What would a ‘Hard Brexit’ mean for Ireland?

From the Good Friday Agreement to free trade relations and citizenship rights, there is much at stake on the UK-EU border.

In May 2017 the European Chief Negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier, held a speech in the Houses of Parliament of Ireland addressing the concerns of the Republic of Ireland in the negotiations between the UK and EU. His mere presence in a national parliament underlines the often-underestimated relevance of Ireland in the EU-Brexit negotiations. In his speech Barnier stressed the importance of Ireland claiming:

Because of its historical and geographical ties with the UK, because of your shared border and strong economic links, Ireland is in a unique position. With the depreciation of the sterling, Brexit is already having an impact on the value of Irish exports to the UK. In particular, the agri-food sector. And many in Ireland fear the return of tensions in the North. Today, in front of these two houses, I want to reassure the Irish people: in this negotiation Ireland’s interest will be the Union’s interest. We are in this negotiation together and a united EU will be here for you.”

The outcome of the EU referendum in June 2016 has not only challenged the political and economic future of the United Kingdom (as well as the (dis-)integration process of the EU) it also has a fundamental impact on the Republic of Ireland. The current situation is especially uncertain with regard to three issues: free trade, border control and the status of Northern Ireland. All three topics will affect the success or failure of a potential agreement between the UK and the EU in 2019.

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 In limbo

The economies of Ireland and the UK are strongly entangled, and this is especially the case for the trade relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The UK is one of the most important trading partners for Ireland: more than 300,000 Irish people work and live in the UK while approximately 100,000 British people live in the Republic of Ireland. If the UK proceeds to push for a hard Brexit or does not reach an agreement until 2019, Irish and British people on both sides will be in limbo. Currently the Common Travel Area allows free border crossing for nationals of the Republic of Ireland and the UK, Isle of Man and Channel Islands. However, concerns have been raised about this in a post Brexit scenario. Regulations for travel and work visas, issues of social security and pension entitlements might be either very complicated to arrange or completely unregulated which will create high uncertainty.

Meanwhile, many Irish goods and food products are still going via lorry to the continent. If after a hard Brexit there is no tariffs and customs union, goods from Irish trading partners might have to face tariffs for crossing the UK, because the UK has no free access to the EU single market anymore. What effect does this have on the export sector, the transport sector as well as the prices of Irish goods for customers specifically? How can the close trade relations in the agriculture sector between the UK and Ireland prevail?

Irish Prime Minister criticized the UK government for demanding every advantage of the EU single market without being in the EU.

The most recent answers from the UK government are that the single electricity market on Ireland shall be maintained and shared standards and norms for the UK and EU agriculture products shall be established in order to keep the close trading relations between Ireland and the UK. These are the first necessary, but not sufficient policy proposals for a post-Brexit time. Worries about a non-existing customs union for Ireland and Irish goods exist and are hardly calmed without a clear vision on the British side on how they want to deal with it. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, the Irish Prime Minister criticized the UK government for demanding every advantage of the EU single market without being in the EU.

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 Secondly and closely related to the trade issue, any Brexit scenario has an effect on the actual land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As Katy Hayward correctly states: “A hard Irish border is quite possible, a frictionless one is an oxymoron.” The UK government has emphasized that it will ‘take back control’ on immigration. But Brexit also has an effect on the Irish border issue in regard to the EU single market, the Common Travel Area or the integrity of the UK territory. The political scientist Simon Usherwood illustrates this challenge in a very intriguing graphic showing that a frictionless, easy-to-agree border solution is hardly possible.

If a hard Brexit comes into force, Ireland will have to patrol an external frontier of the EU. However, the Good Friday Agreement between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK clearly states that such a border should not exist. The frictionless border crossing is seen as an important symbol to overcome the terror and violent conflict of the past. Moreover and even more important, the violent past is directly overcome by the crossing of many people who work and live on both sides and by tourists who travel to both countries without any border control. If a hard Irish border were the final result of the negotiations, then the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 would be called into question.

The UK government reassured that the option to get an Irish passport after Brexit will remain for all citizens in Northern Ireland.

Finally, the question of Northern Ireland possesses two challenges to the negotiation process. On the one hand the Good Friday Agreement affects citizenship regulation. Every citizen who is born in Northern Ireland has the right to apply for Irish citizenship and to get dual citizenship. Since the referendum in 2016, more and more citizens in the UK with either Irish ancestors or as citizens of Northern Ireland use this opportunity and become Irish vis-à-vis EU citizens. The British demand for an Irish passport has increased by 50 per cent since the Brexit vote. In the first six months of 2017 alone, 100,000 Irish passports were issued in the UK. In a position paper, the UK government reassured that the option to get an Irish passport after Brexit will remain for all citizens in Northern Ireland. This statement increases optimism on the Irish and EU side in the negotiations.

 On the other hand the agreement between the Tory government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the support of the DUP for the British minority government puts the neutrality status of the British government as an intermediary between Irish republicans and British unionists into question. How neutral can the British government be in the power-sharing process in Northern Ireland when the DUP can influence British governmental decisions?

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Deal or no deal

Since March 2017, Northern Ireland has actually been governed by the Northern Irish administration, because the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot agree on how the Northern Irish government should be formed. However, this power-sharing system is stuck in a political conflict between both parties about the assignment of ministerial posts and the official support of the Irish language. In contrast to Sinn Féin, DUP is a conservative, strictly protestant, pro-British party that is against equal marriage and legal abortion, and supported Brexit in 2016. Moreover, the DUP was the sole party against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. All these issues contribute to the stalemate in Northern Ireland.

In the worst case scenario alongside the Brexit challenge, Northern Ireland would be ruled from London.

The next steps are expected this autumn, hopefully with concessions and willingness on both sides to find a political solution. Theresa May’s government should do whatever it takes to mediate. Otherwise, and this would be the worst case scenario alongside the Brexit challenge, the responsible Northern Ireland secretary of the British government, James Brokenshire, would rule Northern Ireland from London. This ‘direct rule’ would have serious implications for the reconciliation process of the Northern Irish conflict and could also affect the Brexit negotiations.

It goes without saying that resolving all three issues in the negotiation process is not easy. The way the Irish issues are handled by the UK and EU chief negotiators might be a good indicator to assess in which direction the negotiations are heading. The Irish government has to make sure that the EU still sees Ireland’s interests as the Union’s interests. For this reason, Varadkar should get the support of the French and German governments so the EU and the EU member states speak with the same voice in the Brexit negotiations. This is essential for Ireland, because the decision to conclude the Brexit agreement will be based on a qualified majority vote in the European Council. A ‘no deal scenario’ must be avoided at all costs.


This article is based on the longer piece “Irland im Brexit-Strudel” published in the German magazine “Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik”. This version has been shortened and revised.

Featured image courtesy of William Murphy.


Stefan Wallaschek (@s_wallaschek) is a PhD candidate at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS), University of Bremen (Germany). He is writing his dissertation on the politics of solidarity in the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s migration crisis. His research interests are European Politics, Solidarity Research, Political Communication as well as Migration and Refugee Studies.