Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Blog

Backstop Abandoned: What Does the Future Hold for Northern Ireland?

Cameron Boyle


Andrew Butler

| 5 mins read

With a further extension of Brexit deadline day now on the table, the future for Northern Ireland – and the Irish Backstop – appears increasingly uncertain. Parliamentary negotiations are in a state of deadlock, yet our Prime Minister remains committed to the hardest possible form of Brexit. Not only this, but he has described the Irish Backstop – a means of ensuring minimal disruption to the region – as ‘dead’. The ramifications of this will be felt on both sides of the border, with the upheaval spanning the political, societal, and economic spheres.

Free Movement and Citizens’ Rights­

The continuity of the Common Travel Area (CTA) is central to the issues posed by a no-deal Brexit. At present, the CTA allows for both Irish and British citizens to move seamlessly between the two nations, free from immigration controls. Yet from 31 October onwards, the 310-mile Irish border will constitute the UK’s only political and economic land frontier with the EU. It is pertinent to examine the impact that this development will have on the CTA.

Theresa May has stated that Brexit will not “impact on the ability to enter the UK from within the CTA free from routine border controls.” However, the government has noted that “many of the benefits enjoyed by Irish and UK nationals have also been provided for in instruments setting out EU free movement”. The UK’s departure from the single market will spell the end of free movement; in order to uphold the CTA, it is vital that a more secure statutory footing is sought. Even if May’s statement is correct, it may be necessary for the Irish government to seek EU approval, which would be unsettling for all cross-border families.

The CTA is by no means the only citizen’s right threatened by a no-deal. The Good Friday Agreement allows for those born in Northern Ireland to hold either Irish or British citizenship, the viability of which is inextricably linked to the UK and Ireland’s EU membership. Whilst pending UK legislation asserts this right, its means of enforcement is currently unclear.

Immigration controls

Even if the CTA is upheld after Brexit, the Republic of Ireland will still allow free movement for citizens of the other 28 member states. With this in mind, the UK government’s commitment to a frictionless border contravenes their pledge to reduce net migration, as EU migrants could cross the border unchallenged. BrexitLawNI raise concerns that this could have severe human rights implications for ethnic minority communities, such as random immigration checks and the use of detention for those unable to prove their status. In order to maintain an open border, it is thought that UK immigration could be controlled from Irish ports and airports rather than at the Irish border, but this would be immensely controversial due to the history of conflict between the two nations.

In light of this, it appears that all potential means of controlling immigration are likely to engender tension. Were a hard border to be introduced, any form of infrastructure would become an immediate target for paramilitary organisations.

It is vital that an appropriate solution is found. A report from Brookings points out that localised violence remains high, with punishment beatings increasing 60 per cent in four years. The Brexit lobby are treating the region with contempt; peace should always take precedence in decision-making.

Impact on the Irish economy

A no-deal Brexit will have a cataclysmic impact on the integrated, all-Ireland economy. The Irish Backstop ensured ease of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic by keeping the UK in the customs union, its abandonment will necessitate border checks and tariffs on goods crossing the border. The consequences of this cannot be overstated. The Institute for Government state that 80 per cent of the goods exported by the Republic are transported to or through the UK. The imposition of tariffs would therefore be hugely destructive to Irish exports. Similarly, 21 per cent of Northern Ireland’s exports head south of the border – leaving with no-deal will sever this economic interdependence.

It is also relevant to note that 30,000 workers are ‘cross-border’ in that they live and work on different sides, and the imposition of border checks would hugely inconvenience daily lives. The all-Ireland economy is conducive to peace as it fosters North-South cooperation. It is therefore crucial that a deal is sought to safeguard the rights of all those on the island of Ireland.

With the situation reaching a critical point, it is time for negotiations to give due consideration to those whose lives will be affected.

  • Cameron Boyle

    Cameron Boyle

    Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their status.

    Articles by Cameron Boyle