Can Europe Make It?

Irish border contradictions and chaos: how will Brexit affect Northern Ireland?

Such an intractable situation suggests that since Brexit’s genesis, the UK’s only land frontier with the EU has been an afterthought.

Cameron Boyle
14 October 2019
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Dublin, August 2017.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Dublin, August 2017.
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Niall Carson/PA. All rights reserved.

Brexit will change the face of Northern Ireland. Its social and economic wellbeing has taken a back seat throughout the entire process, with a lack of forward thinking in Westminster compromising the future of a nation. The commitment to a frictionless border contradicts the UK’s future immigration policy, and the associated unrest will cause more divisions in a country already divided. Additionally, the introduction of customs checks would not only hamper cross-border trade, but form a physical target for violence and destruction.

The movement of people

Boris Johnson is striving for the hardest possible form of Brexit. Regardless of whether a deal is struck, free movement will end once the UK’s membership of the EU ends. At present, the Common Travel Area (CTA) is in place, enabling citizens of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland to move freely between the two nations. The CTA is an intrinsic part of the frictionless and invisible nature of the Irish border – without such an agreement, border crossings would necessitate immigration checks. Johnson’s government, like May’s before it, has committed to upholding the CTA regardless of Brexit’s outcome. In essence, this is positive. One potential form of disruption on the island of Ireland can be cast aside. Regrettably, however, it is a move that asks more questions than it answers.

At present, the Common Travel Area (CTA) is in place, enabling citizens of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland to move freely between the two nations.

As touched upon, the EU’s principle of free movement will soon no longer apply to the UK. Yet for the Irish Republic, it will continue as usual. The CTA only functions effectively due to a sufficient degree of alignment between UK and Irish immigration policies, as this prevents either country forming a ‘back door’ for entry into the other. Whilst Irish citizens will continue to be exempt, other EU nationals will be subject to immigration control in post-Brexit Britain. This comprises a major divergence from Ireland’s approach to EU nationals, a divergence that damages the integrity of the CTA.

Immigration and discrimination

A cornerstone of the Leave campaign was the pledge to reduce net migration. Paradoxically, the continuity of the CTA will mean that citizens of all member states can cross the border completely unchallenged. Michel Barnier has described the government’s decision to uphold the CTA in a way that does not impinge on the freedom of any European citizens as ‘an extremely important step’. It is plausible to assume that, for those who voted for Brexit under the assumption that our borders will be strengthened, the feeling will be markedly different. It raises the key question of how immigration will be controlled in Northern Ireland.

At one stage, it was thought that UK immigration policy could become a ‘de facto British immigration policy’, which would involve the UK government controlling immigration at all Irish ports and airports rather than along the 310-mile land border. The political and historical sensitivities of such a move make it unviable – the British controlling immigration from within the Irish Republic would be controversial in the extreme.

A frictionless border leaves the Home Office with no other choice than to control immigration via other means. The government’s position paper points out that ‘controlling access to labour market and social security’ have long formed an integral part of the immigration system. This essentially means that whilst EU nationals may be able to enter Northern Ireland, they will be unable to forge a meaningful existence without demonstrating their status to immigration officials. BrexitLawNIraise concerns that the situation will lead to a major rise in racial profiling and on-the-spot immigration checks – even those with a legal right to reside in the UK will be singled out based on ethnicity.

The extension of immigration controls into areas such as employment and healthcare were a well-documented element of the ‘hostile environment’ policy; it is likely that Northern Ireland will see unprecedented levels of hostility in the wake of Brexit.

It is an oversight that will have severe implications for ethnic minority communities on both sides of the border. Such an intractable situation suggests that since Brexit’s genesis, the UK’s only land frontier with the EU has been something of an afterthought. On an island with a history of violence and civil rights issues, a source of additional tension is most unwelcome. The avoidance of a hard border does ensure that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is upheld, which enables those in Northern Ireland to claim Irish as well as British citizenship. However, the GFA is enshrined in EU law, and Brookings point out that while pending UK legislation reasserts the citizens’ rights it provides, it is unclear how such rights will be enforced.

Trade and tension

The economic relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic will change inexorably after Brexit. The two economies are highly interconnected at present, with the invisible border enabling the seamless flow of trade. An invisible border is made possible by shared participation in both the single market and customs union; non-tariff barriers such as different regulatory standards are removed by the former, whilst the latter means that tariffs and ‘rules of origin’ checks are unnecessary. In 2016, trade across the border was worth £4 billion. 34% of Northern Ireland’s EU exports go to the Republic, evidencing the significance of uninhibited cross-border trade. Tariff-free trade is also immensely important to the Republic, with almost half of its EU exports heading to the UK.

It is important to note that any infrastructure at the border will form an immediate target for destruction – 5% of the population showed support for ‘vandalising border technology’.

The Irish backstop – now discarded by Johnson – was designed to avoid border checks by keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union and in ‘full regulatory alignment’ with the single market for goods. Johnson instead proposes Northern Ireland exiting the customs union, but staying under single market regulations for agri-food and manufactured goods for four years. Customs checks will therefore be required – not only does this contravene the GFA’s principle of ‘cross-border cooperation’, but the potential imposition of tariffs will damage the interconnected nature of the economy.

The Prime Minister has singled out the agri-food sector due to its immense importance to Northern Ireland; 3.2% of the entire workforce are employed in this sector, more than treble the percentage figure for England. Whilst remaining aligned with the single market will avoid non-tariff barriers, leaving the customs union will leave the sector vulnerable to import tariffs. Even a 3.2% ‘Most Favoured Nation’ level would have significant adverse effects. It is important to note that any infrastructure at the border will form an immediate target for destruction – 5% of the population showed support for ‘vandalising border technology’.

Time is running out. It is now crucial for Northern Ireland’s future to take precedence above all else.

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