Open Britain Background Briefing: The Government’s position paper on “Northern Ireland & Ireland”


Today, the Government published its Brexit position paper on the future of Northern Ireland, titled ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland’. This paper can be found here. In the document, the Government attempts to outline its approach to Brexit issues impacting Northern Ireland, in particular the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  

Open Britain assessment of this paper, identifies four key weaknesses:

  1. The Government’s proposals on the Common Travel Area (CTA) would open a ‘back door’ entry system to the United Kingdom, meaning that goods and people from the EU could enter the UK without checks, fundamentally undermining the argument that leaving the European Union would involve taking back control of immigration and trade. Instead, this would lead to both leaving the European Union and losing control. 
  2. With the Government looking to take the UK out of the Single Market and the Customs Union, any of its proposals for monitoring goods entering the UK from Ireland will inevitably have to involve some kind of checks, meaning additional red tape and bureaucracy for businesses, regardless of the Government’s lofty rhetoric.  
  3. The Government’s approach to pursuing regulatory equivalence on agricultural trade is essentially a bureaucracy-heavy alternative to membership of Single Market and would also undermine the Government’s ability to negotiate free trade agreements with countries outside the European Union.
  4. The Government’s aim of wishing to preserve a single energy market on the island of Ireland will be fundamentally undermined if the Government insists on taking the UK out of the Single Market.  

Open Britain’s Position: The Government’s approach to Northern Ireland is fanciful, naïve, and lacking in realism. The Government’s position of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union are completely at odds with their position of wanting to maintain the Common Travel Area. Open Britain is clear, if the UK wants to preserve the current situation in Northern Ireland then the only way of doing so is by staying in the Customs Union and the Single Market. 

In Detail

Section 1: The Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement:

“…At this stage, the UK proposes that both the UK and the EU should:

  • affirm the ongoing support of the UK Government and Irish Government, and the European Union, for the peace process;
  • formally recognise that the citizenship rights set out in the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement will continue to be upheld; and
  • Agree to the continuation of PEACE funding to Northern Ireland and border counties of Ireland.” 
  • The Government must ensure that these three promises are kept, and co-operation must be upheld between the UK and the EU to protect the peace process. On the PEACE programme, the Government must assent to continued EU involvement if it wants Northern Ireland to continue to benefit from the programme.

“The UK proposes that the Withdrawal Agreement confirms that the current substantive position is not changed as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and that both parties recognise that it will remain unchanged. As long as Ireland remains a member of the EU, Irish citizenship also confers EU citizenship, with all the rights that go with this. This is as true for the people of Northern Ireland who are Irish citizens – or who hold both British and Irish citizenship – as it is for Irish citizens in Ireland. The UK welcomes the commitment in the European Commission’s directives that these EU rights should continue to be respected following the UK’s departure from the EU: “Full account should be taken of the fact that Irish citizens residing in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens.” 

  • While Open Britain welcomes the stance taken by the Government to preserve existing rights in Northern Ireland, the Government must now acknowledge that they are creating a tiered system for UK citizenship, where under its proposal, residents of Northern Ireland would continue to have the rights enjoyed by citizens across Europe – for example, being allowed to live, work and study across the EU – while this right would be taken away from Scottish, Welsh and English residents.   

“The UK proposes that, without prejudice to the wider discussions on the financial settlement and Structural and Investment Funds, the UK and the EU should agree the continuation of funding for PEACE IV for the duration of the existing programme and, with the Northern Ireland Executive and Irish Government, explore a potential future programme post-2020. In doing so, the UK wants to work with the EU on how together we can maintain the implementation of the PEACE IV programme, including the role of the SEUPB as managing authority, and that of the NSMC in agreeing the policy direction of future programmes. Notwithstanding the outcome of the negotiations on this specific issue, the UK government would remain committed to peace and reconciliation programmes and to sustaining cross-border cooperation. The UK’s approach to PEACE funding applies to the exceptional circumstances of this programme, recognising its link to the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement, and should not be taken to imply any wider policy positions on the financial settlement as a whole.” 

  • Open Britain welcomes the UK Government’s commitment to peace and reconciliation programmes and an unequivocal commitment to the PEACE IV funding and any future programmes post 2020. 

