Ireland and Brexit

What a UK Uncoupling from Europe Could Mean for Ireland

Headlines in the Border Region after the Brexit referendum - "Uncertainty to Reign" seems to sum everything up
Headlines in the Border Region after the Brexit referendum - "Uncertainty to Reign" seems to sum everything up.

The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (a move known as "Brexit") formally occurred on January 31, 2020. Following that departure is a transition period lasting until December 31, 2020, during which the U.K. and E.U. will negotiate the terms of their future relationship. This article has been updated as of the January 31st withdrawal, and you can find up-to-date information about details of the transition on the U.K.'s government website.


It all began after the election victory for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who returned to 10 Downing Street without the pesky Liberal Nick Clegg. The referendum on a British exit from the European Union (Brexit, for short), was already looming, then set for June 23rd, 2016. On June 24th the surprising result was declared - 51.89% of those who decided to cast a vote in the referendum, voted to leave the European Union. This led to the quick demise of Cameron as a political figure and (after some highly theatrical backstabbing) election of Theresa May as Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister. May then declared that she would invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, the legal instrument to pull a country out of the EU. What did not sit well with other member states was the demand that the UK be granted special rights, though they would not be a part of the EU any longer.

Eventually, unable to reach a deal, Theresa May was replaced by Boris Johnson. A snap election in late 2019 cemented Johnson as the man who would orchestrate Brexit, and the (much extended) deadline for the UK to leave is now rapidly approaching without a final approved deal in sight.

So why would this be so important for the Republic of Ireland. Mainly because Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have a long, tenuous history and a long, winding border. Whatever is decided by Brexit could change the whole concept of cross-border travel situation in Ireland, as well as impact trade between the two countries on one small island.

How Brexit Evolved

First, we had the "Grexit" as a scary European Union prospect. This was the potential leaving (or dismissal) of Greece from Eurozone and/or EU. Then the spectre of "Brexit" began to loom, even more dramatic. This was not because actually wanted to get rid of the United Kingdom, but because some EU-sceptics within the UK began to gain more and more ground as they touted the poor economic situation in Greece as pulling everyone else down. This did not just occur with the much-hyped appearance of the UKIP party that backed Brexit, but also within more mainstream parties.

So mainstream, indeed, that PM Cameron, after just surviving the Scottish independence referendum with the United Kingdom intact (though the absolutely massive gains of the Scottish National Party SNP seem to paint a slightly different picture), committed himself to holding a referendum on whether the European Union should be partially dismantled. This would mean Britain (or rather the UK, but "Ukexit" doesn't sound quite so good) leaving it. However, this option did not align with the wishes of all parts of the UK- both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

The truth is, there is no iron control within the EU, and every state is free to let its membership lapse. Or it can, in special circumstances, be asked to leave very quickly. However, Brexit took many years to negotiate.

Brexit Without Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland is not a part of the UK, but it applied with United Kingdom for EU membership at the same time in the 1960s. The countries all also finally joined together at the same time in 1973, bringing all Ireland into the union. Ever since then, there seems to be a mental image of the two being a "package" hovering about. This, however, is not the case. Both the Republic of Ireland and the UK are independent, sovereign states, and there is no clause that binds one to the other in EU regulations.

The use of the Euro is probably the best example. The Republic of Ireland was amongst the first members of the Eurozone to adopt the currency, while the United Kingdom retained the Pound Sterling as an independent currency. So, obviously, separate ways are possible.

But are they desirable?

When it comes down to the facts, Ireland will be a part of Brexit in a way. At least, this will be true for the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, a country that is a part of the United Kingdom.

Ireland After Brexit

The official withdrawal took place on January 31, 2020, and changes are likely to roll out over time. For one, the Republic of Ireland will suddenly have to face the fact that the border to Northern Ireland will also be an "outer border" of the EU, requiring much more control, security, and paperwork than currently (i.e. virtually none). This has been a major part of the negotiation process because the border is long, winding, and currently laxly controlled in many areas.

The buying and selling of goods in the other jurisdiction will be subject to new laws, and tariffs, as well. There will be no more stocking up with cheap alcohol "up North" unless you are prepared for multiple border crossings.

Mentioning multiple border crossings - traffic in the border region will, more than likely, become a nightmare. With roads crossing and recrossing the border, nobody will want to face checkpoints every five minutes. And as money for new roads is sparse, winding back roads will become major traffic arteries.

As to the economy overall, now with Brexit, international companies will have to decide where to locate with greater care. Northern Ireland will no longer be a heavily subsidized gateway to Europe (as in EU), and the Republic of Ireland will be no tax-friendly gateway to the UK market either.

Brexit and the Tourist

Now here's the other question: will Brexit have a huge impact for tourists heading to visit Ireland?

In my opinion, the consequences for foreign visitors will be next to zero, if you disregard the re-established immigration and customs controls, and the associated planning of driving times from, say, Belfast to Dublin. Yes, you will have to go through a few bottlenecks but this will have such a small impact on the big picture that you do not need to fret about it.

As for all other important things, these will not change. Travelers to and in Ireland will still need to be aware that

  • visas for one jurisdiction are not automatically valid in the other,
  • there are two currencies in use, the Euro and the Pound Sterling,
  • speed restrictions and distances will still be in miles in the UK, in kilometers in the Republic of Ireland.

We have lived with these for ages, so Brexit will not be all that revolutionary.