Brexit and Northern Ireland illustration
Photo Illustration by Ben Giles

Brexit Will Change the Face of Northern Ireland Forever

As the British Home Office denies Irish passport holders important EU civil rights, a hard Brexit may send the Northern Ireland towards a civil rights catastrophe, as well as incite violence from paramilitaries.
illustrated by Ben Giles

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Emma DeSouza had been Irish all her life until suddenly she wasn’t.

When her American husband, Jake, received a deportation order from the British Home Office, she thought there must have been a mistake. She had applied to stabilize his immigration status a few months previously so that he could legally reside with her in Derry, one of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, the long-contested region of the United Kingdom on the island of Ireland.


In the UK, there is one application process for EU nationals who wish to have their spouse reside with them, and another for British citizens. Though DeSouza submitted the application using an Irish passport, the British Home Office had automatically registered her as a dual British/Irish citizen and therefore determined that she was not entitled to pass through the UK immigration system as an EU citizen. (UK immigration law states that holding British citizenship of any kind means one has to pass through the system as British and British only.) Unless DeSouza, an Irish woman, was prepared to declare herself British, Jake would have to leave the country.

The couple appealed the decision, thinking it was a clerical error made by someone who didn’t understand that Northern Ireland is distinct from the rest of the UK The Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, entitles anyone born in its six counties to Irish citizenship, British citizenship, or both. The British Home Office, however, has been automatically registering everyone from Northern Ireland as a British citizen. As far as they are concerned, DeSouza and other Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland are British by default, whether they like it or not.

For more than a year, DeSouza has been in a legal battle with the British Home Office for access to the birthright Irish citizenship she is entitled to. Although a Northern Irish court has ruled twice in her favor, the Home Office continues to appeal its decision, encouraging DeSouza to simply renounce her British citizenship.


All this has been happening against the backdrop of the United Kingdom’s rapidly approaching exit from the European Union. Although 55.8 percent of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, they are nonetheless bound to leave as part of the UK should Brexit come to fruition. As the country prepares for the legal and constitutional implications of Brexit, unresolved issues around identity and civil liberties like DeSouza’s are coming to the fore.

“People never really knew that they were automatically [registered by the British government as] British—at least that’s the experience that I’ve come across,” DeSouza said. “It’s just that nobody really noticed because we were both members of the EU, so there wasn’t much issue.”

DeSouza continues to pursue her case in the hope that it will set a precedent and force Britain to deal with this issue before Brexit dooms other Irish citizens in the North who share her circumstances to a similar fate. Post-Brexit, Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland, faced with a UK government that automatically registers them as British, will likely have no way of retaining rights they are entitled to under EU law, potentially losing out on things like cross-border healthcare and reduced education costs.

A large number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland stand to have their civil liberties curtailed by both Britain’s failure to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and by Brexit. And this group is becoming politically mobilized in response to the indifference of the governing right-wing Conservative Party, known as the Tories, who have occupied Downing Street since 2010. Under their tenure, the UK is steadfastly heading toward a no-deal exit, which in all likelihood amounts to catastrophe. The Confederation of British Industry has warned that Brexit will cost Northern Ireland’s economy billions, while a February report published by the British government itself stated that a no-deal scenario would be “more severe in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain.”


A large number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland stand to have their civil liberties curtailed by both Britain’s failure to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and by Brexit.

Exacerbating Northern Ireland’s impending civil rights and constitutional crisis has been the absence of a government. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the country is headed by two ministers wielding equal power—one affiliated with the nationalists, who believe in the reunification of Ireland, and one unionist, who wish for Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. But power sharing ceased in January 2017 following the resignation of the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in response to “Cash for Ash,” a failed green energy initiative spearheaded by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which reportedly cost Northern Ireland’s taxpayers millions.

Subsequent negotiations resulted in both sides failing to reach a compromise on key issues, including same-sex marriage and legislation allowing for equal legal recognition of the Irish language. As time goes on and the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit increases, Northern Ireland’s General Assembly has failed to provide any assistance.


Photo Illustration by Ben Giles

Meanwhile, foreseeing some of the problems that will arise for Irish citizens post-Brexit, the Republic of Ireland has made efforts to protect its interests during withdrawal negotiations with the UK and the EU, insisting that all agreements concerning Northern Ireland be legally binding. After all, the absence of a legal dispute resolution mechanism has imperiled Good Friday and caused many of the problems DeSouza—and soon all other Irish citizens in the North—will face.


Such measures have been an object of scorn by the Tory right, which at times have come across as if they see the island of Ireland as a backwoods former colony that exists solely to be utilized at moments of political expediency. In October last year, The Spectator accused the EU of “[using] Ireland to take control of Brexit.” Then in December, the Tory MP Priti Patel suggested threatening Ireland with halting imports, which would lead to food shortages, for not complying during negotiations with a former colonial power responsible for a famine that killed more than 1 million people.

For the Irish government, the most dangerous problem associated with Northern Ireland leaving the EU and entering a jurisdiction completely different from the Republic of Ireland is that such an event almost certainly necessitates the erection of a hard border. Such a border is almost guaranteed to be attacked by dissident Republican paramilitaries, who reject the peace process and seek to reunite Ireland via armed struggle. They see the chaos of Brexit as another opportunity to further their ends.

For the Irish government, the most dangerous problem associated with Northern Ireland leaving the EU and entering a jurisdiction completely different from the Republic of Ireland is that such an event almost certainly necessitates the erection of a hard border.

“I’m against anybody shooting anybody or at anything, but history tells us—including very recent history—that it only takes half a dozen people [to start a conflict]. … How many people were involved in the operation that killed Lyra McKee? Five? Six? That’s all it would take,” said Eamonn McCann, a lifelong civil rights activist and socialist councilor for Derry City and Strabane District Council. McKee, a 29-year-old LGBTQ rights campaigner, journalist, and author, was murdered last April by the so-called New IRA, the largest and most active dissident Republican group currently in Northern Ireland. She had been covering a riot in the Creggan area of County Derry commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising (an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland) and was caught in the crossfire when a gunman fired recklessly at the police.


“If somebody shoots at a customs post, somebody’s gonna have to go and guard that customs post. And who’s gonna stay there? Who’s gonna do that? The police in the North? I don’t think so!” McCann added. “At one point they talked about bringing over 4,000 customs officers from England. … How much money would they have to pay any sensible person to come over from Scunthorpe or Taunton or somewhere in England and stand on the Irish border? You won’t get them to do it; the thing’s unworkable!”

The uncertainty of Brexit is changing the political conditions on the island of Ireland. Reunification—once a pipe dream for Irish Republicans—is now being contemplated as a potential political reality in unprecedented ways. Under the provisions of Good Friday, a border poll can be called if it seems likely that a majority would support a United Ireland.

Support for such a move is increasing: A survey published in late May by the Republic of Ireland’s national public service broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, found that 65 percent of people supported reunification; while a YouGov poll of the Tory party undertaken in June found that 59 percent of members are willing to see Northern Ireland leave the UK if it means the delivery of Brexit. Faced with a ruling party that seems to care little if Northern Ireland leaves the United Kingdom completely, middle-class unionists—who are primarily concerned with the economy—are beginning to see a United Ireland in a favorable new light.

Post-Brexit referendum, it is clear that Britain’s decision to leave the EU will be a legal, economic, and constitutional palimpsest over an already dysfunctional Northern Ireland, the full effects of which no one can predict. As Belfast’s well-being remains intertwined with the results of London’s ongoing negotiations—both with itself and the EU—Brexiteers are openly seeking to impose their own worst fear upon Northern Ireland: a destiny shaped by capricious and volatile external forces.

If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.