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Brexit and Northern Ireland – How will it work?

There are effectively three possible scenarios which might operate to control immigration between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain in the event of a significant change to EU nationals’ free movements in the UK, as considered by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

1. A harder border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

It was noted that this would cause significant disruption to the people who regularly cross the border for work, leisure or study, and that there are doubts over the extent to which the border could be effectively policed, given the number of formal and informal crossing points.

2. A harder border between the island of Ireland and Great Britain

It was noted that this would be less disruptive and easier to implement than applying controls at the border with the Republic of Ireland, and appeared to be the UK Government’s preference over applying checks at the land border. Nevertheless, the Committee considered that imposing checks on people travelling between different parts of the UK would be ‘highly undesirable’.

3. A harmonised approach between the UK and Ireland to immigration and border controls

This approach would prevent hard border controls on the Irish border or controls between the islands of Ireland and Britain, and could build on the cooperation that already exists. However, the Republic of Ireland’s continued membership of the EU might constrain the policy options available.

Committee conclusions

The Committee concluded that:

‘In the event of a Brexit, an arrangement that maintains a soft land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but which does not see restrictions imposed on travel within the UK would need to be a priority.’

The British Government’s proposals

The UK Government’s proposals in its recent position paper confirms that it is committed to preserving the ‘ability to move freely within the UK and between the UK and Ireland with no practical change.’[1]

In practice, it states that ‘immigration controls are not, and never have been, solely about the ability to prevent and control entry at the UK’s physical border’[2] and that ‘along with many other Member States, controlling access to the labour market and social security have long formed an integral part of the UK’s immigration system.’[3]


It’s likely that British or Irish passport holders will continue to be able to travel freely, as they have done under the CTA, regardless of the issues arising from Brexit.

Any EU citizens in Northern Ireland will have an unknown status but this will be likely the same as any EU citizen in the rest of the UK. The UK Government states that the position for EEA nationals can only be resolved through continuing Brexit negotiations.

Click here to read the full Brexit and Northern Ireland briefing series.

For more information or advice about immigration, please contact:

Angharad Birch
Trainee Solicitor
T. 020 7227 7270

[1] UK Government Position Paper, Northern Ireland and Ireland, 16 August 2017, para 27
[2] UK Government Position Paper, Northern Ireland and Ireland, 16 August 2017, para 33
[3] UK Government Position Paper, Northern Ireland and Ireland, 16 August 2017, para 33


This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.

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