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No Deal, No Backstop: The Potential Impact on Northern Ireland

No Deal, No Backstop: The Potential Impact on Northern Ireland


Cameron Boyle (Immigration Advice Service)

As we hurtle towards our Brexit deadline of the 31st of October, the prospect of leaving without a deal appears increasingly likely. Not only this, but Boris Johnson has now described the Irish backstop – a means of ensuring ease of trade and an open border- as ‘dead’.

The absence of a backstop plan will present a myriad of issues for Northern Ireland- political, social and economic in nature. The existence of an invisible, frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic enables the island to function as a unit where necessary, something that has been hugely conducive to peace. Brexit will change this inexorably. Currently a mere geographical marker between two members of the same conglomerate of nations, the Irish border will take on an entirely different hue. The reasons for this are complex, but revolve around the potential need to introduce border checks for both people and goods. If a suitable solution is not found, it is a predicament that could lead to the return of violence and destruction in Ulster.

Free Movement

The maintenance of the Common Travel Area (CTA) is one of the key difficulties that Northern Ireland will face if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. As it stands, the CTA allows for citizens of the Republic of Ireland and the UK to travel between each other, free from immigration controls. However, a no-deal Brexit will mean that the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic represents the UK’s only land frontier with a wholly foreign territory. Leaving the single market will spell the end of free movement from EU countries into the UK, so what will this mean for those on the island of Ireland? Theresa May’s letter to the European Council set out a commitment to maintaining the CTA, but the CTA itself is confirmed in an EU treaty. As a result, the Irish government may need to seek permission from the EU for the current setup to continue, and the associated uncertainty will be unsettling for cross-border families. At present, the citizens of Northern Ireland can choose to have either Irish or British citizenship, a freedom that is appreciated by both unionists and nationalists. Northern Ireland’s complete divorce from the EU would make this option difficult to preserve.

Immigration and Tension

Even if the CTA is maintained, Ireland will still allow free movement from all other EU member states. Therefore, the British government’s commitment to an invisible border seems to contradict their pledge to reduce net migration. Whilst Irish citizens may remain free from immigration control, what will prevent other EU citizens from crossing the border unchallenged? Brexit Law NI point out that the measures implemented to prevent this could have hugely negative consequences for minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland. It is thought that Border Force officials could carry out random checks on the basis of racial profiling, where individuals are singled out based on their ethnicity. This will result in an increased use of detention for those who cannot satisfy the officials of their status. Given the region’s history of civil rights issues, random immigration checks would be both regressive and unwelcomed.

In order to combat illegal migration into the UK across a frictionless border, it is proposed that ‘UK immigration policy becomes a de facto British immigration policy’, whereby UK immigration is controlled at the island of Ireland’s ports and airports rather than along the border. However, this approach treats the island as a single entity rather than a land mass comprising two different countries, something that would likely anger the unionist community. Additionally, placing UK border controls within the Irish republic would be politically sensitive due to the history of conflict between the two nations. With this in mind, all potential methods of controlling immigration in a no-deal scenario appear likely to elicit tension. Any form of infrastructure erected along the land border would be an immediate target for paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide. A report by Brookings points out that localised violence remains high, with punishment beatings increasing by 60% in the last four years. With a no-deal Brexit on the horizon, the incendiary situation in Northern Ireland is in danger of exploding completely. The British government need to tread immensely carefully to ensure that peace in Ulster continues.


A no-deal Brexit will significantly alter the economic relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU, in particular the Republic of Ireland. To avoid the return of customs checks at the Irish border, it appears crucial for Northern Ireland to remain within the customs union, which will also allow tariff-free trade to continue. However, the seemingly inevitable no-deal and potential absence of a backstop will see a return to border checks on goods, something that acts as a major barrier to trade. At present, there is a considerable degree of economic interdependence between the two countries; 34% of Northern Ireland’s EU exports head across the border, a figure that compromises 21% of the region’s total exports. The introduction of British tariffs on EU imports would most likely see retaliation from Brussels. In order to safeguard Northern Ireland’s economy, it is crucial that a deal is struck.

The UK’s departure from the customs union would also wreak economic havoc amongst the Republic’s exports. Almost half of Ireland’s EU exports go to Britain, an amount that constitutes the highest single reliance upon British purchases of any EU country. The economies on both sides of the Irish border thrive due to their interconnectedness; severing this would lead to disastrous consequences. Current predictions state that a no-deal scenario would be catastrophic, reducing Northern Ireland’s GDP by 7%. In order to prevent a spike in unemployment and inflation, the UK’s continued participation of the customs union must be fought for at all costs.

The highly integrated cross-border economy is dependent upon a positive relationship between the EU and UK. The Institute of Government point out that farms, villages and daily commutes all straddle the border. Up to 30,000 workers are ‘cross-border’ in that they live and work on different sides and would be directly inconvenienced by checks. The practical benefits of both free movement and free trade on the island of Ireland are clear- the Irish single electricity market provides the benefits of increased energy efficiency and competition, yet is contingent upon EU membership.

The Westminster government is gambling with Northern Ireland’s future in Brexit negotiations. The potential impact of no deal and no backstop is given little consideration. In order to protect peace, economic prosperity and free movement on the island of Ireland, a solution must be fought for.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their status

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