What does leaving the EU mean for Northern Ireland?

Published: 12th Jul 2016

This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, by 56% to 44%.

The impact on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU might differ in important ways from the rest of the country.

It has been suggested that the UK leaving the EU will “be a source of enormous instability and turbulence for Ireland”, and it is possible that the political arrangements established by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement would not be entirely protected from this instability.

The Agreement, as well as establishing a Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly, enshrined cooperation between the UK and Ireland. The status of the UK and Ireland as EU member countries is woven throughout the Agreement.

Policing and the border

Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK to share a land border with another EU member country. Once the UK leaves this will become an external border of the EU.

The Common Travel Area is an example of cooperation which predates the UK’s and Ireland’s entry into the EU. The Common Travel Area allows free movement between the UK and Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

But as an EU member country, Ireland will still have free movement of EU citizens. The House of Commons Library says that if the UK wanted to increase controls on EU citizens entering the UK through Ireland, it might need to look again at the Common Travel Area.

Northern Irish politicians report that heavier policing at ports and airports, rather than the land border on the island of Ireland, would be the government's preferred solution.

There could also be an impact on the UK-Irish cooperation on cross-border crime and terrorist activity. The UK and Ireland make great use of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW).

Figures indicate that from 2004 to 2012, 30 of the 50 EAW requests made by Northern Ireland were made to Ireland.

Before the EAW was introduced in 2004, a number of laws dealt with extradition. These included the 1957 Council of Europe Convention on Extradition, the Backing of Warrants (Republic of Ireland) Act 1965 in the UK, and the Extradition Act 1965 in Ireland.

The Convention system no longer applies in Ireland with respect to the UK, and although it would be possible to enact legislation to bring this back into force, one commentator suggested this would not “provide a satisfactory basis for an alternative system of extradition” as it is outdated and had a number of problems.

The House of Lords EU Committee has also concluded that although the EAW system is not perfect and has resulted in some serious injustices, the 1957 Convention was not an adequate alternative between the UK and Ireland.

EU funding

Northern Ireland benefits significantly from EU funding. According to the House of Commons Library, it was expected to receive around €1,200 million in EU Regional Policy Funding from 2014-2020.

While the UK might still be in the process of leaving the EU by the end of this period, Northern Ireland could lose out on funding from 2020 onwards. Whether the UK central government would replace it is impossible to say at this point.

The voluntary sector in Northern Ireland plays an important role in addressing deprivation, training and employment, social enterprise, health, ‘peace building’ and building cross-community and cross-border relationships.

This sector has an annual income of around £740 million, of which an estimated £70 million comes from EU funding programmes. That could have a knock-on effect on jobs in the sector, which employs 4% of the total workforce in Northern Ireland works in the voluntary and community sector.

The economy

Business leaders in Northern Ireland have expressed concern about the possible effects withdrawing from the EU will have on Northern Ireland’s trade, particularly with Ireland. A worst case scenario might see the introduction of tariff controls on the border.

Exports to Ireland accounted for 25% of total manufacturing exports from Northern Ireland in 2013/14, while 24% went to the rest of the EU.

A Task Force set up by the European Commission, working with the Northern Ireland Executive, supports efforts in Northern Ireland to improve competitiveness, create sustainable employment, reduce dependence on the public sector and create a more dynamic private sector. Withdrawal from the EU would mean the termination of this Task Force and possibly the closure of the NI Executive Brussels Office.

Social security

Leaving the EU may have a particular impact on people who live in Northern Ireland but work in Ireland, and vice versa. Leaving could affect entitlement to social security, child maintenance and pensions, especially if the UK opted to impose restrictions on EU citizens’ access to the UK social protection system.

The EU does not have much to do with healthcare in the UK, but once we leave the EU the way healthcare services are provided across the border might change and could become less accessible for users.

The EU has supported a number of cross-border projects and its laws have formed the basis for cross-border access to services in specific circumstances. Co-operation and Working Together is a project which is part-funded by the EU and works towards solving the economic and social problems caused by the existence of the border in Ireland. It manages a range of cross-border health and social care programmes on behalf of both Departments of Health in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Depending on any deal which the UK does with the EU, there may also be problems with accessing health services between Northern Ireland and Ireland as the UK will no longer be part of the European Health Insurance Card scheme.


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