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Brexit & The Irish Border 101

Brexit & The Irish Border 101

  • Ann Toews
  • July 20, 2018
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

British Prime Minister Theresa May was in Northern Ireland yesterday and today to address what has become Brexit’s thorniest issue: the Irish border. A steady barrage of statements, agreements, and hot takes makes it challenging to follow the situation as it unfolds across the Atlantic. Here’s an update from the border.


Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement that ended three decades of violence between Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans, six northeastern counties on the island of Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Critically, however, residents were permitted to choose British and/or Irish citizenship. Manned border outposts, which had been obvious targets for republicans, disappeared. But Northern Ireland’s neighborhoods—and politics—remain largely segregated along sectarian lines, and tensions remain in spite of relatively low levels of inter-communal violence.

In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a majority of 56% to 44% to remain in the European Union, while the majority of the UK voted to leave. Subsequent polls have found that an even larger majority of Northern Irish now wants to remain.

What’s the Dilemma?

When—some would say if—the UK leaves the EU and takes Northern Ireland with it, some form of border controls would likely arise to separate the North from the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU. Many view a border as undesirable not only because of the tariffs that would separate Northern Ireland from its largest trade partner, but also because it appears to challenge the border-free provision of the fragile 20 year-old peace agreement. The prospect of greater British sovereignty remains intolerable for many republicans. Those who routinely cross the invisible border to shop or visit family also stand to lose.

Ahead of negotiations with the EU, May appears to have committed to incompatible positions in the process of building party support, though she denies any inconsistency. Thomas Raines at Chatham House explains the dilemma this way:

For months, the government has been trying to square a seemingly impossible circle, in which Britain formally leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, avoids a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and ensures there is a deal for the whole of the UK (i.e. making sure that there is no separate deal for Northern Ireland). May remains steadfastly committed to leaving the single market, and to avoiding a hard border. Yet leaving the single market would necessitate the need for checks on the Irish border, or specific arrangements for Northern Ireland, which she (and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government) have already excluded.

Who’s Who

  • Theresa May: Urgently trying to rally support within her government for an exit that keeps the Irish border “soft” (a top EU goal) while maintaining the integrity of the UK (a goal of key MPs whose votes she needs).
  • Dominic Raab, Brexit secretary: Thrown into the fire after the recent departure of his predecessor. Reportedly struggled in negotiations with the EU over the Irish border question on Thursday. Expected to struggle further.
  • “Brexite(e)rs”: The pro-Brexit element of Britain’s Conservative (Tory) party. Ten “Euroskeptic” MPs have resigned over the deal, as a muddled plan they no longer support takes shape.
  • Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator: Wants a free trade agreement, and at minimum a “backstop” that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU customs union in the event of a disorderly UK exit. May and supporters have said this is out of the question, as it would effectively leave Northern Ireland in the EU.
  • Stormont: Northern Ireland’s devolved and dysfunctional power-sharing government in Belfast that collapsed in January 2017 after the two leading parties were unable to reach an agreement. On track to break the world record for the longest time a developed country has spent without an elected government. The standoff at Stormont has, by some assessments, diminished Northern Ireland’s voice on Brexit matters.
  • Democratic Unionist Party (DUP): Northern Ireland party made up largely of Protestants. Boasts 10 elected members of the UK Parliament who have emerged as key May supporters. Wants greater British sovereignty in Northern Ireland and, therefore, a “harder” exit than most Northern Irish support.
  • Sinn Fein: Ireland’s largest nationalist party that historically supported the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Could not reach an agreement with the DUP, and refused to take seats at Westminster. Staunch “Remainers.” Has opted to work with the EU, finding negotiations with the UK fruitless. Wants a “soft” border and, eventually, Irish reunification.

Come Again?

  • Hard border: Some level and type of customs checks at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Some assess that outposts or technology at the border would serve as easy targets for small numbers of dissident republicans who want nothing less than a unified Ireland.
  • “No-deal” scenario / “crashing out”: Situation in which the UK is unable to reach an agreement with the EU on issues like trade and the free movement of people before the end of the transition period in December 2020. Many observers deem this scenario increasingly likely based on the apparent deadlock.
  • “Backstop”: A last-resort EU plan to avoid a hard border by keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union if the UK “crashes out.” May has ruled this out. Barnier is reportedly trying to soften language on this key EU point while keeping the substance of the idea.
  • “Chequers” plan / white paper: May’s plan, endorsed by her cabinet earlier this month, which lays out plans for a “UK-EU free trade area” and a close customs relationship. Many say the plan is now “dead” after May acquiesced to hardline Brexiters on four key amendments, but she insists it is still viable.

What to Watch

  • Utter confusion about the future and a wide range of predictions, opinions, and hot takes
  • A flurry of official preparations for no-deal and no-backstop scenarios while high-level negotiations drag on: keeping the lights on, ensuring access to emergency health services, and keeping EU-funded community services running, to name a few
  • The EU summit on October 18, 2018: The Irish border question is expected to be front-and-center as the UK and EU attempt to agree on the parameters of their future relationship
  • And of course, March 29, 2019: The UK’s departure from the EU

More Questions?

Ask the BBC’s “chatbot” here.