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This is a follow-up to this question about what hard Brexiteers want with respect to the Irish border. It appears that hard Brexiteers are mostly happy to leave this question for the DUP and Ireland to sort out, and they are OK with keeping it a soft border. They see it as a technical issue rather than a crucial aspect of their plan.

What I still don't understand is this: for hard Brexiteers, taking back control of the UK borders to limit immigration is a major outcome of Brexit. Still, they don't seem concerned about leaving the Irish border open, even though it could become a major point of entry for illegal immigration in the future:

  • Ireland will keep welcoming EU citizens who could easily cross the border. Ireland could even decide to join the Schengen Area in the future, making it even easier for any EU citizen to reach the British Isles.
  • While the UK has an agreement with France (including significant monetary contributions) for France to prevent illegal migrants from crossing the Channel, I'm not aware of any similar agreement between Ireland and France. Thus France has no particular incentive to stop migrants from going to Ireland. This is probably not a problem now, but after Brexit direct trade between the EU and Ireland is likely to increase (since it won't go through the UK anymore), with more opportunities for migrants to try to hide in the lorries going to Ireland and then cross the border.

First question: in the hypothesis of a hard Brexit, isn't a soft Irish border a potential backdoor for illegal immigration to the UK? If not what is wrong in the above reasoning?

Second question: assuming that this reasoning is correct, why don't influential hard Brexiteers campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

Optional related question: this answer claims that (some?) hard Brexiteers hope that Ireland will follow the UK and leave the EU as well, and that would solve the problem. This option seems very unlikely given that Ireland's economy relies on being part of the EU (let alone the growing Anglophobia in Ireland), but is there any evidence to back this claim?

Note: for the purpose of this question, let's assume that a border is "soft" if people are generally allowed to drive through it on major roads without stopping (as is the case currently on the Irish border). As far as I'm aware, there is no similar case on any EU external border, except with countries which have agreements with the EU to allow for the free movement of people, for instance Switzerland (please correct me if I'm wrong).

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    Reminder to everyone: answer in answers, not in comments. Comments are for suggesting improvements to the question or asking for clarifications, not for answering. – V2Blast Apr 12 at 18:31

10 Answers 10

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What I still don't understand is this: for hard-Brexiteers, taking back control of the UK borders to limit immigration is a major outcome of Brexit.

The UK's immigration controls are already independent from the rest of the EU. The UK's common travel area with Ireland existed for decades before the EU or its predecessor organizations came into being, and it could be ended without the UK withdrawing from the EU.

To put it another way: The question of immigration controls between the UK and other EU countries is entirely independent of the UK's membership in the EU, because the UK has opted out of Schengen. Ireland also opted out of Schengen, and as I understand it the principal reason for that was to be able to maintain the common travel area.

Still, they don't seem concerned about leaving the Irish border open, even though it could become a major point of entry for illegal immigration in the future.

It is already a possible point of entry for illegal immigration, and it has been for decades, yet it does not seem to be a major point of entry for illegal immigration. There's no reason to think that would change.

Ireland will keep welcoming EU citizens who could easily cross the border.

It will be legal for EU citizens to cross the border into the UK, just as it is legal today for a US or Japanese citizen, or a citizen of any other country that enjoys visa exemptions in both Ireland and the UK, to cross the border from Ireland into the UK.

Ireland has an independent visa policy for non-EU citizens, so there are people who can get to Ireland without a visa but who require a visa to enter the UK. Citizens of South Africa are, for example, in that category. These people can easily cross the border illegally into the UK today. The EU has nothing to do with this.

Ireland could even decide to join the Schengen Area in the future, making it even easier for any EU citizen to reach the British Isles.

If Ireland joins the Schengen area, it will be required to put immigration controls on its side of the land border between the UK and its own territory, at which point the UK will have no reason to avoid doing the same. This is why Ireland will not join the Schengen area unless the UK does.

