NEWRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MAY 01: A billboard advertising pounds sterling to euros money changing services can be seen on May 1, 2016 in Newry, Northern Ireland. The billboard is situated along a road formerly known as no mans land between County Down and County Monaghan. The United Kingdom has just one external land border which is located between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At present there are no checkpoints in place for anyone crossing this border, either by foot or vehicle. Prior to the Anglo-Irish agreement anyone wishing to cross the border was subjected to armed checkpoints while unguarded country roads were blocked by concrete barricades. With the Brexit referendum taking place on June 23 to decide whether Britain should remain in the European Union some politicians have warned that the open border could be used as a possible backdoor entrance by migrants, traffickers and criminals wishing to gain access to the UK following a decision to leave the EU. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Dublin and Belfast fear that a hard border could return between the north and south © Getty

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On Friday, a cross-party group of politicians in the Northern Ireland assembly filed a lawsuit with the High Court in Belfast seeking a judicial review of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Whether this lawsuit — and other similar ones filed in London in recent weeks — will have any impact on the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc is hard to know. What the move in Belfast certainly does reflect, however, is the anguish that Brexit is generating among many people in Ireland, both in the north and south.

The disquiet has arisen because of the impact that Brexit could have on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian violence. Since the signing of the pact, the old border between the north and south that was imposed at Irish partition has virtually disappeared. This has had an important psychological and political impact across the island, helping to heal the wounds created by sectarianism and division. 

As the Financial Times’s Vincent Boland wrote last month, Brexit means a hard border could now return. Strict immigration and customs controls may well be needed because the border would be the EU’s only land frontier with the UK. This would damage an all-Ireland economy that is beginning to thrive, with €3bn of goods traded in 2014, the majority from north to south.

Some may wonder whether Brexit will have an even deeper impact, encouraging the Dublin government to follow the UK and consider leaving the EU. There is no evidence that this is about to happen. EU membership has long been the cornerstone of Irish foreign policy and Ireland is in the euro. Brexit will certainly disrupt bilateral trade between London and Dublin but Britain is no longer Ireland’s number one export destination.

However, the Dublin government is clearly concerned by the impact on the peace process. Dublin has made clear to the British that it wants no hard border between north and south; no customs controls; and the continuation of the common travel area that allows British and Irish citizens to travel without restriction between both states.

We will only know whether this can be achieved as the UK and EU define their new post-Brexit relationship. Some Irish commentators, however, are pessimistic about the damage Brexit will do to the Good Friday Agreement, one of the greatest achievements of modern British, Irish and US diplomacy. “It is one of the most successful models for conflict resolution around the world,” writes Fintan O’Toole. “Messing around with it is an insult, not just to Ireland, but to Britain’s international standing.”

Background reading

The leaders of Germany, France and Italy declared they would not allow Britain’s departure from the EU to propel the bloc into reverse as they discussed plans to deepen intelligence co-operation and bolster a pan-European investment plan.

Stefan Löfven, the Swedish prime minister, has warned Theresa May that handing a tax cut to businesses would make Brexit negotiations “more difficult”. Senior Conservatives have reacted with anger, says The Times.

Instead of digging in, Europe’s leaders should think about how a new relationship with Britain could lead to a more flexible EU model, writes Michael Leigh (German Marshall Fund)

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