Why is Northern Ireland’s border so important to Brexit negotiations?
Northern Ireland is regularly highlighted as a major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations. But what exactly are the issues?
Northern Ireland is part of the UK
Currently, as the UK and Ireland are in the EU, goods and people can move freely between them.
Post Brexit, the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border becomes the UK’s only land border with the EU
When Brexit happens, the 310 mile border will separate EU-member Ireland and non-member Northern Ireland. This could mean passport controls being introduced on the border and possibly customs checks.
What are the logistical challenges of policing the border?
There are at least 275 border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as numerous tracks and paths. See map below highlighting just A road border crossings.
Up to 30,000 workers are ‘cross-border’. This means they live and work on different sides of the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border.
What if we continue to have no border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit?
Without border controls, EU immigrants in search of work could enter Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland unchallenged. They could live in Northern Ireland or across the Irish Sea into the mainland.
The border would likely become more of an entry point for illegal trade and migrants if there was free movement into mainland Britain.
Even now, differing levels of duty on fuel and cigarettes in Northern Ireland and the Republic mean significant amounts are smuggled across the border.
What’s this about the EU customs union?
A customs union is when countries in the group agree to apply the same tariffs on goods from outside their union.
If Northern Ireland remains part of the EU customs union whilst the rest of the UK withdraws, this would allow tariff-free trade across the border. But it seems unlikely the EU would allow such an arrangement as the rest of the UK would benefit from goods entering the country tariff-free via Northern Ireland.
If the UK as a whole remained in the EU customs union, British people who voted for Brexit are likely to say it undermines the decision to leave the EU.
What are the political sensitivities?
There are a few…
British prime minister, Theresa May’s majority in parliament (and ability to get laws passed) depends on the support of Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).The mostly Protestant unionist (or loyalist) majority are determined Northern Ireland remains within the UK, whereas the largely Catholic nationalists (or republicans) are keen for the island of Ireland to be united.
Unsurprisingly, the DUP has said it is unacceptable to have a border in the Irish Sea leaving the island of Ireland frontier-free.
Added to that, Theresa May has to try to keep her own party together so that she can govern effectively. But the Tories are hugely divided on Brexit which means she’s walking a political tightrope.
How does the Good Friday Agreement come into it?
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended 30 years of violent conflict over Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The multilateral deal brought together the UK and Irish governments behind the Northern Ireland parties who signed the power sharing agreement. As part of the deal various cross-border Northern Irish and Irish bodies were also created.
For many Catholics in Northern Ireland, membership of the EU was an important part of the bargain for remaining in the UK.
What other options are there?
The CTA (Common Travel Area) has existed since before the UK and Ireland joined the EU in 1973. It has meant that officially passport checks are unnecessary for citizens travelling between the two countries.
Immigration policing operation, Operation Gull, currently monitors non-EU passengers between Northern Ireland and Britain to make up for the lack of previous checks. This could be extended to deal with immigration from EU countries.
Spot checks upon goods are made on the border between EU member France and non-EU member Switzerland, this type of customs control could be introduced on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Or number plate recognition technology could be used.