While the UK has an agreement with France (including significant monetary contribution) for France to prevent illegal migrants from crossing the Channel, I'm not aware of any similar agreement between Ireland and France. Thus France has no particular incentive to stop migrants from going to Ireland. This is probably not a problem now, but after Brexit direct trade between the EU and Ireland is likely to increase (since it won't go through the UK anymore), with more opportunities for migrants to try to hide in the lorries going to Ireland and then cross the border.

Juxtaposed border controls do not require France to prevent illegal migrants from going to the UK; they allow the UK to send its own officers to France to do that. The reason this is seen as useful to the UK is that it should reduce the number of asylum applications. Irish officers will be able to inspect vehicles coming from France after they arrive in Ireland, and it is true that an asylum seeker who makes it through this inspection and furthermore manages to reach UK territory without detection could claim asylum in the UK. This route already exists, however. It could become more popular, as you note, if direct trade between France and Ireland increases.

First question: in the hypothesis of a hard Brexit, isn't a soft Irish border a potential backdoor for illegal immigration to the UK?

Yes, it is, just as it would be if the UK leaves the EU with a deal, and just as it is today.

Second question: assuming that this reasoning is correct, why influential hard-Brexiteers don't campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

For the same reason that the border is open now: Because the costs of provoking more trouble around the Irish border are far greater than the immigration benefit of reducing illegal immigration facilitated by the open border.

With regard to your "optional related question," the real problem with the border is the movement of goods, not of people, because the UK and Ireland are part of the EU's customs union, and the UK leaving that customs union will create a need for customs inspections at the border. That is why some people hope that Ireland will leave the EU; it has nothing to do with immigration. You are correct to note that Ireland is not going to leave the EU, however; current polls suggest 85% support for EU membership.

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    Thank you for your answer. So if I understand correctly, with respect to illegal immigration the situation would be the same or very similar post-Brexit as it is now, right? – Erwan Apr 10 at 23:40
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    The UK's immigration controls are already independent from the rest of the EU. - i don't think so, isn't UK required to uphold EU-imposed refugee quotas? – hanshenrik Apr 11 at 6:12
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    At least one part of this answer relies on the UK living up to its promise to retain visa-free entry for all EU citizens. Do the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Jacob-Rees Mogg all support this promise? – gerrit Apr 11 at 7:20
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    @hanshenrik The UK and Ireland have an opt-out from EU common asylum and immigration policy (and the UK has opted-in to only limited parts of it). – Alex Hayward Apr 11 at 7:24
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    @Tim I'm not suggesting they do, currently. I'm suggesting that they might in the future. It is conceivable that one of them wins a future Conservative Party leadership election (apart from Farage). – gerrit Apr 11 at 11:28
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This is why. Last time there were border posts, the IRA blew them up.

Bomb at border post

Today (10 April 2019) is the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

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    The other answers are good but this hits the nail on the head succinctly. A hard border in Ireland would be synonymous with a declaration of war by the United Kingdom on supporters of Irish Unification on both sides of the border. Even the hardest brexiteer seems to realise that a return to war in Ireland would be a shitty idea. – Smeato Apr 11 at 12:10
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    @Smeato Not just on the supporters in Ireland. The reunification efforts had large amounts of international support. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NORAID – Yakk Apr 11 at 20:02
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    @Smeato eh... about that: belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/brexit/… – llama Apr 11 at 23:03
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    I also recall seeing a similar poll of all UK brexiteers claiming something like 60% saying that disruption of the situation in Ireland was an acceptable cost of brexit, but I can't find it now – llama Apr 11 at 23:04
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    "A hard border in Ireland would be synonymous with a declaration of war " a tad hyperbolic, even if the underlying premise of it being extremely troublesome is true – Display name Apr 12 at 15:05
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This is more of an addition to phoog's answer, but I think it's an important enough point to emphasize separately, as it seems a common source of confusion. Phoog said:

The question of immigration controls between the UK and other EU countries is entirely independent of the UK's membership in the EU.

The keyword here is "controls". Because stopping legal immigration from the EU is one of the main reasons people voted Brexit. In other words, the worry was not mainly about illegal immigration sneaking in as much the legal one that gets (legally) through the existing controls at UK's borders. So "taking back control" of the border in the UK Brexit debate does not have the same meaning as in the US debate on the illegal immigration through/from Mexico.