Section 2: Maintaining the Common Travel Area and Associated Rights: 

“For its part, the UK wants to continue to protect the CTA and associated reciprocal bilateral arrangements. This means protecting the ability to move freely within the UK and between the UK and Ireland with no practical change from now, recognising the special importance of this to people in their daily lives, and the underpinning it provides for the Northern Ireland political process.” 

“…The UK can provide a clear assurance that the CTA can continue to operate in the current form and can do so without compromising in any way Ireland’s ability to honour its obligations as an EU Member State, including in relation to free movement for EEA nationals in Ireland. If the EU wishes, the UK would be content for such an assurance to be reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement.“ 

“…the UK is confident that it will be able to: maintain existing movement to the UK from within the CTA without requiring border controls, as now; respect Ireland’s ongoing EU free movement obligations; and put in place a new UK immigration system and controls for EEA citizens…Given the UK’s willingness to provide a clear assurance now that Ireland’s immigration and border arrangements will be unaffected by the preservation of the CTA – and our proposal that this guarantee could be set out in the Withdrawal Agreement – the UK believes that it can conclude an agreement on the CTA swiftly in this first phase of negotiations. This issue, and the longstanding rights associated with the CTA, is clearly separate from the ongoing negotiations on EEA national rights in the UK.” 

  • While Open Britain welcomes the Government’s desire and commitment to preserve the Common Travel Area (CTA) and existing travel arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the Government cannot escape the fact that their plans essentially create a back-door entry system into the UK from the EU, fundamentally undermining Vote Leave’s central argument of “taking back control” of UK borders through a vote to leave the EU.
  • The Government needs to explain how the UK will be in a stronger position outside of the EU to control immigration from the EU than it is now as an EU member state, when the Government’s proposal amounts to a loss of sovereignty over immigration.

Section 3: Avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods:

“…It is also important to ensure that there is no return to a hard border as a result of any new controls placed on the movement of goods between the UK and the EU. This will require detailed engagement on customs, agriculture, and other relevant economic matters as negotiations progress. As a first step, the UK proposes agreeing principles and criteria against which to test potential models for the land border.” 

“The invisible and open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is, as the Irish Government has said, arguably “the most tangible symbol of the peace process”…The Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement included a specific commitment to “the removal of security installations”. All military security installations and other infrastructure were removed following the Agreement and the border today is invisible and seamless across its 310 mile/500 km length. As the Irish Government has said, “the disappearance of physical border crossings and checkpoints is both a symbol of, and a dividend from, the success of the peace process.” 

  • Open Britain supports the Government’s aim to prevent the return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. However, the only way to maintain an entirely free and frictionless border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is for the UK to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union.

“The UK therefore proposes that potential models for the land border are developed on the basis of the following nine key principles and criteria.

● Recognise the crucial importance of avoiding a return to a hard border for the peace process in Northern Ireland. This must mean aiming to avoid any physical border infrastructure in either the United Kingdom or Ireland, for any purpose (including customs or agri-food checks).

● Respect the provisions of the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement in all its parts, with particular reference to: the three-stranded constitutional framework set out in the Agreement; the need to respect and treat equally the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities; and the importance of promoting sustained economic growth in Northern Ireland.

● Recognise the unique nature of the land border, in particular: its history and geography; the cross-border movements of smaller traders, farmers and individuals; the need to protect everyday movement of goods; and the integrated nature of the agri-food industry.

● Prevent the creation of new barriers to doing business within the UK, including between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

● Address other regulatory and customs-related barriers necessary to deliver as frictionless a land border as possible including waivers from security and safety declarations, and ensuring there is no requirement for product standards checks or intellectual property rights checks at the border.

● Address the transit of goods to and from Ireland to the rest of the European Union via the United Kingdom – in line with the European Commission’s directives – through UK membership of the Common Transit Convention.

● Consider how best to protect the integrity of both the EU Customs Union, Single Market and trade policy, and the new independent UK customs regime, internal market and trade policy, in the context of finding flexible and imaginative solutions, while recognising that the solution will need to go beyond any previous precedents. The UK has identified a wide range of border-related issues to discuss with the EU, including: product standards; checks on intellectual property rights; and mutual recognition of driving licenses, vehicle registration and insurance cover.  

● Take account of the importance of trade between Ireland and the UK and aim to avoid economic harm to Ireland as an EU Member State.

● Agree at an early stage a time-limited interim period, linked to the speed at which the implementation of new arrangements could take place, that allows for a smooth and orderly transition.”

