The UK and Ireland joined the EU in 1973. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that will share a land border with an EU member state after Brexit. The land border is 310 miles long with over 200 formal crossing points and probably the same number again of informal crossing points. Today, the border is largely invisible. The border has unique political significance due to the history of Ireland and conflict in Northern Ireland and sensitivities about its appearance remain. Once the UK leaves the EU, the land border in Northern Ireland will change from an internal to an external EU border.
Our predecessor Northern Ireland Affairs Committee launched this inquiry in September 2016. Following the General Election, this Committee then relaunched the inquiry which builds on the work of our predecessors. The constantly evolving nature of the negotiations means that this Report cannot represent an exhaustive statement of the Committee on this subject. Our future programme will reflect the need to scrutinise the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on Northern Ireland on an ongoing basis.
The Common Travel Area (CTA) is a special travel zone which enables British and Irish citizens to travel and reside within each other’s jurisdictions without the need for a visa, residence permit or proof of resources. The Government has said that the UK’s future immigration system will not impact the ability of individuals to cross the land border free from routine immigration control. The Committee welcomes the Government’s commitment that the UK’s future immigration system will not affect free movement of people across the land border.
We recommend the Government sets out in detail how it proposes to apply existing, or whether there will be new, internal immigration controls, such as employment checks, for EU nationals. In the Committee’s view, the residents of Northern Ireland should not be subject to more onerous documentary checks to determine entitlement to stay and to access public services and the labour market than anywhere else in the UK. It must also establish the resource implications of conducting checks on people away from the border.
The UK Government’s decision to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union means that, in future, different regulatory and tariff regimes could be in force on the island of Ireland. Without an effective border, goods could cross between Ireland and Northern Ireland without paying tariffs or complying with regulations on product standards.
The UK Government and the EU have both expressed their commitment to avoiding a hard border, including physical infrastructure or related checks and controls. The Joint Report of 8 December 2017 sets out three distinct solutions for resolving border arrangements: the overall EU-UK relationship, specific solutions provided by the UK or, in absence of agreed solution, full alignment with those rules of the Customs Union and Single Market which support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and protection of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. We heard numerous proposals for how regulatory and customs compliance measures could be enacted away from the border using tools such as joint policing, mobile patrols, risk analysis, cameras and digital customs declarations.
We have, however, had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border. We recommend the Government bring forward detailed proposals, without further delay, that set out how it will maintain an open and invisible border. These proposals should provide detail about how customs compliance will be enforced if there is regulatory and tariff divergence between the UK and Ireland.
The European Commission has published a Draft Withdrawal Agreement setting out how full alignment could operate in legal terms, as a backstop arrangement. The Committee supports the Prime Minister’s clear rejection of these proposals which would result in a customs border down the Irish Sea. The draft does not properly reflect the commitments in the Joint Report and presumes to make distinct arrangements for Northern Ireland in direct contravention of the democratic provisions set out in paragraph 50. The issues of the land border cannot be resolved by creating a costly barrier to trade with Northern Ireland’s largest market, neither would such a measure be compatible with the spirit and intent of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
The Prime Minister has proposed an implementation period of approximately two years after the UK leaves on 29 March 2019 to give individuals, businesses and Governments time to plan and initiate changes. We heard that preparing for the UK’s new customs arrangements will require change across over 30 government departments and public bodies. The Government’s proposals for technical solutions represent blue sky thinking but it will not have the time to implement anything substantial before withdrawal day.
We welcome the Government’s intention to agree an implementation period. We have seen no evidence to suggest that, right now, an invisible border is possible. To provide adequate time for new customs processes to be put in place, the UK may need to remain in, or parallel to, the Customs Union and Single Market for the duration of the implementation period. During the implementation period, we recommend that the Government works closely with counterparts in Ireland and the EU to develop an innovative border system capable of delivering customs compliance without traditional physical infrastructure at the border.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement created a distinctive cross-border dimension to governance arrangements for Northern Ireland. It states there should be consultation, co-operation and action on matters of mutual interest and created the North-South Ministerial Council to develop policy on an all-island basis. On 24 January 2017, in the Gina Miller case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Agreement covers Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, not its place in the EU. The UK’s decision to leave the EU does not change Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional framework under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, however it changes the environment in which it operates. The UK, the EU and Ireland have all made clear and strong commitments to upholding the Agreement, and all subsequent agreements, and protecting the peace process. The institutions and safeguards created to manage cross-border and cross-community relations will remain the corner stone of peace and stability in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
The Agreement identified six policy areas for the development of cross-border cooperation and created six all-island implementation bodies. UK Government analysis identified 141 policy areas where EU law intersects with the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland.
We recommend that the Government publish the mapping exercise and put forward targeted proposals for how cross-border cooperation in policy areas dominated by EU law will continue after the UK leaves the EU. Where appropriate, and in the event of the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, EU competencies could be devolved to Northern Ireland so it can balance maintaining UK wide frameworks with EU alignment for cross-border policy areas. We very much regret the continued absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland at this time of significant change for the whole of the UK. In their continued absence, alternative means of taking decisions will have to be devised.
The Committee welcomes commitments from both the Government and the President of the EU on continuation of Peace funding after the UK leaves the EU. The Government should set out in more detail its proposals for a bilateral successor to the Peace programme, the level of contribution it intends to make to the fund and its governance arrangements.
The Government should clarify in its response to this report whether it will seek to continue funding for cross-border projects under the Interreg programme post-2020. If it is the Government’s intention to replicate this funding through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund it should specify the amount of funding it will make available, whether this money could support cross-border projects in Northern Ireland and the border regions of Ireland and what its spending priorities will be.
Published: 16 March 2018