Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Brexit-ing Northern Ireland: The Challenges Ahead


Time to read

2 Minutes


Sylvia de Mars
Colin Murray
Aoife O’Donoghue
Ben Warwick

The votes are in, and it seems that that Northern Ireland will, against the wishes of its voters, be subject to an England-and-Wales-driven ‘Brexit’.  A heightened awareness of what the consequences of the referendum will be for Northern Ireland is paramount in the negotiations that will follow.

Our recent policy paper focusses on how a Brexit might affect trade and travel and significantly, peace and prosperity, across the Irish border.  The issues identified here must be considered both by the Northern Ireland Executive in negotiating the UK terms for an ‘exit’ from the EU, and by the Republic of Ireland government in briefing the other 26 EU member states on what they must solidify in this new UK-EU relationship.

The primary issue, already being raised in both Irish and international news sources, is the future of the Common Travel Area (CTA): the borderless ‘free movement’ area between the United Kingdom and Ireland in effect since 1952.  The arrangement has existed without significant problems while both states were EU members, but will not be as easily sustained when Ireland is an EU Member State and the UK is not.  Much depends on what kind of relationship the UK strikes with the EU next; EEA membership would secure the CTA but a pure trade relationship may not.  Should Ireland join the Schengen area, or the UK adhere to the ‘Leave’ campaign’s promises of hard border controls across the UK, the future of the UK’s land border with Ireland would become less clear.

A related issue is that of nationality: UK nationals may no longer be beneficiaries of EU free movement rules, but those UK residents with dual Irish and UK nationality will still be both UK and EU citizens.  In a future where the UK is proposing to close its borders to EU nationals, this issue may become very controversial, as EU nationals are unlikely to benefit from similar ‘dual nationalities’ in large numbers.

The appearance of a border and increased difficulties in free movement of persons will also have knock-on consequences on trade.  Unless the UK retains EEA membership of some kind, there will be massive trade repercussions in both the UK and Ireland.  Ireland will become the English-language entry-point into the Single Market; Northern Ireland’s businesses, meanwhile, will retain easy access to the remainder of the UK, but will be faced with tariffs and other trade restrictions when trading with the remainder of the EU (including Ireland).  Indeed, it is not at all obvious that UK nationals travelling for work into another EU country will still be able to do so without cost (in terms of time and visa requirements) following a full Brexit. 

The UK’s future is particularly precarious when it comes to the services sector, where no existing EU trade agreement has resulted in the extent of openness that the EU rules themselves offer.  Other Northern Irish industries would be hit by a ‘double whammy’: agriculture, for instance, would not only find itself subject to import tariffs when crossing the border, but farmers in Northern Ireland will also lose more than 80% of their current funding, which all comes straight from the EU.  Without significant intervention during negotiations with the EU, or guarantees from Westminster that this funding will be replaced, the Northern Ireland agri-food sector faces catastrophe.  Other funding sources to Northern Ireland are also facing a demise.  The EU provides significant peace process funding, which will disappear unless replaced ‘like-for-like’ with Westminster commitments.

These funding losses and border complications are symptomatic of the threat that Brexit poses to political stability in Northern Ireland.  The EU has been instrumental in facilitating the peace process between Ireland and the UK, often acting as a common meeting place and a stabilising influence. The challenge now is to ensure that the leaders of both nations ensure that this progress is not undermined in Brexit negotiations.

More detail on the policy considerations discussed here can be found in this Policy Paper, produced as part of the ‘Constitutional Conundrums’ project.

Dr Sylvia de Mars is a Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University, Mr Colin Murray is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University, Dr Aoife O’Donoghue is a Senior Lecturer at Durham University and Mr Ben Warwick is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Durham University.


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