Granted, during the Brexit referendum, the specter of Syrian refugees was raised. But these would have also been probably legal as asylum seekers unless (or rather until) rejected as such, which in the case of Syrians was unlikely given the civil war.

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    Because stopping legal immigration from the EU is one of the main reasons people voted Brexit. In other words, the worry was not mainly about illegal immigration sneaking in as much the legal one that gets (legally) through the existing controls at UK's borders. Are you sure that not many people voted for Brexit because of refugees and Muslims? You may underestimate the power of misinformation. – gerrit Apr 11 at 7:23
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    @gerrit I agree with your comment, and from what I have seen most UK citizens living in the UK do not understand the difference between the immigration rules and the immigration (EEA) regulations. Why would they? But I think Fizz's basic point is sound: people understood that UK's ability to legislate on immigration was constrained by its EU membership, even if they did not understand the precise effects of that constraint. And the point that the ability to change immigration law does not imply a need to change immigration control protocols is also well taken. – phoog Apr 11 at 18:33
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in the hypothesis of a hard Brexit, isn't a soft Irish border a potential backdoor for illegal immigration to the UK?

Yes. And if anything, this might prompt the UK to set up some hard borders on its side of the border, much like the EU is discussing border checks on its side for livestock and food, to make sure that no chlorinated chicken from the US or similarly unwanted products (food or otherwise) enter the EU market.

If not what is wrong in the above reasoning?

Ireland, like the UK, isn't part of the Schengen zone.

Also, there technically are border controls (as in passport checks) today at ports (air and sea) between Great Britain (as in the island) and Ireland (as in the island), and between the British Isles (as in the UK and Ireland) and the Schengen zone.

Assuming that this reasoning is correct, why influential hard-Brexiteers don't campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

Because Brexit itself is a hard enough sell as things are. Putting up a hard border forward to boot means throwing the Good Friday agreement -- a peace deal -- out the window. It's not a good idea to be campaigning on that.

this answer claims that (some?) hard-Brexiteers hope that Ireland would follow the UK and leave the EU as well, and that would solve the problem. This options seems very unlikely given that Ireland's economy relies on being part of the EU (let alone the growing anglophobia in Ireland), but is there any evidence to back this claim?

No, except perhaps in ERG and DUP wet dreams.

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The hard Brexiteers don't really care about immigration. Immigration was just a tool they used to get what they really want: economic freedom to exploit the UK. Things like employment rights and financial regulations that derive from the EU limit get in the way of them making money.

The immigration angle was just something they used to get enough people to vote for brexit. Now it's a useful excuse for not honouring the pre-referendum proposals to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union.

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    I downvoted you for what appears to be mind reading. If you have evidence to back up your claims then I will remove the downvote. This isn't a conspiracy theory site. – iain Apr 11 at 12:58
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    @iain JRM quoted by the Express: BRUSSELS is planning to impose EU tax policies on the UK and its overseas territories after Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019 in a move branded a "punishment" by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Specifically, this seems to be about the Anti Tax Avoidance Directive (ATAD). – JJJ Apr 12 at 16:09
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    @JJJ That doesn't support the claims made. Why do you think it does? – iain Apr 13 at 1:26
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    This answer seems to be just a conspiracy theory. I agree with some of the comments above mine - this answer has no place on this site unless it can be backed up with citations showing that Brexiteers' motivation is to "exploit the UK" so that they can "make money". In the absence of such evidence, I assert that this answer's premise is false (disclaimer: I am Remainer, but I still think the claims in this answer are ridiculous). – JBentley Apr 13 at 13:44
  • @JBentley I totally agree, but still it's upvoted 15 times. The voting bias on this site grows more and more. :( – Sjoerd Apr 17 at 18:31
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Brexiteers require a deal to be formulated that will gain enough support placating the DUP is an important part of this as they are unlikely to receive much support form Labour or the remain supporters in parliament needed to get a majority. It's worth remembering the hard brexiteers primarily want brexit they are simply OK or happy with the UK leaving on harsher terms as long as brexit is delivered.

