Will there be a border between Ireland and the UK if they can't agree on a deal?


Please help me understand this. Some brexiteer colleagues say it won't be a border, because of the Good Friday Agreement but WTO rules mean there must be a border. Will the UK then decide to break WTO rules consistently and prefer to upset the WTO instead of the Irish?

So, is this a matter of illegality versus practicality?


Posted 2018-12-21T10:11:53.053

Reputation: 71


This area has been covered extensively, although an answer for this question would probably require drawing together a couple of different posts.

https://politics.stackexchange.com/questions/28233/why-is-it-impossible-to-leave-the-single-market-without-a-hard-irish-border?rq=1 is probably the best starting point.

– Jontia – 2018-12-21T10:21:39.833

1According to my map, yes. "Will there be a [hard] border?" – Mazura – 2018-12-21T20:40:31.423

You guys talk about this enough you started leaving off the hard? ... Yikes. – Mazura – 2018-12-21T20:42:09.070

The WTO rules are so complex that after reading them for half an hour I could not find anything that discusses customs controls explicitly. All I saw was mention of tariffs without anything discussing inspections or other means of enforcement. But the Good Friday Agreement is much easier to get through, and it certainly says nothing about border controls. – phoog – 2018-12-22T10:47:49.237



It is not WTO rules which require a hard border, it is regulatory divergence.

There will be a border in any scenario short of Irish unification. The Good Friday agreement says that it will be a soft border without intrusive limits and controls on cross-border traffic and commerce.

Such a soft border is only practical if the rules on both sides of the border are compatible.

  • There must be no taxes or tariffs if one shops at the grocer on the other side of the border.
  • An electric appliance that is deemed safe on one side of the border must be deemed safe on the other side.
  • If significantly different visa rules apply on both sides of the border, there must be controls to enforce them.

Part of the promise of the Brexiteers was that the UK would be free from EU regulations and requirements. Once they use that freedom to make a divergence, then both the EU and the UK will have to police the border to make that happen.

  • The EU plans to regulate some disposable plastic gadgets (like drinking straws) to help the environment. Imagine the UK does not agree. There would have to be EU inspectors at the border to make sure that consumers and businesses don't bring banned plastics over the border.
  • The UK plans to limit the entry of EU citizens. EU citizens can travel to Ireland without limit. If the UK wants to stop them from crossing the border without paper trail, they have to send UK immigration officials to all border crossings so that EU citizens can get their documents stamped.


Posted 2018-12-21T10:11:53.053

Reputation: 49 884

7Can you elaberate on "There must be no taxes or tariffs if one shops at the grocer on the other side of the border"? Because even as EU members there are different taxes on each side of the RoI/NI border. Fuel taxes is the most obvious one, causing a nearly 20p a litre difference in Diesel prices. – Jontia – 2018-12-21T11:35:00.430

AFAIK the GFA mandates that any Irish citizen can travel to NI and England without limit and control. – Martin Schröder – 2018-12-21T14:42:54.017

@JonathanReez, seems I had misremembered the Irish visa waiver for UK visa holders. I'll edit. – o.m. – 2018-12-21T17:24:57.030

1@MartinSchröder it says nothing of the sort. You should read it sometime. It also says nothing about a soft border, which is why I have downvoted this answer. The word "border" in fact appears nowhere in the Good Friday Agreement. – phoog – 2018-12-22T04:46:23.993

2@phoog, consider Strand II 5 and the appendix. And "cross-border" appears quite a lot unless I found another text than you did. – o.m. – 2018-12-22T05:33:06.427

@o.m. I overstated the case. The agreement does not mention the border. This is also true of strand two, which mandates a mechanism of cooperation in the form of the north-south ministerial council, without making specific commitments about the areas of cooperation, much less the nature of the cooperation or the result of the cooperation. The suggested areas of cooperation do not mention border controls or security checkpoints. – phoog – 2018-12-22T10:26:25.190

@phoog, do you think that strand two would be possible with a hard border? – o.m. – 2018-12-22T10:28:34.710

Of course it could. Countries with "hard" borders cooperate all the time. Also the answer's premise is incorrect: the UK and Ireland already have divergent visa requirements without stringent immigration controls between the two countries. Customs enforcement could be similarly spotty. – phoog – 2018-12-22T10:34:58.100

I am somewhat concerned that an 'answer' with so many glaring inaccuracies has received so many votes and even been selected as the answer. I suppose this will balance out over time, but do people really believe just anything that's posted on here? I'm sorta new here so just wondering. – ouflak – 2018-12-25T19:09:06.557

@ouflak, politics differs somewhat from other groups. On mathematics or computer science boards, we'd have a definition of key terms (such as "hard border") and go from there. Here everybody uses the term and few people write their definitions down. I'm old enough to remember long lines and passport checks on borders within the EU, and even more intrusive checks crossing the Iron Curtain. In a hard Brexit I'd expect the outcome somewhere between these two cases. Certainly not as soft as it is within Schengen today. – o.m. – 2018-12-26T07:32:50.817

@ouflak, ... notably, there is a difference between a "absolutely no deal" hard Brexit and a "plenty of little deals but no big deal" hard Brexit. The "absolutely no deal" Brexit is unlikely and getting even more unlikely as contingency plans for "no big deal" are implemented. But all those "little deals" require regulatory compatibility. – o.m. – 2018-12-26T08:00:52.557

@Jonita he probably just meant tariffs. Or taxes which result in tariffs when ex/imported across the border. So fuel taxes don't apply since - for a private person - the difference does not result in a tariff or tariff like fee when "importing" it – Hobbamok – 2019-08-29T10:10:37.327


The whole situation is just a mess.

