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Ireland – What happens when the UK leaves the EU?


The UK voted to leave the European Union on the 23rd June 2016, and Northern Ireland will leave with the rest of the UK. However, is worth remembering there will be no immediate change following the vote. There will be a period of negotiation in which the UK will remain in the EU for at least 2 years. The outcome of these negotiations will determine how the UK’s vote to leave will affect the UK’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland.

What are the challenges?

Currently, as both are members of the EU, trade and travel occurs freely across the border, without the need for checks. However, free movement links between the UK and Ireland are more extensive than the EU minimum requires. The two countries have operated a Common Travel Area (CTA) across the UK since 1925. Neither Ireland nor the UK are part of the Schengen area, but due to the CTA people can travel freely across the Irish border and around the UK once they are in the UK or the Republic of Ireland. This also means that the two countries share a common external border. One potential impact of leaving the EU are changes at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Another big issue for Northern Ireland is the impact on the peace process. Currently the Northern Ireland receives funding from the EU for a number of projects that have supported the peace process. They received almost £2.5bn in the last EU budget and should receive around £2bn more before 2020. They have funded cross-border programmes such as Intertrade, Peace and Tourism Ireland. This EU support is not guaranteed when the UK leaves the EU.

A crucial point to consider is the fact that the Good Friday Agreements were predicated on the UK and Ireland being members of the EU. The ‘close cooperation between the countries as partners in the European Union’ is integral to the Agreement. The implications for this document are serious and must be considered if the current peaceful situation is to be maintained.

Brexit could also have serious consequences for the the Belfast agreement and co-operation on matters of cross-border crime and terrorist activity. What happens to the European Arrest Warrant will be particularly important since the UK and Ireland make frequent use of the system. For instance most requests made by Northern Ireland under the EAW have been to the Republic of Ireland. Returning to a system of bilateral extradition procedures could conjure significant problems and litigation.

What is likely to happen?

The situation is unprecedented. As both Ireland and the UK joined the EU at the same time, there has never been a conflict between their arrangements and the demands of EU membership – so there can be no cast-iron guarantee that the travel arrangements will continue unchanged. Though the Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, has argued there will be no change, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has argued that the loss of EU freedom of movement for the UK means that there would have to be some change as the Republic of Ireland will still have freedom of movement as a member of the EU.

The question of trade is also complicated. Leaving the EU and the single market would mean that customs posts on the Irish borer would be necessary to check goods being traded between the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) and the UK. These posts already exit at other EU borders such as the Norway-Sweden border.

The political fallout in Northern Ireland of the vote to leave the EU are potentially more significant, as it may give rise to increased tension between political factions in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin have called for a vote on Irish reunification . Even though it is highly unlikely a referendum would be held, as there is little support for one and it would have to be granted by the UK government, the change in political dynamic could see resurgence of conflict in Northern Ireland. Despite this, the leading party in Northern Ireland, the DUP and Northern Irish First Minister, Arlene Foster, campaigned for the UK to leave the EU in order to return powers to both the UK and Northern Ireland.

However, the EU treaties mandate a two-year negotiating period once the country has informed the European Commission it intends to leave. This means that nothing will happen to the border or funding immediately after a vote, and all changes will be up for negotiation.

The Common Travel Area that covers the UK and the Republic of Ireland has operated since 1925 and there is little will for it to removed. Having existed before the EU and having gained recognition in Protocol 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, it seems likely that the EU will be willing to negotiate and agree on a travel area agreement. Indeed, Ireland chose not sign up to the Schengen Area in order to maintain the CTA and an open border with Northern Ireland.  Both countries recently signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ in 2011 which committed them to extend cooperation in electronic border management systems and harmonise their short stay visit visa systems. This is will not automatically change when the UK leaves the EU. Ireland (like the UK) has opted-out of the EU’s visa policy, so the UK and Ireland could retain their separate Common Travel Area arrangements – if they wish to.

Immediately after the referendum Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister, affirmed his commitment to maintaining the Travel Area, prioritising it and the peace process over any other Brexit negotiations. He stated:

“The Irish government will do our utmost in upcoming discussions to maintain the Common Travel Area and minimize any possible disruptions to the flow of people, goods and services between these islands,” 

In a statement to the House of Commons on 27th June, David Cameron echoed this commitment:

“While all of the key decisions will have to wait for the arrival of the new prime minister, there is a lot of work that can be started now. For instance the British and Irish governments begin meeting this week to begin to work through the challenges relating to the common border area.”

It is worth remembering that there no international appetite to see conflict return to Northern Ireland, so it is likely that the EU, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK, will work to come to an agreement to ensure as little impact as possible. Clearly this is an issue surrounded by uncertainty but what is certain is that the Irish border, will be an integral issue in Brexit negotiations and a resolution will have to be found, however difficult and intricate the process.

  • Justin Protts – EU Research Fellow
  • Tom Adamson-Green – EU Research Fellow


Photo: Roberto Taddeo