Severe Consequences for North-South Relations

Brexit is already having a significant impact on North-South relationships. When the process of exiting the EU is complete, it will turn the border on the island of Ireland into an external border of the EU. NI will face Ireland as part of a ‘third country’, in a context where the majority voted to remain and where there are extensive arrangements for North-South engagement and cooperation. EU membership has assisted in rendering the border on the island virtually invisible for most practical purposes and this has helped to ease tensions.

Brexit will make the task of maintaining North-South cooperation considerably more difficult and determination, flexibility and imagination will be required to address the problems that will arise. Concern was consistently expressed during our project about the implications and consequences of Brexit for North-South relations by interviewees, stakeholders and those who participated in our Townhall meetings.

An Invisible Border?

One of the great achievements of recent times has been the increasing invisibility of the border and the scale and extent of good relations and close cooperation on the island. While this is most evident in the areas of trade and the economy, it is plain in other contexts too, such as
policing, security and justice.

Negotiating the Fear of a Hard Border

The negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement, Protocol and future relationship between the EU and the UK are vital. In principle at least all participants agree that a hard border should be avoided and that the progress on the island of Ireland should be nurtured and built upon. Serious disagreements have emerged though in the translation of these aspirations into practical commitments and legally binding text. There are genuine tensions in these discussions. Many have highlighted the need for full alignment on the island of Ireland if the overall objectives are to be achieved (whether this is delivered via the UK-EU relationship or a special arrangement designed for NI). However, this has conflicted with the UK government’s desire to leave the single market and the customs union.

The proposals advanced on the future relationship have not inspired confidence that North-South cooperation will continue in the form it currently takes and there is considerable anxiety that even if unintended, a hardening of the border will be the practical result.


  • BrexitLawNI agrees that the emphasis placed on North-South cooperation in these discussions is appropriate and our research reveals widespread concern about the long-term impact of Brexit on relationships on the island of Ireland.
  • We conclude that there is a need for a Protocol that fully respects the commitments given in the EU-UK Joint Report in order to ensure that the unique circumstances of NI are reflected in the future EU-UK relationship and any specific solutions that are proposed.
  • In our view, it is difficult to see how anything short of full alignment on the island of Ireland will secure the objectives sought by participants, and in the absence of a UK-wide solution, we see merit in agreeing a package of measures or special arrangements that are respectful of NI’s challenging circumstances. Such an outcome would be protective of existing North-South cooperation but also carry significant economic, social and political advantages for NI.
  • We also note that the B/GFA contains solutions to some of the challenges presented by Brexit and underline the role that institutions such as the North-South Ministerial Council might play in the future. However, these mechanisms were designed before Brexit and thought will need to be given to further reform to ensure they are able to withstand and absorb the pressures and strains that will arise.

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Transitional Justice Institute CAJ