The issue of the Irish border is perhaps one of the most important issues for any brexit deal as it it isn't a question about some benefit that might be received at some point in the future but something that handled poorly could lead to civil disturbances in Ireland that might even result in incidents in other areas of the UK and potentially island ceding from the UK, this would be a major issue for the government and the conservative party (if they were seen as responsible)

The issues with the Irish border are also a concern for the ROI who would be unlikely to agree to a deal with the UK that doesn't resolve the border concerns in a way that would allow some movement between ROI and Northern Island.

As well as the option of having a soft border into the UK through Northern Ireland there are a number of other options such as having some form of a border in the Irish sea between the Northern Island the rest of the UK. Which can be resolved at some later point (after all brexit is a long game that no-one really expects to benefit from any time soon) and this can be changed later when the support of the DUP is not so important and as an internal matter that doesn't require the EU to be involved . Equally a soft border is an issue for the EU as well and thus brexiteers would take make the argument that as a matter of mutual concern than some kind of resolution would be possible.

First question: in the hypothesis of a hard Brexit, isn't a soft Irish border a potential backdoor for illegal immigration to the UK? If not what is wrong in the above reasoning?

As you say a hard border is a concert for immigration but there options available down the line that might help reduce the impact of such a border on the rest of the UK.

Second question: assuming that this reasoning is correct, why influential hard-Brexiteers don't campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

Brexiteers are more concerned with achieving brexit than this specific issue especially as there are options that could protect the rest of the UK from the immigration whilst still avoiding civil unrest. They also require support form the DUP for whatever deal can be made.

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for hard Brexiteers, taking back control of the UK borders to limit immigration is a major outcome of Brexit

For some of them, maybe. But certainly not all; many of them are globalist libertarians with no desire whatsoever to reduce immigration.

A few points:

The narrative that the Brexit vote was motivated by a desire to reduce immigration is common on the pro-Remain Left, but for actual pro-Leave politicians it's often either a secondary objective or something they actively oppose. There's no need to explain why these people are taking positions that go against their values, because they don't go against their values in the first place.

  • Thank you for your answer. I was assuming that limiting immigration was a consensual objective for Brexiteers indeed, so your answer gives me a better understanding of the Brexit political landscape. In my defense, the Brexit leave campaign was quite misleading on the topic. – Erwan Apr 12 at 0:11
  • +1 although I disagree with the final sentence - "there's no need to explain why these people are taking positions that go against their values, because they don't go against their values". You seem to be forgetting your own point that this only applies to "some of them". There are certainly some anti-immigration Brexiteers (just as there are certainly anti-immigration Remainers), and the question remains valid for those (and thus a complete answer should address the point). – JBentley Apr 13 at 13:52
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in the hypothesis of a hard Brexit, isn't a soft Irish border a potential backdoor for illegal immigration to the UK?

Technically yes, but in reality no. Remember that the UK and the Republic of Ireland will remain in the same immigration zone after Brexit (Common Travel Area, or CTA). In the case of illegal immigration, that immigration will remain illegal after a Hard Brexit. The vast majority of illegal immigration is made up of people trying to cross the channel illegally, either by sneaking into vehicles that are crossing the channel legally, or (more recently) by using dinghies and hoping for the best. Leaving the EU won't change geography, it won't change the CTA, it won't change the fact that vehicles will legally cross the channel, and crucially it doesn't change the desperation of those who are trying to cross. Because the UK already has an opt out I don't see how leaving the EU will increase the thoroughness of the checks performed on incoming lorries*, it is a question of time/space/resources that determines how many vehicles are checked.

Therefore those who seek to enter the UK illegally after a Hard Brexit will still choose to cross from Calais to Dover/Folkestone rather than by first of all going on a much longer ferry crossing to the Republic of Ireland and then exploiting the soft border. It's the fact that the Republic of Ireland is still in the CTA and geography that makes the difference.

