Brexit and Northern Ireland

Commentary by Danaë LAZARI

The effect of Brexit on the island of Ireland was an issue which received relatively little attention in both campaigns in the run up to the EU referendum. Nevertheless it is an issue with substantial significance. Northern Ireland is likely to be  hardest hit by Brexit, and this has severe political and emotional implications for the region, particularly regarding the peace process. 

The Border

Jonto CC BY-SA 3.0
The 499 km (310 mi) border between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland – by Jonto, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Republic of Ireland is the only EU member state to share a land border with the UK. However, this land border has an extraordinarily symbolic dimension. During the 30-year period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, the border became subject to a systematic attempt to make it impossible to cross except at approved routes, where army and police checkpoints were installed. This was an effort by the British army to prevent the movement of paramilitaries into and out of Northern Ireland. Crossing the border meant passing through British checkpoints and became a source of frustration and anxiety for people crossing, whose journeys became much more time-consuming and, more distressingly, who feared the possibility of getting caught up in an IRA ambush or attack.

Border controls began to be removed following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The border, which now sits on an EU-funded motorway linking Ireland and Northern Ireland, is conspicuous only in the absence of even routine border checks. There are no customs or passport checks – the border now exists in nothing but name, allowing at least 18,000 workers and 5,200 students to cross for work or study every day.

When the UK leaves the EU, this border will become an external EU border and theoretically should be under the same stringent checks and controls that exist in all other external EU borders. It is true that Ireland and the UK share a special relationship that should be represented in exit negotiations. However, those who believe that the final withdrawal agreement will reflect this special relationship may be overly optimistic. Ireland did not join Schengen largely due to the fact that the UK did not. This was partly in order to preserve the free border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. When the UK leaves the EU, Ireland may be under substantial pressure to join Schengen. If it finds it is in its national interest to do so, and especially if a border is already stipulated in the UK’s withdrawal agreement, it is reasonable to assume that a hard border will be introduced between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Additionally, the EU referendum was won largely due to fears over uncontrolled immigration to the UK. When the UK leaves the EU, Ireland will still be an EU member state with all four freedoms, and could therefore be perceived as a ‘back door’ to the UK, especially if there is a free border with Northern Ireland that migrants could use to enter the UK. It is difficult to see how a UK government with a mandate to reduce immigration would allow the retention of a free border with an EU member state, even if the EU had agreed to allow such an arrangement in the first place.

The Peace Process

Ardfern CC BY-SA 3.0
The Ulster Banner flying over a Unionist area of Derry (foreground), and the Irish tricolour flying over a nationalist area in the city (backgroud) – by Ardfern, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The potential re-establishment of checks on the border is not the only threat to the Irish peace process. The EU contributes a significant amount of funding to consolidating peace in the region. From 1995-2013, EU initiatives encouraging the peace process have spent approximately €1.3 billion. Over 5,000 people have received trauma counselling paid for by the EU. Northern Ireland is expected to receive almost €3 billion from EU programmes such as PEACE and INTERREG in the period between 2014-2020. It is unclear what will happen to this funding once the UK withdraws.

The Good Friday Agreement ended the 30 year conflict, and was signed by Ireland and the UK with the help of the EU. Brexit threatens to undermine the agreement because it is predicated on joint membership of the EU and of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Furthermore, North-South relationships have benefited from the improvement in the Anglo-Irish relationship itself, which has been helped enormously by years of working side by side as allies in Brussels.

The Common Travel Area

Tourists on peace line
The wall between Shankill and Falls is one of the most visitied in Belfast, but it is only one among more than 80 ‘peace walls’ – by Duke Human Rights Center, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Common Travel Area which allows Irish and UK citizens to travel freely across the British Isles, and facilitates a check-less border, has only existed where either both countries are not members of the EU, or where they are both members. Technically, because it privileges Irish citizens above other EU citizens, such an agreement is not permissible by EU law. If the UK wishes to sustain the Common Travel Area with Ireland after it withdraws from the EU, it would have to offer the same benefits to the remaining 26 EU member states. The CTA has many wide-ranging benefits. Irish people living in the UK could vote in the EU referendum on the basis of the agreement. UK citizens living in Ireland have significant access to Irish social services on the basis of the agreement. Given the key role immigration and sovereignty played in the referendum result, it is highly unlikely that the UK government would even entertain the notion of offering similar benefits to 500 million EU citizens. 

There are those who argue that existing bilateral agreements would not be affected even when the UK leaves the EU by virtue of the 1949 Ireland Act, under which the UK government finds that Ireland would not be treated as a foreign country with regards to British law. Nevertheless, this has also never been tested under the umbrella of the EU, where one party is an EU member state and the other is not. At the very least, then, it is expected that the extent to which these agreements will hold will be determined during the UK’s exit negotiations, and are therefore subject to a great deal of uncertainty.


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