Written by Martin Russell,
The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’), by referendum in June 2016, raised particular concerns in and about Northern Ireland, which had voted by 56 per cent to remain within the European Union. Principal among these concerns was the prospect of a ‘hard’ border, potentially upsetting the delicate balance between the region’s status as part of the United Kingdom and its close relationship with Ireland. There were fears that this in turn could disrupt the peace process and the progress made since the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
Given the UK’s insistence on leaving the EU’s customs union, the question of avoiding a hard border without introducing new divisions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was a particular challenge in the withdrawal negotiations. The Withdrawal Agreement eventually adopted in January 2020 envisages that the region will nominally be part of UK customs territory, but retain close ties to the EU customs union and single market regulations on manufactured and agricultural goods, with the aim of enabling unobstructed trade to continue between the two parts of the island of Ireland. Much will depend on the detailed arrangements for implementing the Agreement, to be worked out by a specialised committee of EU and UK representatives, which met for the first time on 30 April 2020.
With uncertainty as to how Northern Ireland’s rather ambiguous status under the Withdrawal Agreement will work in practice, trade and investment could see some disruption. Economic effects could also result from migration restrictions – given the large number of EU nationals working in Northern Ireland – and the loss of some EU funding. There are also political implications, with the Brexit process having brought debate on Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK back on to the political agenda.
Read the complete briefing on ‘Northern Ireland after Brexit‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.