Brexit and the Irish border

The impact of Brexit on the Irish border refers to anticipated changes in trade, customs, immigration checks, local economies, services, recognition of qualifications, medical cooperation, and other matters, should Brexit occur and thereby turn the Republic of Ireland–United Kingdom border on the island of Ireland into the only external EU land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

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After the UK Parliament voted to leave the European Union, all parties said that they want to avoid a hard border in Ireland, due particularly to the border's historically sensitive nature. Border issues were one of three areas of focused negotiation in the proposed Withdrawal Agreement. Should Brexit take place before an agreement is ratified — a "no-deal Brexit" — the impact is expected to be severe.[1][2][3]


Irish independence

In 1922, the Irish Free State[lower-alpha 1] formally seceded from the United Kingdom as a self-governing dominion under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, setting the stage for full national independence, while Northern Ireland remained part 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.

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.[4]

As of December 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 the UK completes its withdrawal process. There is freedom of movement for all EU nationals and there are no customs or fixed immigration controls at the border.

Good Friday Agreement

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)[5]

Since about 2005, the border has been perceived as being invisible with little or no physical infrastructure, as the security barriers and checkpoints were removed due to processes put in place by the Good Friday Agreement (or 'Belfast Agreement') signed in 1998.[5][lower-alpha 2][6] This agreement has the status of both an international treaty between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (the 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.[7] In theory a "hard" border could return, with both fewer and supervised crossing posts, to support the necessary customs infrastructure.[8] Both EU and UK negotiating teams have made clear that this outcome would not be acceptable in any final exit agreement.[9][10]

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.[11] 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.[12][13][14][15]

Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland

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).[16]

Hard border

External EU frontiers under different trade and customs regimes. All are "hard borders" in this context.
Norway–Sweden border (European Economic Area, selective border control and random customs checks. Both in Schengen Area and Single Market.)
Germany–Switzerland border (EU–CH treaties, no border control, but random customs and immigration checks. Both in Schengen Area and Single Market.)
Bulgaria–Turkey border (EU-TR Customs Union (partial), full border and customs control, visa required for Turkish nationals)
Poland–Ukraine border (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, full border and customs control, visas may be required).

In the context of Brexit, a "hard border" means one where there are limited number of authorised (and physically controlled) crossing points, staffed by customs officers and police, supported in times of tension by military forces.[17] Drivers of vehicles crossing are required to declare goods in carriage, commercial carriers must produce bills of lading and evidence that the goods comply with the minimum standards of the territory being entered. Tariffs (in the form of customs duty) may be payable.[18] This was the position that pertained on the border from 1923 until the Single European Act in 1993.[19] (In this context, a "hard border" does not mean a fortified border but, during The Troubles, Crown Forces blocked many unapproved crossings for security reasons. Under the terms of the Common Travel Area agreement, British and Irish citizens are free to cross the border without any passport controls).

Positions on the Irish border

United Kingdom

The UK government has said that Brexit will not mean a return of the hard border.[20] According to statements in 2016 by the then UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, it is intended to maintain this arrangement after the United Kingdom leaves the EU.[21]

In September 2016 the (then) 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.[22]

In October 2016, the Guardian reported that British proposals to avoid a hard border, by 'seeking to shift the frontline of [British] immigration controls to Ireland’s ports and airports',[23] had received "signals [of] support" by some members of Enda Kenny's government.[24] However by 2017 a spokesperson for the new Irish government, under Leo Varadkar, stated that these reports had been "misinformed" and that there was "no question of UK officials acting as border agents in Ireland".[25][26]

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".[27]

Republic of Ireland

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 and unionist concerns in Northern Ireland. Repeated statements have been made by senior politicians in government denying plans are being made for a hard border.[28] Concerns have been raised by opposition parties that the government is not being forthright about the risk of, and planning for, a hard border.[29] 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 physical border on the island of Ireland.”[30]

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.[31]

Northern Ireland

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 promote a united Ireland,[32] a position the Irish government has denied.[33] The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposes a hard Irish border,[34] and wishes to maintain the Common Travel Area.[35] The DUP was the only major NI party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.[36]

