With the United Kingdom to officially leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, one question remains; what will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? As a region that has overcome much political violence and instability, ‘Brexit’ poses new problems for the British government in transitioning its border policies. Much focus has been placed on the economic impact of Brexit if policies are altered to withstand the stringent agreements made under the ‘Leave’ vote. Such economic impacts would be affected by immigration and customs regulation as the border would no longer be considered a ‘free border’. Although the UK and Ireland have vowed to keep an ‘open border’, there has been little progress on any agreement. The decision remains split between initiating either a ‘hard’ border which involves more restrictive measures between the two countries, or a ‘soft’ border which facilitates the movement of people and goods.
Although the decision has not yet been reached by the British government, Brexit will have significant and contradicting ramifications on any type of border that is pursued. Strengthening the border for a ‘hard’ border will have massive implications on British and Irish relations, while a ‘soft’ border may cause internal conflict within the UK between the ‘Leave’ voters and Conservatives. The government is currently unable to devise policies to satisfy both sides. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, promised in December that the UK would avoid “any physical infrastructure or related checks” at the Irish border. However, the government has stated its desires to leave the single market and the customs union which will inevitably implicate harsher tariffs on economic goods and make the flow of free movement more restrictive. Contradictorily, these desires reflect the notions of a ‘hard’ border reputed by moderates and voters of the ‘Remain’ campaign. If a ‘hard’ border is unavoidable, are there other options that may soften the resulting implications? A ‘moderate’ border appears the likely option, although clearly, it is not without issues.
While there are many considerations, the British government must foremost ensure that new policies do not jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the conflict between the UK and Ireland more than 20 years ago. It has been the backbone of British-Irish relations by setting boundaries to guarantee that all future policies are beneficial to both states. Yet, a ‘No deal’ on the Irish border could see potential tensions rise again, regarding Northern Ireland. Although the British Government has maintained Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the UK, the Irish border could cause severe divisions regarding its sovereignty. As a solution to the existing problems of sovereignty and the economic flow of goods between the UK and Ireland, the possible reunification of Northern Ireland and Ireland has sparked controversy among politicians. As political tensions have softened since the Good Friday Agreement, this may be an unlikely scenario for all governments and the EU to vouch for.
As neither a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ border seem possible, a potential ‘invisible’ border may provide better outcomes. ‘Invisible’ means that security is maintained through technology such as surveillance cameras, rather than a physical border. Although this may seem like an unlikely solution, this proposal can mitigate the notion of an actual border while physical checks and customs are monitored indirectly. The monitoring of goods and customs could potentially be achieved by having vehicles chipped and logged for a tariff payment when crossing between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Additionally, the creation of a special channel, separate from the EU channel, for people from the UK and Ireland, could monitor the flow of people entering and leaving. This channel could potentially have its own regulations and make it easier for those with citizenship or permanent residency to travel between the two areas.
Although an ‘invisible’ border seems fair, this would take some time. The transition of border policies will not only need to be substantiated by government officials but also approved by the wider population. A potential solution to prevent further divisions among border policies is that the general population of the UK and Ireland vote on a solution. Although the vote will not necessarily provide the final solution, it will indicate what the population is after. This can form the basis of the government’s policy. It is through this that the two governments, along with the EU, could reach a fairer deal that satisfies the population, before the UK leaves the EU.
With the UK to officially leave the EU in the next 6 months, it is crucial that the incompatible border policies are solved through continued discourse between the British and Irish governments. Since future border policies will have large impacts on both countries, a vote could potentially provide the governments with a needed starting point. Nevertheless, it is critical for the British government to focus on the Irish Border as an issue that can disrupt British-Irish relations if balanced policy options are not devised soon.