The backstop aiming to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is the main sticking point in the Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EU. It appears that the UK fears that they will be indefinitely trapped in a customs-union type arrangement with no way of exiting it. The EU is presumably concerned that a British government would unilaterally end the backstop to the detriment of citizens in Northern Ireland.

A potential option that I was discussing in private was allowing Northern Ireland a referendum on options if the UK determines that they want to exit the customs union without some mutually acceptable alternative arrangements being in place. The obvious options would be

  • remain in the customs union (and implement a customs border in the Irish Sea)
  • leave the customs union (and implement a customs border with Ireland)
  • (perhaps there are other additional options)

I haven't seen such an idea discussed - has it been brought up in negotiations/discussions? What would be the main problems with such a scenario?

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    The obvious issue would be that there was something close to a civil war going on in NI until quite recently. Both sides of that conflict can be expected to vote on opposing sides. Such a referendum could thus rekindle the conflict.
    – Roland
    Mar 8, 2019 at 11:52
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    AFAIK the Good Friday Agreement gives Ireland the option to call for a referendum of unification. Mar 8, 2019 at 23:29
  • The terms of the future relationship of the UK with the rest of Europe needs unanimous approval. In effect, Ireland has a veto. So, option #2 is a non-starter. Option #1 is what the Leave party doesn't want. FWIW, this is one of the better detailed explanations of the backstop: bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-politics-44615404 that I have found. Mar 13, 2019 at 5:34

4 Answers 4


One obvious problem with your proposal is just who gets to vote:

  • Every resident of Northern Ireland, regardless of citizenship?
  • Every citizen of the UK or the Republic of Ireland resident in NI?
  • Every resident of Ireland, both in the Republic and Northern Ireland?
  • Every citizen of the UK or the Republic of Ireland?

Picking one of those options, or yet another one, will reopen the can of worms that the Irish Question has become. Good Friday and EU integration helped to put the Troubles to rest because the differences ceased to matter except to increasingly isolated fanatics. An Irish citizen or an UK citizen could decide to live anywhere in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, or the rest of the UK, and visit the other areas without problems.

Note that the EU27 negotiators have pretty much said that they'd go with anything that is acceptable to the Republic of Ireland. You just proposed a referendum in Northern Ireland only ...

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    The Belfast Agreement already specifies who gets to vote in a referendum on the status of Northern Ireland, which this would effectively be. The "real" problem is that neither the DUP nor the Tories want a vote on the status of Northern Ireland.
    – Kevin
    Mar 8, 2019 at 23:07
  • @Kevin, that would equate moving the customs checkpoints with an Irish unification vote. Which it may or may not be.
    – o.m.
    Mar 9, 2019 at 6:08
  • Well, if you listen to the DUP for five minutes, you'd be forgiven for getting that impression.
    – Kevin
    Mar 9, 2019 at 6:16
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    @Kevin, they're right that a customs border in the Irish Sea would be a big step towards breaking NI out of the UK ...
    – o.m.
    Mar 9, 2019 at 6:42
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    @JJJ, I'm not sure I get your first sentence. Brexit is breaking the UK out of the EU.
    – o.m.
    Mar 9, 2019 at 6:59

A poll of this nature would be opposed by the DUP and other Unionist groups. If Northern Ireland were to remain in a customs union with the EU, while the rest of the UK left, it would simply shift the border from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea. In other words the customs border would be between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

English MPs are unlikely to accept Northern Ireland trying to force the whole UK to stay in the customs union, so there would have to be a border.

Any such division with the UK would be unacceptable to Unionists, because they would consider it to be making a reunification with Ireland more likely.

  • How can a party with "democratic" int its name be against that? That's contrary to it's name and someone should just ask/call the law on being clear what you are. - So no I doubt that the DUP would do this, lest they lose the right to use a protected name.
    – paul23
    Mar 12, 2019 at 23:03
  • @paul23 how can the Democratic People's Republic of Korea not be a democracy for the people of Korea?
    – user
    Mar 13, 2019 at 9:06
  • @paul23: So far as I know, the word "democratic" has no legal protection in UK law or in international law. Anyone can use it for any purpose, no matter how absurd. Mar 13, 2019 at 10:08

The problem is that both options are disruptive to trade for Northern Ireland and likely to inflame sectarian tensions, not assuage them, as the options would appeal along those lines.

A further issue is that with no functioning government at Stormont, this referendum would be held by the UK government which would harm its legitimacy for some within Northern Ireland, particularly with the controversy the current Secretary of State is courting.

From the UK government's point of view, allowing such a poll on the detail of Brexit for one part of the UK, would increase demands for other parts to have their needs met and risk the integrity of the state. To paraphrase: There is no upside for them, only considerable downsides.


I am not sure that this is the 'main sticking point' in Theresa May's deal (I'm assuming you mean that because there are plenty of negotiations taking place outside of this deal). There are several sticking points in her deal which are virulently opposed by many, most notably perhaps the £39 billion pound payout, which I believe may have garnered its own question on this forum. However the back-stop point is one that the media seems to have latched onto, and with good reason. There was a natural and logical assumption by many, irrespective of how they may have voted, that leaving the EU means leaving the customs union. I think many likewise assumed that this would not mean a hard border. Whether that was a valid assumption or not is highly debatable, but it seems to be a threat that is hanging over the head of everybody involved. That said, I think your options might have to be:

  • Remain in the Customs Union - meaning no borders established whatsoever.
  • Leave the customs union with no hard border at all anywhere.
  • Leave the customs union with no hard border in Ireland, but established somewhere else.
  • Establish a hard border in Ireland.

So to answer this question (and address the comments):

  • The first option is Theresa May's deal (as of this date, may change), but obviously that is not really leaving the EU then is it?
  • The second doesn't seem acceptable to the EU and there might be WTO issues.
  • The third is plausible but takes time to set up and probably unnacceptable to May's partnering DUP.
  • I believe the last option is untenable and would never even be introduced as a motion, especially in the Northern Irish parliament.
  • I don't think your second bullet point is viable if governments on both side claim to have something like sovereignty. If the border is soft, there must be compatible regulations on both sides -- Brexit In Name Only.
    – o.m.
    Mar 8, 2019 at 14:57
  • The chances of the DUP accepting a hard border within the UK, or the Republic accepting a hard border with the rest of the EU are also not high.
    – origimbo
    Mar 8, 2019 at 15:02
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    I guess it is more precise to say that it is the main sticking point in the negotiations between the UK government and the EU. There are other actors outside the government that oppose the things you mention. However, I don't think that you answer the question on the idea of having a vote in NI to choose the options.
    – Gremlin
    Mar 8, 2019 at 15:20
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    "that leaving the EU means leaving the customs union" - That was not clear at all. A range of promises were maid by the various campaigners. There are non-EU members of the customs union, including UK crown dependencies.
    – James
    Mar 8, 2019 at 16:59
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    @ouflak Hard to say really, as the democratic process seemed to have stopped at the vote and intentions have been implied by various factions to suit particular narratives.
    – James
    Mar 8, 2019 at 17:32

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