The new ‘bord-inary’: Quotidian borders in post-Brexit UK – or the unavoidable Six Ps

Scotland Europe Initiative
Publication Date

November 8 2023, by Katy Hayward

Brexit has seen more friction emerge across the UK’s internal and external borders. We can expect such friction to grow when the long-anticipated ‘Border Target Operating Model’ comes into effect (purportedly early next year). At that point, controls to protect British consumers will mean that importers to Britain from the EU will face more of the controls, paperwork and checks that exporters from Britain to the EU have had to manage for almost three years.

Yet, for all the focus on the retail sector and trade, the challenge of protecting consumer, animal and plant health in a territory is one shared by ordinary individuals. To illustrate, let’s consider six examples of new border controls across the Irish Sea and the Irish land border post-Brexit which UK citizens are now having to manage and live with: let’s call them ‘the Six Ps’.

The post-Brexit arrangements agreed by the UK and EU (both the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement [TCA]) are behind these new borders.

All at sea

First, the so-called ‘Irish Sea border’. The technical ramifications of the Protocol proved much wider than had been anticipated. Tales of woe abounded around getting plants, pets and parcels across the Irish Sea. It is quite possible that the disruption caused by the Protocol was compounded by the fact that these issues were so easily ‘relatable’ to people’s ordinary lives.  

Those of us living in Northern Ireland (as in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, for that matter) are quite used to finding that ‘delivery is not available’ to us when shopping online from GB vendors. Post-Protocol, however, it wasn’t the awkwardness of distance that led to the refusal to supply but confusion around what new border controls had to be complied with. And the confusion wasn’t confined to commercial sellers. What about the Granny required to complete the customs form to post the birthday present to Belfast? The Scottish holidaymaker to the Mournes required to ensure her cockapoo had the necessary veterinary jabs and certificates? And the keen Co. Fermanagh gardener forced to look closer to home (or across the Irish land border) for his favoured bedding plants?

Now, fixes have been found to some of the ‘Irish Sea border’ problems with the negotiation of the Windsor Framework, which gives the UK some leeway in the application of the rules applied at the EU’s external borders. So UK holidaymakers travelling with a dog should merely have a box to tick when buying ferry passage to or from Northern Ireland. And from October next year, the responsibilities for filling in customs forms for parcels should be at the level of commercial operators, not individual senders. The compromise on plants sees NI garden centres permitted to sell a wider range of GB plants than would usually be allowed in the EU, and the hope is that they will fill the gap left by their bigger online competitors ‘on the mainland’.

Landed with daily problems

The particular trouble for Northern Ireland is that it also has a land border to manage. The reason for the Protocol in the first place was the shared UK-EU wish to avoid ‘checks and controls’ on the Irish land border. However, not all border frictions take the form of official customs, safety and security procedures. As experience of living by and moving across the Irish border prior to the deepening of EU integration showed, border frictions can take various forms and make a real impact on everyday life. Take, for example, phones, pollution and policing.

The incurring of accidental phone roaming charges in the Irish border region was only finally resolved with the EU’s 2017 ban on such charges. The impact of Brexit was initially mollified by mobile phone service providers promising to waive roaming charges. But this voluntary grace period evaporated all too soon. The UK missed the opportunity to bring in its own ban on roaming charges and so the effect of the border continues to lie in the gift of telecoms corporations. And as a consequence, residents in the border region are becoming familiar once more with unexpected bills. In some houses, moving from the kitchen to the living room can incur roaming charges as the phone in your pocket automatically connects to a phone mast across the border.

Pollution management across a land border that runs through rural and farming land, with several inland waterways flowing across it, has always been a cross-border concern. The current ecocide in Lough Neagh epitomises the devastating effects that can come about through lack of adherence to environmental standards by a minority ‘upstream’. Northern Ireland is no longer dynamically aligned with the majority of EU environmental standards. A lowering of environmental protections or a continued failure to enforce them will inevitably have effects ‘downstream’ across the border. Common EU membership did not avoid such problems but it did increase the likelihood of them being addressed.

Finally, policing cooperation across the Irish border has also been made more complicated post-Brexit. The Cross Border Organised Crime Threat Assessment of 2018 identified specific risks relating to organised crime and drugs, human trafficking, criminal finances, agricultural crime, immigration crime, financial fraud, avoidance of excise duties and firearms smuggling. The Protocol and TCA arrangements mean that the worst fears were thankfully avoided but the border has indeed become more profitable for criminal exploitation post-Brexit. And cooperation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána is no longer supported by wider systems of formalised collaboration in policing and criminal justice in the EU. Now it depends more on the initiative and commitment of those concerned, which increases the risk of failure.


The case of Northern Ireland illustrates how Brexit-related border frictions are not simply a concern for hauliers or other businesses but confront ordinary citizens with new barriers. The quotidian effects of hardening borders are not only difficult to manage but are the most difficult to contain. This is a challenge that looks set to grow in scale and complexity in the post-Brexit United Kingdom. Welcome to the new ‘bord-inary’.

A close up of a flag

Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

Find out more about the Scotland-Europe Initiative

Katy Hayward is Professor of Political Sociology & Co-Director, Centre for International Borders Research, Queen’s University, Belfast.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.