Why is avoiding a hard border in Ireland a priority?
The prospect of a “hard border” on the island of Ireland has become a key issue in the Brexit negotiations. Both the UK and the EU agreed in the first year of discussions that they would commit to avoiding a hard border, a commitment which has played a major role in shaping the current withdrawal agreement.
A ‘hard border’ is the term used to describe checks on people and goods―and the staff, buildings and equipment needed to do that―on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This is the only land border between the UK and the rest of the EU and at the moment there are no barriers and checks along it. The House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee described the border as having “unique political significance due to the history of Ireland and conflict in Northern Ireland.”
The main concerns that have been raised about a hard border centre on the political effects on the peace in Northern Ireland, and the economic and social effects on the people and trade which cross the border regularly. Concerns have been expressed that any infrastructure and police presence at the border could present a target for terrorist attacks.
At present, there is significant economic and social integration between Northern Irish and Irish communities spanning the border. In total the UK government estimates that there are 110 million border crossings every year, and £3.4 billion in exports went from Northern Ireland to Ireland in 2016. At least 30,000 people are thought to commute across the border for work every day, services such as health and education are often accessed across the border, and some villages have houses either side of the border.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a key part of the peace process, promised cross-border co-operation between the UK and Ireland, and the removal of checks on the border was an important part of the process. The Agreement set out how Northern Ireland should be governed after decades of violence and conflict, in which more than 3,500 people were killed. Both the UK and EU agree that, in negotiating a deal on the relationship after Brexit, it is important to keep the border open and uphold the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
A withdrawal agreement has been agreed between the EU and UK government, although the UK parliament has yet to approve it. To avoid a hard border the withdrawal agreement says the UK would continue to trade with the EU under the current rules during the transition period. This would last until the end of 2020, unless both sides agree to extend it.
After this period one of two things would happen. Either the UK and EU will have agreed a future relationship which ensures no hard border, or the pre-agreed ‘backstop’ will come into force. This includes a single customs territory, with the exception of the fishing industry, between the UK and EU. Northern Ireland alone will also continue to follow some extra rules to ensure the border remains open as it is today, and these will involve some checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The backstop arrangements will continue until either the UK and EU agree a new trade deal, or both agree that some other solution has been found.
If the withdrawal agreement isn’t signed and the UK leaves without a deal then customs and regulatory checks could be introduced on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The House of Commons Library says that the solutions suggested during the negotiations to avoid a hard border are unlikely to be in place if the UK leaves with no deal.
The Common Travel Area—which lets British and Irish citizens travel freely between the UK and Ireland—exists independently of EU law and will continue after Brexit regardless of whether a deal is reached. The situation for citizens of other countries living and working between Ireland and Northern Ireland may be more complicated. The UK government has said “The UK’s future approach to immigration controls for EU citizens will be fully compatible with the existing Common Travel Area (CTA) arrangements. These arrangements mean that there are no routine immigration controls on journeys from Ireland to any part of the UK, nor within the UK: this will not change.”
This article is part of our Ask Full Fact series on Brexit, answering your questions about Brexit and the latest negotiations between the UK and the EU.