Brexit’s Borderlands: What Leaving the EU Will Mean for Peace in Northern Ireland

When former British Prime Minister David Cameron urged his countrymen not to vote to leave the EU and raised the specter of war in a divided Europe, he was on to something. However, it is not disunity on the continent he should have been worrying about, but rather the disunity in Northern Ireland, where Brexit has the potential to reopen the wounds of a murderous conflict.

Cameron’s warnings against Brexit went unheeded, and the Leave camp, which promised voters that exiting the EU would win back national sovereignty and control over immigration, emerged victorious in the June 2016 referendum. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has been left with the bureaucratic challenge of extricating her country from the EU’s dense and decades-old network of political, legal, and regulatory ties without causing a major shock to the UK’s economy. Her government has about 18 months to craft a deal with EU leaders in Brussels on the terms of Brexit before it takes effect in March 2019.

One of the sites of this challenge is the all-but-invisible border between Northern Ireland, a part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state. The return of a conventional border between the two sides—previously obsolete as both were part of the EU—could spell trouble in a region shaped by simmering questions of national identity and belonging. While Brexit is unlikely to bring violent conflict back to the island, British and European leaders must be careful not to imperil the progress made in recent decades towards overcoming the conflict.

For much of the late 20th century, Northern Ireland was one of the bloodiest, most conflict-ridden places in Europe. From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, a long-standing conflict over land and national identity pitted Protestant Unionists, who wished to remain a part of the UK against Catholic Irish Republicans, who sought independence from the UK and freedom from discriminatory British policies through unification with the Republic of Ireland. During the period known as the Troubles, violence perpetrated by paramilitary organizations such as the nationalist Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the loyalist Ulster Defense Association (UDA), as well as by British security forces, claimed the lives of over 3,600 people, almost two-thirds of whom were civilians. A hard-won peace was reached in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which stipulated that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK unless a majority of its residents supported a change of status. At the same time, the agreement increased Northern Ireland’s regional autonomy and instituted power-sharing mechanisms between unionist and nationalist camps in the regional government. Residents of Northern Ireland were given the right to hold either Irish or British citizenship, or both.

The agreement is widely credited with restoring normalcy to the region. Despite sporadic riots and clashes, particularly during regular public marches, the three-figure annual death tolls, militarized English “anti-insurgent” border control units, and bombings have ended.

This is not to say that coexistence is entirely without friction. In the Northern Irish cities of Belfast and Derry (officially Londonderry), murals commemorating the Troubles—some celebrating paramilitary violence—pockmark the city landscape as solemn reminders of the violent past. In Belfast, so-called “peace walls” continue to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, although the city is attempting to remove them.

Public opinion remains divided, too. In 2015, 27 percent of Catholics hoped to see a united Ireland in the short term, while only 3 percent of Protestants felt the same way, according to a BBC poll. While a majority of Northern Irish voted against Brexit during the 2016 referendum, views diverged on this topic, too, with 80 percent of Catholics voting to remain and only 40 percent of Protestants doing the same. Brexit will also have a direct financial effect on the ongoing peace process. It is uncertain whether the EU, which has spent around 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion) since the Good Friday Agreement to solidify peace in the region, will continue this support, with no guarantees that Britain will pick up the tab.

Meanwhile, in the regional government, power-sharing has remained a strenuous affair. Northern Ireland has had no functioning executive since a coalition government between the nationalist Sinn Fein and the unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed in January. The ensuing deadlock has led the British government to warn Northern Ireland that it might impose a temporary return to so-called direct rule from London. Sinn Fein has blamed the gridlock on disagreements over the legacy of the Troubles and DUP opposition to an Irish Language Act, according to the Guardian. The prospect of Brexit has added to the turmoil: Sinn Fein considers Brexit an opportunity to use voters’ concerns about leaving the EU to strengthen support for reunification with the Republic of Ireland, which remains a part of the EU. The party reiterated its call for a referendum on the matter in early 2017.

Against this background of stable but tenuous peace, many observers are worried about what a change in the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border would mean for stability and reconciliation in the region.  

The experience of harassment at the checkpoints left its mark on locals, highlighting the North’s separation from the Republic of Ireland and exacerbating perceptions of foreign rule.

For much of the Troubles, the border was marked by British military checkpoints manned by soldiers. “My father…experienced the process as a challenge to his sense of identity. There he was, half an hour from home, having to explain himself to an Englishman with a gun,” Irish author Garrett Carr wrote in the New York Times, describing cross-border trips from his childhood.

