The chances are that unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years, you’re familiar with the term Brexit and what it generally means for Britain and the European Union (EU). It may even be true that you understand the more nuanced aspects of Britain’s long, protracted and frankly messy break-up with the EU. However, what you may not be 100 percent au fait with is the impact that Brexit, if it ever actually happens, will have on Northern Ireland, and in particular the border regions between the north and south of the island.
At Moving2Ireland we are very cognizant of the massive impact that Brexit could have on Northern Ireland and we feel it is vital to ensure that our community is as informed as possible about what may lie in store for them should they wish to move or return to Northern Ireland. With this in mind, we have created a guide to help answer some of the questions you may have. Given the complex nature of Brexit and the ongoing negotiations, it is fair to say that this is not an exhaustive list but we are confident that you will have a clearer idea of what post-Brexit Northern Ireland may look like after reading this.
A brief primer on the Irish border
For most of the ‘troubles’ – the term used to define the three decade period of conflict in Northern Ireland – the border was a symbolic reminder of the turmoil and destruction that plagued the region. British army officers manned the border with heavily fortified checkpoints, often intentionally destroying civilian crossings to make it more difficult for the IRA to ferry members across the border to a so-called ‘safe-haven’ in the south. For their part, the very presence of British Army officers on the border led to said checkpoints being the target of attacks. All told, the border brought a lot of misery and exacerbated many of the problems faced by both communities in Northern Ireland for almost thirty years.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ushered in a period of peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland that had witnessed almost three decades of violence. One of the key tenets of the Good Friday Agreement was the removal of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is hard to say for certain whether this opening of the border between north and south on the island of Ireland could have happened without both countries (the UK and Republic of Ireland) being part of the European Union, but there’s little doubt that it certainly helped.
Unfortunately, Brexit has the potential to change all that.
The risk of a return to the hard border
In June 2016, Northern Ireland chose to remain in the EU with 56 percent of voters opting to vote for the UK to remain in the EU. However, Northern Ireland makes up a very small share of the UK’s total population — just 3 percent, or about 1.8 million people — and it did little to tip the final referendum outcome in favour of the ‘remain’ camp. In the end, the UK voted to leave the EU by a margin of 52 percent to 48, thus making Brexit a reality and resurrecting concerns about a border in Northern Ireland.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to the south spans 310 miles and is littered with over 300 different crossings – many of these are private or unmarked roads where the only way of knowing whether you’re in the south or the north is by dint of the speed limit signs which are in miles per hour in Northern Ireland but kilometre per hour in the Republic of Ireland.
The idea of a return to a border of checkpoints, customs agents and maybe even armed officers – a reality that is often referred to as a hard border – is something that very few want to see, and is a direct contradiction to much of the good work enacted from the Good Friday Agreement. However, if and when Brexit occurs and the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will no longer both be members of the single market or the customs union, thus making a borderless Ireland a real challenge.
I’ve heard a lot about the backstop, what is it?
If you google searched the term ‘backstop’ before 2017, then you were likely to find results more aligned with baseball than anything to do with Brexit or the Irish border. However, since then the term has become synonymous with ensuring that the aforementioned hard border does not become a reality.
The backstop is a sort of last resort that maintains an open border on the island of Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without securing an all-encompassing deal. A scenario that is looking increasingly likely given the futility of Brexit negotiations to date. And after Brexit, this could all change.
In essence, the backstop is a safety net arrangement proposed by both the remaining 27 EU states, particularly Ireland, and the UK that will apply to the Irish border after Brexit, if a wider deal or technological solution cannot keep it as frictionless as it is today. Crucially, an agreement on the backstop is important because the EU won’t agree to a transitional period and substantive trade talks until it is in place but challenges remain.
Since the backstop was first proposed in December 2017, progress has floundered. British Prime Minister Theresa May, under pressure from some of the more pro-Brexit elements of the Conservative Party, as well as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who are in coalition with May’s Conservatives at Westminster have expressed their opposition to the backstop and this has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks in terms of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Right now it remains to be seen what the next step is in terms of the implementation of a backstop but in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement as well as the continued economic prosperity of the border region, and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland more broadly, a solution is needed. We will continue to monitor this situation closely and keep our community fully informed.