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Society, Politics & Law

On the hard border: A Brexit Ireland reading list

Updated Thursday, 4th August 2016

A round-up of some of the latest perspectives on what Brexit means for Ireland - both sides of the border.

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The border between Northern Ireland & the Irish Republic, Strabane, 1968 Creative commons image Icon henrikjon under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license The old, hard border: A customs post on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, 1968

There's only one place where the United Kingdom meets the European Union without a stretch of water in between - and that's the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It's not just the nature of this interface, but the history of the island, which raises the stakes of the UK leaving the European Union.

Here's a collection of some of the pieces from the last month or so exploring Brexit from an Irish perspective.

First, Henry Jarrett, blogging at the Political Studies Association, attempts to discern a pattern in how various parts of Northern Ireland voted:

It is also important to consider the share of the vote and compare it with demographics in Northern Ireland. The outcome of the referendum was 55.8% for ‘Remain’ and 44.2% for ‘Leave’. At the last census in 2011, 48% identified as Protestant and 45% as Catholic. These latter figures are somewhat in line with the 48% support for unionist parties and 36% support for nationalist parties at the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election. When analysing whether unionists voted to leave and nationalists voted to remain in the EU, it is clear that the numbers do not entirely add up, as a majority opted to remain despite nationalists not making up the majority of Northern Ireland’s population. One possible explanation for this is voter turnout, of which Northern Ireland had the lowest of the UK’s four constituent countries, at 62.9%. Although far more research into this would need to be conducted to reach a certain conclusion, it may be the case that turnout was higher amongst nationalists than unionists. This would go some way to explaining why East Londonderry, with one of the lowest turnouts in Northern Ireland, voted ‘Remain’.

As aforementioned, this piece is not intended to provide a conclusion to whether unionists voted for Brexit and nationalists voted ‘Remain’. It has, however, offered some early insight into this. There is no doubt that majority unionist areas were more likely to vote ‘Leave’ and majority nationalist areas more likely to vote ‘Remain’. It is possible that this was driven at least in part by the constitutional positions of a unionist desire to distance Northern Ireland politically from the Irish Republic and the wish of nationalists to maintain ties between the two entities.

Read at PSA: Brexit: A constitutional issue for Northern Ireland’s electorate?


Patrick McGovern, of the LSE, thinks that land border could be a real problem for those hoping Brexit will reduce migration:

The Irish border is highly porous. It extends over 300 miles, has an estimated 200 public crossing points and is extremely irregular, as it winds along hills, streams and drains with no discernible pattern. When the ‘Troubles’ escalated during the 1970s, the British army accepted that it was too long and had too many lanes for fixed checkpoints. Instead random checkpoints appeared on ‘unapproved’ roads that did not have official crossing points.

At the first post-Brexit EU meeting of the Irish Dail, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, informed the house that all three administrations – London, Belfast and Dublin – wished to retain the common travel area policy that had existed between the islands since shortly after the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Certainly, this would be the ideal solution for the Irish, in that the absence of a border would continue to be one of the dividends of the peace process and allow people to shop, work and play sport on either side of the border.

The problem with this position is that it leaves a backdoor open for EU migration to the UK. Someone from as far away as Bulgaria or Romania could fly to Dublin, hire a car and drive to Belfast before travelling by ferry to Britain. Indeed one EU commissioner has expressed the fear that Irish border towns could become the new ‘Calais’ by attracting migrants who would wait until they could steal across the border into Northern Ireland. It should also be noted here that the population of the Republic of Ireland has changed dramatically since the common travel area policy was originally introduced. Specifically, it has become a country for immigration as well as emigration. According to the Irish Census of 2011, there are over 300,000 EU citizens living in the Republic and around 250,000 from outside the European Union. There is little to stop these migrants from driving across the border or, if necessary, taking out Irish citizenship to do so.

Another option, which was mentioned in passing by David Cameron in the Commons on 15 June, would be to maintain a common travel area on the island of Ireland but introduce passport controls on entry to Britain. While there is a historical precedent with the wartime restrictions that were introduced between Britain and Ireland during the second world war, these controls were not lifted until 1952 -much to the consternation of Ulster Unionists, many of whose sons had served patriotically during the same war.  There is no reason to believe that Unionist sentiment would have changed. Why would they wish to show their passports to enter their own country?

Read at LSE: Five problems with UK immigration control post-Brexit


A team of experts share with Oxford's Law Blog the challenges they forsee for Northern Ireland as the UK moves away from the EU:

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.

Read at Oxford Faculty of Law Business Law Blog: Brexit-ing Northern Ireland: The Challenges Ahead


Queens Belfast Professor David Phinnemore believes politicians in Northern Ireland face a quagmire:

The political fallout has already started. As soon as results indicated that a Leave vote was likely, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, called for an all-Ireland vote on unification, a so-called “border poll”.

This will be furiously resisted by unionists, but the call has nonetheless been made. It can only dial up the tensions in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Executive, in which the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest party, shares power with Sinn Féin.

The result challenges the executive and Northern Ireland in general on several other fronts. Northern Ireland will need to decide what interests it wants to see defended in the withdrawal negotiations and safeguarded under whatever new relationship replaces the UK’s membership. That debate simply has not been had, and the Leave campaign was essentially silent on the issue.

Strikingly, the draft programme for government issued after this year’s assembly elections doesn’t refer to the referendum, much less the possibility of the UK leaving the EU. That will have to change.

Read at Queens: Northern Ireland prepares to enter a post-Brexit quagmire


Mary C. Murphy of University College Cork, is concerned that 'leaving the EU' may morph into 'leaving the UK':

The 1998 Agreement includes a number of references to the European context and these apply to North-South and East-West institutions. Additionally, and perhaps more damaging, is the effect of the possible re-imposition of a hard international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This border has been substantially softened as a consequence of EU membership and the 1998 Agreement is premised on the permanency of this arrangement.

It is clear, therefore, that the referendum result entails change for Northern Ireland’s political institutions and for the governance of the region. However, the suggestion that this altered environment is synonymous with majority support for a united Ireland is disingenuous. It presupposes that, in the aftermath of the referendum, those unionists who voted to Remain are also likely to vote to leave the UK.  It also assumes that nationalists will opt for a united Ireland on the back of an overall UK Leave vote (and that voters south of the border will do likewise). Recent opinion polls on Irish unity do not demonstrate anything close to majority support for a united Ireland among either unionists or nationalists.

Read at The Centre For Constitutional Change: Northern Ireland and Brexit: Now is not the time for talk of Irish unity


What is a challenge for Northern Ireland may be an opportunity for their Southern neighbours, as Katherine Donnelly explains in the Irish Independent:

The Irish Research Council (IRC) has lost no time in targeting top international scientists to come to Ireland to carry out their work.

The move could help to trigger a reverse of the brain drain that has, over the years, cost Ireland some of its brightest talent and, with them, opportunities lost to the country.

The IRC has taken out an eye-catching double-page ad in the current issue of the UK-based, Times Higher Education, the leading UK and international higher education and trade publication.

The weekly, Times Higher Education (THE) supplement is well-known for its annual league table of the world's top 800 universities.

The two-page spread seeking to capitalise on the recent Brexit decision promotes Ireland as an open and innovative destination for research of all kinds.

Read at the Irish Independent: Ireland moves to poach research talent from Britain in wake of Brexit


The views expressed in these pieces are those of the respective authors, and their inclusion here is not an endorsement of those views by The Open University.




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