The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was one of the thorny issues that plagued the initial stages of Brexit negotiations. During Prime Minister Theresa May's tenure, the debate over the withdrawal agreement was largely focused on the Irish backstop and its practicality. When Prime Minister May resigned, the question of the Northern Ireland border remained unresolved.

In end-2019, the BBC noted that the Irish border is "blocking" Brexit. At that time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised "good solutions" to the Irish border.

Recently, it appears to me that the Irish border has received far less attention as compared to other thorny issues such as the post-Brexit fisheries policies of the EU and the UK and competition policies. Last week, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier noted that fisheries was the main obstacle in Brexit talks.

Since trade negotiations and the Brexit transition period are ending soon,

  • What happened to the dispute over the Irish backstop?
  • Is the Irish border no longer a major obstacle in the negotiations between the UK and the EU?
  • Has a satisfactory and practical solution to the Irish border issue ever been reached?
  • 2
    I guess the OP doesn't understand what "negotiation" really means in politics. The objective is to produce a document where all the political groups can interpret the words in a way which their supporters can accept. There is no requirement at all for all the groups to interpret the words in the same way. That problem can be sorted out (or not!) after so-called agreement has been reached.
    – alephzero
    Dec 24, 2020 at 0:38
  • @alephzero Fair point. I’m also asking what that agreement turned out to be. Especially how a seemingly unsolvable problem can reach an agreement palatable to both sides in the first place.
    – Panda
    Dec 24, 2020 at 1:08

5 Answers 5


The Irish Border issue has been temporarily resolved to the point at which the negotiations can proceed.

When she was negotiating May described creating a border down the Irish Sea as something that no British Prime Minister could accept. Boris Johnson accepted it. That satisfied the EU, but not many in Northern Ireland.

The border in the Irish Sea will continue to be an issue going forward. As the reality of it sets in the calls for Irish reunification will continue to increase.


The matter is probably settled as far as the EU is concerned as the UK has now agreed not to pass legislation which would break the withdrawal agreement, and hence place itself "in breach of international law".

If Britain were to remain a member of both the single market and the customs union, it would make no difference anywhere as there would be no requirement for border control of goods, neither across the Irish border, nor between Britain and Northern Ireland.

However with the deal that has just been announced today (Christmas Eve) all that we have is a "tarriff-free" deal. But this leaves open the possibility that tariffs could be imposed at any time, and if rules and standards change goods could be prohibited from entry to the EU. This means that problems can be expected to arise at some point.

Northern Ireland will, to all intents remain in the EU single market and customs union. But there may very well need to be checks on goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland and vice-versa. This will rouse the ire of Unionists in Northern Ireland who will see it as a possible de facto break up of the UK, and tantamount to the creation of a united Ireland - at least in an economic sense.

  • 3
    While I generally agree with this answer, I'm not sure that the point about "no requirement for border control of goods anywhere" is strictly true. Even if we have a trade agreement, surely this becomes a problem anywhere diverging standards are subsequently created? Dec 24, 2020 at 8:57
  • 1
    @DavidFulton Yes, you are right. +1. The position has moved on in the last thirty-six hours. What we have ended up with is in no sense equivalent to being in the single market. A very bad day for Britain. I will edit the answer.
    – WS2
    Dec 24, 2020 at 18:27
  • 1
    @DavidFulton even without diverging standards you have the problem of varying tariffs. A free trade agreement is not a customs union.
    – phoog
    Dec 25, 2020 at 0:38
  • 1
    "Britain" is simply an everyday short form.
    – WS2
    Dec 27, 2020 at 7:46
  • 1
    @Oliphaunt-reinstateMonica “Britain” isn’t being used as the name of the island here, but rather as a collective term for England, Wales and Scotland, which include hundreds of other islands besides the largest one.
    – Mike Scott
    Dec 27, 2020 at 19:59

In short, the solution that was agreed upon will create a “new trade border” between the Great Britain and the European Union. This is because Northern Ireland will stay inside of the customs union and they will enforce EU rules at its borders.

With this agreement, there is no dispute between the UK and the EU as of now.

From BBC: This will prevent a hardening of the land border with the Republic of Ireland while creating a new "sea border" with the rest of the UK.

Basically, PM Johnson agreed to an Irish Sea border in October 2019 which was included in the withdrawal agreement and then passed by Parliament.

The majority that PM Johnson won after the 2019 elections helped him pass the withdrawal agreement through parliament. This is not like the debate over the Irish backstop where the main problem was the inability of the UK parliament passing the bill.

The BBC has got an article on how this stage was reached. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-55411621

  • 2
    Should UK in the first paragraph be GB? Northern Ireland is part of 'The United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' so would be outside the EU trade border as written.
    – Jontia
    Dec 24, 2020 at 20:13

What happened to the dispute over the Irish backstop?

The Irish backstop was renegotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson after he took over from PM Theresa May. It has been replaced by the Northern Ireland protocol.

Is the Irish border no longer a major obstacle to the negotiations between the UK and the EU?

Yes. The Northern Irish protocol has been agreed to by both sides in the Brexit withdrawal agreement and will be implemented from January 2021. Some items will have checks while some are excluded. See this Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/09/grace-period-for-brexit-checks-on-supermarket-supplies-to-northern-ireland

Since this is already agreed upon and ratified, it is no longer a major issue in the current negotiations.

Has a satisfactory and practical solution to the Irish border issue ever been reached?

This is very subjective. It will likely remains to be seen if it will cause discontent. There may be paperwork and checks when crossing the Irish Sea. Whether or not it will work well depends greatly after it is fully implemented in January 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/24/irish-sea-border-chaos-brexit-northern-ireland

More information about the Northern Ireland Protocol is found at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/943251/2020-12-10_The_Northern_Ireland_Protocol.pdf.

  • I think your second point is a very rosy spin on the situation given that a few weeks ago the UK was set to pass legislation breaking international law on this very issue. It might have gone away again for now, but it was a very major problem.
    – Jontia
    Dec 24, 2020 at 20:08
  1. What happened to the dispute over the Irish backstop?
  2. Is the Irish border no longer a major obstacle in the negotiations between the UK and the EU?
  3. Has a satisfactory and practical solution to the Irish border issue ever been reached?

All of these were covered in the withdrawal agreement that came into force at 11pm on 31st January 2020, they are not part of the Trade discussions (although a free trade deal would certainly make implementation of the provisions less onerous).

The agreement is complicated but boils down to the EU recognising that Northern Ireland was part of the UK internal market and the UK agreeing to certain provisions related to goods going to Northern Ireland from the UK which may end up in the single market. (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld5801/ldselect/ldeucom/4/4.pdf).

There were some issues around the implementation of the agreement which led to some highly controversial clauses being added to the UK internal Market bill. In the face of the UK Government's strong objections to the EU's interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement the EU backed down and agreement was reached with the clauses being removed from the bill. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-northern-ireland-protocol).

  • I have some trouble understanding the second paragraph. The UK government's strong objections to what? And the EU backed down from what?
    – Relaxed
    Dec 24, 2020 at 15:53
  • The first paragraph is an over optimistic interpretation of the situation given the Johnson government's intention to pass legislation breaking those very provisions of the Withdrawl Agreement.
    – Jontia
    Dec 24, 2020 at 20:10
  • @Relaxed have clarified my point
    – deep64blue
    Dec 24, 2020 at 23:13
  • @Jontia that's covered in my second paragraph
    – deep64blue
    Dec 24, 2020 at 23:13

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