The question of the Irish border has been a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations. With Boris Johnson repudiating the Irish Backstop and declaring it as ‘dead’, Northern Ireland has been plunged into a state of further uncertainty.
What was the Irish Backstop?
The backstop was a means of ensuring that the Irish border remained open no matter the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU over the terms of the UK’s withdrawal. This would ensure that the free movement of goods and unfettered trade between the countries on both sides of the border continued.
Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement made provision for the Irish backstop to continue throughout the ‘transition period’ which could last until December 2022. The backstop would continue to be in place at the end of the transition period unless an alternative deal had been brokered to preserve the border.
The backstop would have seen the UK remaining in a ‘single customs territory’ with the EU and allowed some of the trade restrictions to be removed. This would allow goods to be moved across the border without tariffs being applied.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which forms a major part of the peace process which normalised cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, also relies on both the UK and Ireland being EU members. Without the backstop, there is the potential for the terms of the agreement to be undermined which could cause wider-reaching social problems.
The Economic Impact of Brexit
With Brexit uncertainty mounting, the fact that the Irish economy is inextricably linked with the UK becomes a source of concern. With 80% of the goods exported by Ireland passing through the UK, the Irish government has expressed concern about the potential financial impact on the Irish economy. Grants and funding have been put in place to help small businesses prepare.
There are practical problems to be addressed, for example, the shared electrical market which would require Northern Ireland to comply with regulations set by the EU without being able to influence them in any way. This could result in the electricity supply from Ireland to Northern Ireland being affected.
Other restrictions could end up seeing a rise in smuggling, especially with high-tariff goods such as cigarettes and alcohol. This would require an increase in customs policing which would be costly and unpopular. In total, it is estimated that Northern Ireland’s GDP could fall by 3% as a direct result of Brexit, which represents a hugely unwelcome drop.
How might immigration controls be implemented on the island of Ireland post-Brexit?
When the Leave campaign was promising that leaving the EU would give the UK tighter controls over their borders, there was no mention of what that would entail for the border with Ireland. The current arrangement is set out in the 1971 Immigration Act which defines the Common Travel Area (CTA). This allows British citizens and those from Ireland to travel freely between the two, with the potential for a hard border strongly discouraged. However, continuing free movement across that border will limit the government’s ability to reduce net migration to the UK, something promised by the Conservative Party during the previous election campaign. One suggestion was for UK immigration policy to become a ‘de facto British immigration policy’, whereby immigration was controlled at all Irish ports and airports rather than along the land border. However, due to the history of tension between Britain and Ireland, such a development would be most unwelcomed.
This has raised concerns that the only way to ‘manage’ the border will be to resort to concerning methods such as racial profiling (dressed up as ‘ad hoc’ checks) or extending the scope of immigration control operations. Given that the Irish republic will continue to allow free movement from EU countries, the UK government’s pledge to uphold the CTA after Brexit means that there
will be nothing in place to prevent EU migrants crossing the border unchallenged. BrexitLawNI raise concerns that the BAME community in Northern Ireland will suffer greatly from this, with unjust detention for those who cannot convince immigration officials of their status.
This could result in Northern Ireland being one of the most heavily policed areas of the UK when it comes to immigration control; a far from an ideal outcome. Political influencers are keen to encourage the government to allow immigration policy to be devolved, allowing local and regional variations, which could be more responsive to human rights issues and lower the chances of wide-scale criminalisation of migrant communities.
A Possible Return to Violence and Tension in the Region
The removal of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has proved to be an effective measure in facilitating an environment of cooperation between the two. Reintroducing a hard border will not only have a potentially devastating effect on trade and the economy, it could also endanger the peace process, something that has been such a vital part of maintaining stability in the region. A frictionless, invisible border is a cornerstone of the GFA due to the emphasis it places on cross-community consent. The absence of a physical partition between the two jurisdictions is looked upon favourably by the nationalist community due to their belief in a united Ireland. With this in mind, the erection of any border infrastructure could become an immediate target for paramilitary organisations.
A study conducted by Queen’s University Belfast has found that there is significant opposition to the reintroduction of a hard border in Ireland. Around 60% of respondents stated that they would support peaceful protests at the border, should that look like a possibility.
A small, but vocal minority of around 5% of those surveyed admitted that they would be in favour of vandalising border technology, and it is feared that a return to some form of violence would be inevitable were such measures to be introduced.
Acting as a catalyst for recent unrest, the threat of a no-deal Brexit has left the region at risk of economic, social and political turmoil. Experts are urging the UK government to consider their next moves carefully, and be aware of the potentially volatile situation that a hard border could cause.
Jo Smith and Cameron Boyle are content writers for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors who help undocumented migrants to regulate their status.