The renewal of a hard border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland has proved one of the most sensitive issues in the wake of Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Many people fear that a reinstatement of a hard boundary will negatively impact trade and immigration between the two territories.
Whilst the British government has explicitly stated that there is not to be a reintroduction of border checks, Irish and other European governments remain in doubt. Many EU Member States have questioned the way in which post-Brexit immigration and trade may be regulated without the introduction of controls. Former deputy British prime minister Nick Clegg has gone so far as to deem Theresa May’s call for a soft border “illogical nonsense” and has further accused her of taking the public “for fools”. Nevertheless, the British government continue to maintain that the border may be controlled by mere new technology and better administration.
Taoiseach Leo Varadker has opted to take a hard-line stance on the issue, refusing to partake in the development of any such hard boundary. Mr Varadker emphatically stated: “We’re not going to be helping them to design some sort of border that we don’t believe should exist in the first place.”
A hard border has not existed between the North and South of Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Marking the end of the ethno-nationalist conflict known simply as “The Troubles”, the 1998 Agreement effaced the existence of any physical border. The British army checkpoints, observation posts and security barriers, which had become emblematic of the conflict, disappeared. Trade and services between the two sides began to flourish.
At present, between 23,000 and 30,000 people commute across the border. As a whole, Britain remains Ireland’s biggest trading partner, with business between the two nations supporting 400,000 jobs and generating €60 billion a year in trade in both directions. It is therefore not difficult to imagine the negative economic implications the reinstatement of a hard border may have on both nations.
Legitimate concerns have also been expressed over the implications of a physical border on immigration policy. Migration experts such as Dr. Piaras Mac Einri have claimed that Brexit negotiations may result in Ireland losing its independence in setting immigration policy. The lecturer in migration studies at University College Cork, said he fears Brexit may result in the Republic following London’s “very restrictive” migration policy. He further expressed concern about the possibility of the Common Travel Area being maintained strictly for Irish and British citizens, adversely affecting migrants. Ireland only began to experience immigration during the 1990s and, according to Dr. Mac Einri, has tended to follow UK migration policies rather than develop its own. In support of his claim, the migration expert cited Ireland’s decision to introduce and maintain the system of direct provision for asylum seekers and their families.
Whilst experts such as Dr. Mac Einri have speculated as to the effects Brexit may have on the State’s immigration policy, neither the British or Irish governments have commented on the issue.
The possibility of a renewal of a hard border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland still remains unclear. The way in which the border may be controlled, without the introduction of border checks, remains an issue to be debated, as does the possible effects on immigration policy.
We remain in hope, however, that the final result of Brexit negotiations will not have adverse effects on our immigration policies in Ireland.