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,[37] a stance reiterated by the new party leader Mary Lou McDonald in 2018.[38]

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.[39]


In April 2017, the European Council agreed that, in the event of a united Ireland, Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU under Ireland's existing membership.[40]

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".[41] 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.[42]

In April 2019, former WTO director-general and European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy said that "staying in a customs union after Brexit won't resolve the Irish border issue... Leaving the single market reintroduces a border – the thickness of which depends on the degree of regulatory divergence."[43]

Effect on the withdrawal negotiations

Part of a series of articles on the
British membership
of the
European Union
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European Union portal

In the withdrawal negotiations, the Irish border issue was one of three[lower-alpha 3] areas that required a dedicated negotiation stream so as to achieve the withdrawal agreement that is required before the future relationship between the UK and EU can be agreed.[44][45][46] 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.[47]

EU negotiating stance

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.[48] 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".[49]

Backstop proposal

The Irish backstop is a protocol in the (unratified) Brexit withdrawal agreement, that would keep the United Kingdom (in general) in the European Union Customs Union and Northern Ireland (in particular) in some aspects of the European Single Market, until a solution is found to prevent a hard border. This is so as not to compromise the Good Friday Agreement.[50] This would come into operation only if there were no other solutions by the end of the (agreed) transition period.

The Irish government supports the proposal.[51] It has been strongly opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party as weakening Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom and is regarded as the main reason why a Withdrawal Agreement has not been approved by the British Parliament.[52] The British government had rejected the original proposed text.

Policy areas

Common Travel Area

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].[53]

In September 2018, the British government guaranteed that free movement of EU citizens across the UK–Ireland border would continue.[54] It has been suggested that the Norwegian model might be used.[55] 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.[56]

Customs and VAT

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.[57] 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.[58][59]

In late October 2018, the National Audit Office warned that it was already too late to prepare the necessary Irish border security checks in the event of a no-deal Brexit in March 2019 — a weakness that organised crime would be quick to exploit.[60]

In March 2019, the UK government announced that it would not perform customs checks at the Irish border after a no-deal Brexit.[61] The plan was quickly dubbed a "smuggler's charter",[62][lower-alpha 4] and criticised for likely breaching WTO rules.[62][lower-alpha 5] Local businesses expressed severe concerns.[73]

On 17 October 2019, a revised withdrawal agreement, with a changed backstop, was agreed by the EU leaders and Boris Johnson.[74][75] In essence, this draft would keep Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market and Customs Union while allowing Great Britain to diverge. In December 2019, the UK Labour Party announced that it had obtained a HM Treasury paper using the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that appears to show that the Prime Minister's draft agreement would require some kinds of customs controls in both directions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.[76]

Health issues

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".[77] 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.[77] 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

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[78]

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 June 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."[79]

On 8 May 2019, the UK Conservative Party established a panel of experts to advise its Alternative Arrangement Commission on possible technical solutions to the dilemma.[80] The panel includes proponents of the two ideas below. The only participant with an Irish connection is Graham Gudgin, a former adviser to Brexit supporter Lord Trimble.[80]

In late September 2019, during the battle in the courts over prorogation of Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker remarked that in a no-deal Brexit, a British animal entering the Northern Ireland territory could in theory then transit the Republic of Ireland and from thence enter the continental EU, if there were no border controls.[81] "This will not happen," he said, "we have to preserve the health and the safety of our citizens".[81]

On 1 October, Boris Johnson said in an interview with The Sun:"In the words of Ian Paisley the Elder ... you could have a situation in which as it were that in Northern Ireland the people are British and the cattle are Irish".[82]

Smart Border 2.0

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.[83][84] As of June 2019, the proposal remains a theoretical one.

"Drive through border"

The information technology division of Fujitsu is reported as having pitched an artificial intelligence solution that would analyse social media posts.[85] 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.[85] 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".[85]

See also


  1. Subsequently renamed as Ireland in 1937, also known since 1948 as the Republic of Ireland.
  2. See "Security"
  3. The others are the outstanding British financial commitments to the EU budget and the rights of EU citizens in the UK (and vice versa).
  4. and other sources[63][64][65][66][67]
  5. and other sources.[64][67][68][69][70][71][72]


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