The EU has called for “imaginative and flexible solutions” for the question of dealing with Northern Ireland post-Brexit. This issue has had a surprisingly low-profile so far. I think it is more important than wrangling over pension obligations but also more intractable, whereas the implicit assumption seems to be that it will be quick and easy. It is also worth noting this is one of the stated three items the EU wants to resolve before any trade negotiations can begin (the Brexit Bill, EU-Citizens rights, and NI).
I want to lay out a simple framework in which to think of possible structures.
It is easier only to consider 2 of the principal pillars of the current structure which would change
Within the Customs Union, free movement of goods across borders without tariff or checks
People can move across the border if they are an EU citizen.
The current structure
Everyone is part of the EU and so goods can move freely.
More complicated as UK and Ireland are not part of the Schengen area but have had a Common Travel Area (CTA) between each other since 1922, such that different checks for different journeys are in place.
|Between the Republic and Northern Ireland||Nothing|
|Between EU and UK or Ireland (both)||Passport|
|Between the Republic or N Ireland and GB||Photo ID (not necessarily a passport)|
If UK were to leave EU with no special agreement on Ireland, then the default situation would be.
Default – UK leaves EU
Free movement from Rest of EU to Republic of Ireland.
Border checks between UK and the EU – so border checks between Republic and N Ireland
No right of travel or residence between EU and UK
Hard border with checks for people between Republic and North.
An imposition of a hard border is likely to reignite old conflict, the Good Friday Agreement having removed military checkpoints along certain parts of the border.
Idea 1 – UK leaves EU but Common Travel Area remains
“Special status for Irish citizens and a common travel area allowing free movement for Irish citizens pre-dates our membership of the EU by decades, and there’s no reason why it can’t continue in the same way after we leave the EU.”
Pre-referendum, Theresa Villiers Secretary of State for N Ireland suggested that there would be no future problem in case of Brexit as we would maintain the CTA and not have any border checks.
She was, in fact, a prominent Leave campaigner who signed a letter to Theresa May demanding a withdrawal from Single Market and Customs Union.
The justification seems to be that the CTA has existed for nearly a century and there has never been a material problem of trafficking of people or goods from the South to the North.
The problem here is the assumption that behaviour does not change when the incentives do.
Given we are all in the EU, goods and people do not move to Britain via the Republic and Northern Ireland – they move direct. If the direct route is closed, but the backdoor is open then I would suggest the route would become very popular. Note the argument applies for goods and people.
Note that this is a problem for the EU as well as the UK. if the UK allowed goods from China in with a lower tariff than the EU then there would be an incentive to bring them into NI to be rerouted to the EU.
Idea 2 – Open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland – Hard border around GB
To me, this looks like a transitionary stage to a united Ireland. I struggle to see that an area with a hard border is part of the same country, in particular when it has no border at all with another country. The EU seems to be cognizant of this too, recently clarifying if the North joined the South then they would automatically join the EU. Perhaps too this is what the UK government has in mind with the term ”Brexit” i.e. a Britain Exit” – Britain exits but the UK does not.
To have democratic validity, this would require a referendum in favour in both the North and the South. Even so, quite a few Ulster Unionists would passionately object to this whatever any referendum said. Also, it seems an ironic policy choice for the Conservative and Unionist Party.
An aside on geography
For those of you who do not know the complicated naming structure of this area, this chart may help.
Northern Ireland is in the UK but not GB.
For UK citizens, the passport says “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Also note that in the Republic of Ireland they do not use British Isles as they do not see themselves as living in the “British Isles”.
Idea 3 –Hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the Rest of the EU.
To me, this looks like Ireland joining the UK in Brexit.
Nice solution for the UK perhaps but not very politically palatable for the Republic of Ireland. For the Irish Republicans, the de facto unification of Ireland would likely be far outweighed by the new relationship with Britain.
Idea 4 – UK does not leave the Customs Union and also retains the CTA.
This removes all the issues about goods and no hard border between North and South.
Would require passport checks and controls between N Ireland and the rest of the UK .
Small difference to situation today so the diagram would look very similar to the start.
The UK government has declared it wants to leave the Customs Union and this forms a core part of Brexit strategy and negotiating position. To the bulk of Brexit supporters, the Irish problems are far less important.
Idea 5 – UK does not leave the Customs Union and allows free movement of people.
Sounds very much like not leaving the EU at all. The diagram would be identical to the current position.
I am out of ideas.
I hope other people have more “imaginative” ideas than me.
If not a lot of people are going to have to be very “flexible” to choose one of the options above.
It seems unlikely to have a quick solution before we move onto discussing trade agreements.