Passport and customs controls between Ireland and UK ‘inevitable’

Conference told of likely consequences for Ireland of British decision to exit the EU

The re-introduction of passport controls and customs procedures between Ireland and the UK on the back of Brexit is now almost inevitable, the former head of the Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU) has warned.

Blair Horan said whatever deal the UK forges with Brussels in the future, it is unlikely to allow the free movement of Eastern European workers given how toxic the issue of immigration has become in Britain.

“And the only way to ensure they [migrants] cannot get into the UK by using Ireland as a backdoor is by having passport controls to monitor and check that situation,” he told a debate on the possible consequences for Ireland of Brexit at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) in Dublin.

These controls would most likely be established at airports as the Border was deemed too difficult to police by authorities on both sides, he said.

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In practice, this would mean having to show passports when flying between Dublin and London or between Belfast and Liverpool.

"From Ireland's point of view we would want the UK to have full access to the single market, more than Norway and Switzerland, " Mr Horan said, noting the latter two do not have access to agriculture and fisheries.

However, the former union boss said other member states were unlikely to afford the UK access without free movement as it would put their economies at a competitive disadvantage.

Another consequence of Brexit would be establishment of customs procedures and customs posts between Ireland and the UK, Mr Horan said.

With the UK potentially able to negotiate bilateral trade deals with other countries and blocs , the Irish Border would become the EU’s de fact customs border.

“If the UK leaves the EU but stays in the single market, you’ll still have customs procedures because it can negotiate trade agreement with third-party countries.”

“So you’ll need ‘rules of origin’ procedures to ensure that those third-party countries, that the UK is negotiating with, can’t bypass the EU’s common external tariff,” he said.

"If the UK has a deal with Mercosur, the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) will insist that custom controls are very stringent to ensure that Brazilian beef does not access the Republic of Ireland market," Mr Horan said.

Ireland should be able to persuade the UK to include agriculture as part of the free market negotiations with the EU at least in short term to avoid the immediate imposition of tariffs, he said.

However, the issue will become more complex in the longer term especially if Britains reverts to a cheap food policy.

IIEA chairman Brendan Halligan said finding a "bespoke solution" to Britain's eurosceptic position would be the overriding consideration of Irish policy over the next two years.

Given that Britain will have to negotiate on its own across the table from the other 27 member states, Mr Halligan said Ireland had never been in a more powerful position to shape Anglo-Irish relations for “the indefinite future”.

“This time we will be part of huge group dealing with the UK. Our negotiating relationship is completely transformed. We make good use of that or we don’t.”

Former European Parliament president Pat Cox said Britain's vote to Leave constituted the first act of "European disintegration" since the Schuman Declaration in 1950, which formed the basis for European integration.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times