says Sinn Fein's new leader amid Brexit talks France 24, 26 February 2018; Retrieved 29 March 2018
  18. ^ Mark Devenport (10 August 2016). "Foster and McGuinness in Brexit talks call". BBC News. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  19. ^ Ellen Coyne (29 April 2017). "EU approval 'brings united Ireland closer'". The Times, Ireland edition. Retrieved 29 April 2017.(subscription required)
  20. ^ Millar, Joey (31 March 2017). "EU pledges NO hard border in Ireland - but admits 'creative' solution needed". Daily Express. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  21. ^ Kevin Doyle (17 April 2017). "EU sees our unique circumstances but the 'Irish question must be dealt with early in the talks'". Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  22. ^ 'Onus on British to resolve Irish border issue for Brexit: Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Coveney – Belfast Telegraph, 28 July 2017
  23. ^ Patrick Logue (20 July 2018). "Brexit: What is the 'backstop' agreement and why does it matter?". The Irish Times.
  24. ^ a b Henley, Jon (7 June 2018). "Brexit: what is the UK's backstop proposal?". The Guardian.
  25. ^ "New backstop plan for Irish border will tie in whole of UK". The Times. 17 May 2018.(subscription required)
  26. ^ "Arlene Foster: If backstop isn't removed, Brexit deal won't get DUP support". 25 November 2018.
  27. ^ Brexit draft agreement: What has been agreed on Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border – Belfast Telegraph, 14 November 2018
  28. ^ European Commission - Fact Sheet: Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland – European Commission, 14 November 2018
  29. ^ Theresa May calls off MPs' vote on her Brexit deal – BBC, 10 December 2018]
  30. ^ "Ireland-UK Accord to Further Secure the Common Travel Area". Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service. 20 December 2011. The Joint Statement and the accompanying Memorandum of Understanding on visa data exchange was signed by Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter, T.D. and UK Immigration Minister, Damien Green, M.P., in Dublin today
  31. ^ "Major breakthrough in Irish strand of Brexit talks". The Irish Times. 1 September 2017. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  32. ^ Adam Payne (9 May 2018). "The House of Lords voted for Theresa May to negotiate a Norway-style Brexit — here's what that means". Business Insider Nordic.
  33. ^ "Trafiktillstånd för transporter mellan Sverige och Norge]" (in Swedish). Tullverket (Swedish customs). Retrieved 4 July 2018. Translation:"With a traffic permit, you as a carrier can pass a border crossing that does not have an open clearance expedition"
  34. ^ O'Carroll, Lisa (10 May 2018). "Customs union only way to prevent hard border in Ireland, says Major". The Guardian.
  35. ^ Michael Burrage (7 December 2017). "Regulatory divergence does not require a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic". Brexit Central. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  36. ^ John Campbell (12 September 2018). "Brexit Irish border: ERG report has more sober approach but problems remain". BBC News. Retrieved 12 September 2018.
  37. ^ a b Brexit: Hard border 'could risk patient care' says BMA – BBC News, 2 June 2017
  38. ^ 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
  39. ^ 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