  • Open Britain questions how the Government plans to enforce regulations on trade and immigration across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland without any physical infrastructure whatsoever. Even light-touch customs borders, such as between Sweden and Norway, require some degree of physical infrastructure and spot-checks. 
  • Whilst it is welcome that the Government has identified issues to be discussed with the EU, the Government needs to provide more technical detail for public scrutiny, which are completely lacking in today’s paper.  

“…The Government believes a model of close association with the EU Customs Union for a time-limited interim period could achieve this. It is important to note that this proposal is highly relevant to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. In order to deliver our shared objective of avoiding a return to a hard border, it will be important to agree at an early stage an interim period which could be delivered through a continued close association with the EU Customs Union for a time-limited period after the UK has left the EU. The principles outlined above reflect the importance of agreeing this interim period as part of our dialogue on Northern Ireland and Ireland.”

  • Open Britain welcomes the Government’s commitment to a transition period. However, much more detail is needed to clarify how this transition period will work and how it will impact Northern Ireland.

“As noted above, the UK also believes that the UK and the EU should prioritise in particular addressing how to avoid a hard border in relation to checks on particular types of goods, such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures for agri-food. EU law stipulates a range of controls and checks for third country agri-food products in situations where the EU does not have a sufficiently deep trade relationship with the relevant country. While the UK would have greater flexibility in relation to designing our own approach to SPS checks, the Irish side of the land border would continue to be subject to relevant EU regulations. An agreed, reciprocal solution is therefore required. The extent and complexity of third country SPS and related checks would clearly not be appropriate or consistent with the UK and the EU’s shared objectives to avoid a hard border for the movement of goods, and to respect the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement in all its parts, including in regard to facilitating ongoing North-South cooperation on agriculture. It is important to note that North-South cooperation on agriculture has enabled the island of Ireland to be treated in policy and operational terms as a single epidemiological unit for the purposes of animal health and welfare. This highlights the importance of reaching a negotiated outcome consistent with the UK’s Article 50 letter and the European Council’s negotiating guidelines on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

“One option for achieving our objectives could be regulatory equivalence on agrifood measures, where the UK and the EU agree to achieve the same outcome and high standards, with scope for flexibility in relation to the method for achieving this. An agreement on regulatory equivalence for agri-food, including regulatory cooperation and dispute resolution mechanisms, would allow the UK and the EU to manage the process of ensuring ongoing equivalence in regulatory outcomes following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Providing the UK and the EU could reach a sufficiently deep agreement, this approach could ensure that there would be no requirement for any SPS or related checks for agri-food products at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.” 

  • Open Britain welcomes the fact that the Government is aware of the problems which trade in foodstuffs will face due to the hard Brexit path it is pursuing. However, in order to avoid a scenario of increased checks and bureaucracy, the Government should be negotiating to stay in the Customs Union and the Single Market.
  • The Government’s proposal of establishing regulatory equivalence between the UK and the EU on agri-food measures, in order to avoid the need for sanitary checks on agricultural products crossing the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which means accepting regulatory equivalence with the whole of the EU in this area and the UK moving from being an EU rule maker (as currently) to being an EU rule taker. This does not sound like ‘taking back control’.
  • The Government must also clarify how it plans to conduct future trade negotiations with non-EU countries on the issue of agri-food products, if it plans to have continue to have complete regulatory convergence with the EU on this issue.   
  • The Government’s proposals are incoherent. They concede that differing regulations are a barrier to trade. But their plan to leave the Single Market and ‘take back control’ of regulation will lead to further regulatory divergence in other sectors, thus damaging British exporters.

Section 4: Aiming to preserve North-South and East-West cooperation, including for energy:

“The UK believes that there should be a strong shared desire between the UK Government, Irish Government and the rest of the EU to support the stability of energy supply on the island of Ireland. The efficient transit of gas across the border to and from Ireland, and maintaining affordable, sustainable and secure electricity supplies across the island of Ireland are central to achieving this. The nature of the wholesale SEM operating in Ireland and Northern Ireland, which represents the first market of its kind in the world, underlines the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.”

“The UK proposes that the new framework relevant to the energy market in Northern Ireland and Ireland should: ... facilitate the continuation of a single electricity market covering Northern Ireland and Ireland.” 

  • The Government needs to explain how its aim of facilitating the continuation of a single electricity market across the island of Ireland holds up in practice if the aim of the Government is to take the UK out of the Single Market.