Thanks to Brexit, the Irish border is coming again

August 31, 2018
British soldiers patrolling the border with the Republic of Ireland during the Troubles.

In Northern Ireland, made up of the six Irish counties still claimed by Britain, a majority voted to remain in the European Union in Britain’s 2016 referendum. But “Brexit” is threatening to take it out of the EU regardless — threatening progress in a statelet historically wracked by discrimination, inequality and violence.

Brexit is a threat to Northern Ireland in several ways. Key aspects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which formally ended decades of armed conflict, underpinned by European law and funds.

But most significantly, Brexit pulls Northern Ireland out of the EU while the republic of Ireland, made up of the remained 26 counties, remains. This poses the question of re-establishing a “hard border” between the two, and undoing progress towards Irish unification.

Below, Luke Butterly writes that the government is quietly preparing for a return to a harder border in Northern Ireland.


Earlier this year, the wording in a British Home Office recruitment campaign sparked a small controversy. As part of a drive to recruit an extra 1000 border force officers post-Brexit, the 21 jobs advertised in Belfast were only open to those with a British passport — “due to the sensitive nature of the work, require special allegiance to the Crown”.

In the north of Ireland, a painstakingly-crafted peace agreement allows citizens to identify as Irish, British or both — and they are entitled to hold both or either passport. With less than half the population identifying primarily or solely as British, many would be excluded.

The “British only” aspect of the job adverts also echoed the decades of institutional discrimination that the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland faced in terms of employment, where government ministers openly invited employers to discriminate.

The advert was quickly amended after being referred to the local equality commission, but it struck a larger point: preparations are underway for a border in Ireland.

Claire Hanna, the Brexit spokesperson for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), said: “Instead of putting out job advertisements, the British government should take some serious time to spell out clearly what form of border they anticipate these employees to be guarding.”

Troubled history

If Ireland was mentioned at all during the Brexit campaign, it was to reassure people that a campaign underlined by a “take back control of our borders” narrative would somehow have no impact on Britain’s only land border with the EU.

Once the referendum dust had settled and Theresa May was prime minister, she was initially at pains to stress that Brexit would not herald a return to the “borders of the past”.

After an anti-colonial struggle, Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s. This saw the creation of a new 500 kilometre international border drawn between the north-east and the rest of the island.

The border was a point of contention for most of the following decades. During the 30 year conflict known as the Troubles, officially ended by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), it was home to patrols, and checkpoints, and the scene ofharassment, violence and death.

Twenty years after the GFA, tens of thousands of people pass the border each day, most with little indication of when exactly they had crossed.

To put it mildly, British-EU negotiations since the referendum have not gone smoothly. As the March 2019 Brexit deadline rolls around, a “no deal” scenario looks increasingly likely — and with it come worrying implications for the border.

The prevailing narrative is that the British government is famously ill-prepared, but actions and statements throughout this year show how a border is being prepared,


The border jobs adverts were not the first such controversy. Late last year, the Home Office launched 300 new “mobile patrol” border force officers for a range of locations including Belfast, but would not disclose how many would be stationed in the north.

Recently, the chief of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) announced he would be looking for 400 new officers for post-Brexit border security issues. On the other side of the border, the Irish police force, the Gardaí, called for extra funding and machine guns for border patrols (the Gardaí are traditionally unarmed).

The PSNI chief has said that any installations would become targets for dissident republicans, yet in preparation for Brexit the police have halted the sale of three disused police stations along the border.

Most worrying is an anti-terror bill currently passing through Westminster, due to become law by Christmas. The Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill contains provisions that will grant powers to police and other officials to stop, search and detain anyone found within one mile of the North-South border. Further, police don’t need to show any reasonable suspicion.

The act also explicitly names two train stations (the first stop on the cross border rail service), which are several miles in from the border yet fall under these powers.

Fears that the powers will be used if granted are legitimate. Since at least 2009, checks have been happening between those travelling from the North to Britain — without any statutory basis. A similar existing piece of anti-terror legislation was used 12,479 times between 2014 and 2016.

Despite this high number, there was not one case of someone being held on terror related grounds. Rather, some were handed over to immigration officials — thereby using emergency anti-terror laws to side-step the lack of legislated immigration checks. A leading human rights charity has warned of the risk of racial profiling.

Even away from the borders, there is precedent. The North has the most disproportionate use of stop and search by the police. There, police use their stop and search powers three times more than those in England and Wales, but are three times less likely to lead to any further action.

On the ground

Support for Brexit is low in the North, and even lower for any kind of border. A recent survey from Queens University Belfast found that 60% of people would support protests against any north-south checks.

When the figures are broken down, they are even starker: 36% of voters for Irish republican party Sinn Féin would support blocking traffic, and one in 10 would support attacking any new border installations or infrastructure.

In the referendum, people voted to remain by 55.8%, with the issue of the border looming large. Polling now puts support for “Remain” at 69%.

When this 55.8% is broken down it is even starker: of those constituencies that border the Irish republic, all voted remain — generally with margins of 60-70%. This map can almost be neatly overlapped with where Brexit-supporting Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and anti-Brexit Sinn Féin hold their seats, and where areas have a higher Catholic than protestant population.

Regardless of these divisions, there is substantial support from both communities “for the type of UK exit that would largely eliminate the need for any border”.

The Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a leading human rights group based in Belfast, has said that any potential border could be “threat to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement”.

The CAJ said: “Any move towards a border that is controlled in any way, by fixed checkpoints, electronic surveillance or in-country spot checks, will not only cause economic and social inconvenience but also accentuate the distinction between jurisdictions which was becoming usefully blurred.”

The situation in the North is changing and unstable. In the 2016 assembly elections, supporters of the “union” with Britain lost their majority for the first time in the state’s 90 year history. In January last year, the assembly collapsed. There has now been more than 20 months of political stalemate, beating Belgium’s record as the longest time without a government.

Post-peace agreement, support for a united Ireland remains a minority viewpoint — even in predominantly nationalist Catholic communities. Yet now many say Brexit and the threat of a border increases the desirability of reunification — and with it EU membership.

The continued denial in Northern Ireland of access to abortion, marriage equality, and Irish language rights due to opposition by the DUP — all things now available in the south — also plays a role.

What’s next?

recent poll found that 60% of voters in the North think Brexit makes the break up of Britain more likely. Issues of the border rank high for people in the North, but people in the North rank low for voters in Britain. 

Polling of Leave voters said they “would rather lose Northern Ireland than give up the benefits of Brexit”. Voters as a whole put preventing a hard border at the bottom of their priorities for the Brexit negotiations.

As the government laid out their plans for a no-deal Brexit, new Brexit Secretary Dominic Rabb gave few commitments other than to say, “We wouldn’t return to any sort of hard border”. Yet there is no clarity on how that will be avoided.

The “no deal” alternatives to border checks are no less troubling. CAJ warns that the North could become “one big border”, with stepped up immigration raids and a hyper-intensified version of the “hostile environment”.

When a video emerged recently of arch-Brexiteer Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that we should have Troubles-era “inspections” of people crossing the border, it provoked ire and condemnation from all quarters. Yet while it may be true that we will not exactly return to “the borders of the past”, the borders of the future are becoming increasingly likely.

[Reprinted from Red Pepper.]

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