Since the end of violent strife, the situation has changed radically. Today, the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is virtually invisible. There are no checkpoints and no guards, and travelers often have a hard time telling whether or not they have already crossed the border. In some places, the only observable change is the unit of measure on road markers and speed signs, which switches from kilometers in Ireland to miles in Northern Ireland. As a result, the 30,000 people who are estimated to cross the border for work each day barely notice that they are crossing an international boundary.

Today’s open border is seen as one of the central achievements of the peace process, but it has also been made possible by the interaction of several regulatory regimes. For one, the so-called Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland has made travel for Irish and British citizens less burdensome. More important still are the European Union’s twin mechanisms of the single market and the customs union. The former allows for the free cross-border movement of goods and people. The latter allows EU members to eliminate tariffs inside the EU and apply standardized tariffs on economies outside the bloc.

However, as negotiators meet in Brussels to debate the terms of Brexit, the Irish border poses a unique conundrum. With the UK’s exit from the EU, the border will still lie within the Common Travel Area. However, it will also form the boundary of the European Union and its single market and customs union, with the Republic of Ireland inside the bloc and Northern Ireland outside. This could mean the return to a ‘hard border,’ where passports are checked and goods crossing from the UK into Ireland are subject to customs checks and tariffs.

A hard border would make travel more onerous and disrupt trade worth 3 billion Euros

A hard border would make travel more onerous and disrupt trade worth 3 billion Euros ($3.5 billion)—bad news especially for farmers, who export and import everything from dairy to pigs across the border.

Beyond this significant economic impact, the return of a hard border would likely make tempers flare among those who perceive the presence of any border as an injustice, serving as a constant physical reminder of partition. “What I want to hear is that there’ll be no return to any border, not even psychologically, because there’s no such thing as a soft border” one Northern Irish borderlander told the New York Times, showing that any type of border raises questions about national identity that many in the area do not want to revisit. Accordingly, opposition to Brexit was particularly strong among those living close to the border.

British Prime Minister Theresa May seems to understand this, vowing to ensure a “seamless and frictionless” border. A formal statement published by the UK government in August rejected the idea of “any physical border infrastructure,” such as cameras and checkpoints. But maintaining such a soft border brings its own troubles: Absent immigration control at the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, the UK government won’t be able to make good on its promise to use Brexit to regain full control over who enters the country—a major rallying cry for the pro-Brexit camp during last year’s campaign.

An alternative to passport checks along the Ireland-Northern Ireland border is to introduce stricter control elsewhere, such as between the Irish isle and Great Britain. However, such a proposal is likely to be rejected by the DUP, who would view the arrangement as discriminatory against Northern Ireland’s citizens, and who holds leverage in the negotiations as a supporter of Theresa May’s minority government in the British parliament.

The cross-border movement of goods presents another thorny issue. Brexiteers cherished the fact that exiting the EU would transfer authority over international trade back to London, promising that any economic losses associated with leaving the bloc would be compensated by more favorable trade deals with outside countries. Moving away from the trade standards of the EU’s single market and customs union, however, would entail some form of customs controls at any UK-EU border. The UK could likely maintain a soft border by adopting standards and tariffs that either closely or exactly mirror those defined by the EU’s single market and customs union. Yet such a move would undermine the point of Brexit in the first place, since it would strip the UK of much of the sovereignty over trade decisions so important to the Leave campaign.

London has suggested solving this dilemma through the innovative but logistically taxing approach of tracking and tracing goods. Under this model, the UK would keep tabs on all incoming products, applying different tariffs based on whether goods are destined for consumption in the UK or for further travel to the EU. The upside of the approach would be to avoid any customs border whatsoever between the UK and the EU—including between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, the model has not been tested, and some observers are skeptical about the feasibility of enforcement.

It remains to be seen if London’s proposals are actionable, and it is hard to predict what border arrangement, if any, will come out of its tug of war with Brussels by the end of negotiations in 2019. But there will come a point when Theresa May and her government must make some hard choices. They should acknowledge that making good on the promises of Brexit and maximizing the UK‘s independence from the EU, including on trade, must not be done at the expense of stability in Northern Ireland. The peace of the Northern Irish border today is a central achievement in the region. Any ill-considered border arrangement risks undermining those achievements by bringing questions of identity back to the forefront with renewed urgency. As former US Senator and Northern Ireland peace mediator George Mitchell put it, “demonization has declined as people move freely across the borders and get to realize they have more in common than that which divides them.” Negotiators in London and Brussels must work to protect this legacy.