Second question: assuming that this reasoning is correct, why don't influential hard Brexiteers campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

Because they know that a hard border will kill the Northern Irish economy, which in turn will affect the votes for the DUP (and their supporters in the ERG). In a worst-case scenario the economic impact could even make a Border Poll** inevitable, followed by Northern Ireland rejoining the EU by becoming part of the Republic of Ireland. While this would solve the problem of the Irish Border and the Backstop, etc, it is an anathema for many of those who support a Hard Brexit because they are also staunch unionists.

*It may even decrease it. If all vehicles have to be checked due to WTO obligations, they will have less time to check any particular vehicle.

**A Border Poll is the specific name given to a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland within the UK or as a part of the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement obliges the UK government to hold a Border Poll in certain circumstances. There is evidence that the Brexit 'journey' has increased support for a Border Poll.

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First question: in the hypothesis of a hard Brexit, isn't a soft Irish border a potential backdoor for illegal immigration to the UK? If not what is wrong in the above reasoning?

Second question: assuming that this reasoning is correct, why influential hard-Brexiteers don't campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

When you stop all traffic at a hard border to check for papers, you slow down commerce. In the age of just-in-time delivery to factories, hour-long waiting periods on the border hurt the economy. The Irish and Northern-Irish had an open border for over 20 years, and they pretty much like that open border.

So, apart from issues regarding terror, the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement, a hard Irish-Northern Ireland border would hurt the economy.

My guess is, if you find some hard-Brexiteer who makes the case for a hard border in order to tackle immigration, it's unlikely that this one would be from Northern Ireland.


If the UK, at some point in time, finds that the soft border with Ireland creates an immigration loophole, they can always create checks for the connections between the islands of Ireland and Britain, i.e. check everthing that crosses the Irish Channel (flights and ferries). Right now, this is considered as breaking up the UK by many Brexiteers, thus such an additional channel border likely won't make it into any official Brexit plans. Yet, politicians can be quite pragmatic.

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    "If the UK, at some point in time, finds that the soft border with Ireland creates an immigration loophole": anyone in the UK who's thought seriously about this recognizes that the border already creates an immigration loophole, as it has since 1923. The economic angle is indeed important, though, so +1. – phoog Apr 11 at 14:15
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Hard Brexiteers' supporters aren't as concerned with migration from Ireland as they are with (illegal) migration from mainland Europe (and in turn from the Middle East).

Second question: assuming that this reasoning is correct, why don't influential hard Brexiteers campaign for a hard Irish border in order to actually control immigration?

Because the Brexiteers aren't particularly afraid of Irish people. Most other answers correctly point out technicalities regarding the border and immigration is mentioned by almost all of them. What they have not yet pointed out is what immigration they are afraid of / worried about.

Indeed, if we look at research, we find the following, from the abstract of a paper titled Is racial prejudice declining in Britain?:

Little evidence is found for the third hypothesis: British reactions towards black and Asian minorities are broadly similar suggesting racial differences may still be the main factor prompting white hostility to British minorities.

Now, as you might guess, Ireland isn't associated with non-white races at all. France on the other hand, is. For this I will provide two pieces of evidence: firstly Nigel Farage's image on a truck associating nonwhite refugees with the EU in his Brexit campaign (first picture) and secondly the Calais jungle (second picture, showing how it's been reported). Indeed, British seem to be more concerned about the Calais jungle than the French (even though Calais is in France), please consider the third picture showing the result from a YouGov poll.

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(Image: Philip Toscano/PA)

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(Image: northumbrianreflections)

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  • What a depressingly de-humanising picture that one of Nigel Farage is. It's sad that we live in a world where it's considered ok for a politician to stand in front of a photo of people in desperate conditions, and use it to drum up hate in order to support their political agenda. – JBentley Apr 13 at 13:57
  • "British seem to be more concerned about the Calais jungle than the French (even though Calais is in France)" - that's not surprising at all, because most people in the "Calais jungle" want to go to Britain, so they will sooner or later be Britain's problem, not the problem of France. – vsz Aug 21 at 6:55

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