I have been assured on this site that two years ago, people both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland expected this to cause major problems, only to be laughed off by Brexiteers. (I didn't give this particular situation not that much attention back then).

Your colleagues can say what they like, but if the UK leaves without a deal, then there will be no "backstop" (the only solution to the problem that is not totally unacceptable to anyone), so there will have to be some kind of border. On the other hand, a border will lead to all kinds of trouble, so we can't have a border. All in all, a total shambles if the UK leaves the EU with no deal.


Posted 2018-12-21T10:11:53.053

Reputation: 3 950


WTO rules do not require a hard border. It’s conviently ignored there is a border between Ireland and the UK as there are different rates of excise duty ( for example alcohol & fuel ) different rates of VAT, different rates of car tax, different livestock regulations and different currency etc.etc. These are currently dealt with by pre-notification and electronic clearance. Examinations and challenges of imports / exports are intelligence based.

Pat Curtis

Posted 2018-12-21T10:11:53.053

Reputation: 1

None of the things you mention require a border. However things like tariffs, people movement, and product standards do. The thing about VAT is that the output element is paid to the government of the supplier party, and audited against invoiced sales. However tariffs are payable to the importer's government - who has to be able, in the final instance, to check what comes in. It is all very well having pre-notification systems - they are fine. But at the end of the day the importing government has to be able to verify such declarations by examining and counting physical entries. – WS2 – 2018-12-22T00:09:51.840

1@WS2 there have never been immigration controls on the land border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. They're unlikely to arise because of Brexit. Customs controls are another matter. – phoog – 2018-12-22T04:51:17.037

@phoog Quite so. And that was because British and Irish citizens had the right of residence in one another's countries. However if Ireland is in the EU's free-movement, and Britain isn't, how will e.g Polish, Czech, Portuguese be prevented from flying into Dublin, taking the train to Belfast and hopping on the ferry to Liverpool. How would the Brexiteer's mantra about 'control of our borders' be achieved? – WS2 – 2018-12-23T08:27:32.957

@WS2 today, a Namibian citizen can travel to Ireland without a visa and cross illegally into northern Ireland, where a visa is required. More relevant to EU citizens, non-visa nationals such as Canadians can also enter the UK legally from Ireland after being admitted there. It is very easy for both categories of people to establish themselves as illegal residents of the UK, and that has been acceptable for decades. This sort of situation will simply apply to more people after Brexit. – phoog – 2018-12-23T16:20:29.413

1@WS2 Also, Irish citizens have always had right of abode in the UK, since decades before the EU came into into being, and they will continue to have it after Brexit. – phoog – 2018-12-23T16:26:10.950

@phoog That is undeniably true. But the OP's question seems to imply that no hard border would be required after a UK exit from the EU. I simply mention some obvious reasons why Brexit would necessitate a hard border, and one of them would be to deal with EU citizens who enter Ireland under free-movement. If there were no border, how could they be prevented from entering the UK? – WS2 – 2018-12-27T09:55:27.997

@WS2 They could not, but history shows that the UK will assign higher importance to an open border and the message it sends about Irish citizens in the UK than it will to the possibility of citizens of other countries crossing the border illegally. The UK has done this for decades despite the fact that the UK and Eire have not had a unified immigration control system. EU free movement in Ireland will not "necessitate" a hard border, and in fact it is unlikely to lead to one. Customs controls are another matter, of course. – phoog – 2018-12-27T15:29:17.960

@phoog I think it unlikely, given the current tabloid hysteria about EU immigration, that opportunities for free-movement incursions across an open-border in Ireland could pass without notice, as they have in the past. – WS2 – 2018-12-27T16:52:12.177

1@WS2 The open border will not entitle these people to free-movement benefits in the UK. They will still need authorization to live or work there. They will be in the same boat as the nearly 1 billion people who can already enter the UK without a visa, and the even larger number of people who can evade UK immigration control by first entering Ireland. You seem to understand my point and just disagree with it, so there's no need for continued discussion. (I got Namibia backwards earlier. There are 6 countries I could have used instead: Bolivia, Fiji, Guyana, Lesotho, South Africa, and Eswatini.) – phoog – 2018-12-27T17:42:06.523

@phoog On a slightly different tack, I was interested in a letter in this week's New European from someone suggesting that if no hard border be required in Ireland, all goods movements recorded electronically, why could not those parts of the UK which voted overwhelmingly to Remain e.g. Scotland, London, and other large cities, simply remain in the EU and for there to be an invisible border around them, and any tariffs, duties. as well as workers rights etc, be determined by postcode? – WS2 – 2018-12-28T10:55:07.977


There is a border today between Eire and Northern Ireland. That is a fact.

No matter how the Brexit ends there will still be a border between Eire and Northern Ireland. That is a fact.

Unless there is a unification of Eire and Nothern Ireland there will be a border between Eire and Northern Ireland.

How that border is administered is a problem the current, and any future, government of GB & NI has. They, the government of GB & NI, have made a promise, The Good Friday Agreement, to the people in Eire and Northern Ireland that they can pass the border without any restrictions. That might be a promise that they cannot keep as the EU is not bound by that agreement.


Posted 2018-12-21T10:11:53.053

Reputation: 143

2The agreement does not say that people in Eire and Northern Ireland "can pass the border without any restrictions." In fact, it says nothing about the border. – phoog – 2018-12-22T10:43:55.357