Brexit and Northern Ireland: reopening healing wounds

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Image: Lesley A Butler

“NORTHERN IRELAND can be a success outside the EU,” James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Secretary, declared at the Conservative conference. However, many would call that statement into question given the complexity and singularity of NI’s relationship with both the EU and Westminster.

Northern Ireland is in a uniquely delicate position when it comes to the EU; of course it’s the only place within the UK to share a land border with an EU member state, and it’s also unusual in that 20.8 per cent of its residents hold passports for the neighbouring state (according to the 2011 census). With Theresa May having announced the date for triggering Article 50; many in Northern Ireland feel that both their prosperity and their national identity could potentially be threatened by Brexit.

The relationship with the Republic of Ireland is vital to the very existence of Northern Ireland, and the possibility of a hard border between the two states is a grim prospect to those both north and south of the border; especially to Nationalists who wish to maintain close bonds with the Republic and who would be incensed by the idea of border checks between the north and south of Ireland. In fact, the common travel area between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was a significant factor in persuading many Nationalists to accept the EU-mediated peace process.

Although the possibility of the re-establishment of a hard border has been strenuously denied by Westminster, it is difficult to see how total free movement could be maintained across the border without Northern Ireland becoming an easy entry point to Britain for unwanted EU migrants. For this reason, if there is no tightening of the border between NI and the ROI, then the government might have to introduce more restrictions on passengers travelling from Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom. This idea is as unpalatable to Unionists, who would protest at the loosening of ties between NI and the British mainland, as a hard border is to Nationalists. National identity is still a highly sensitive issue in Northern Ireland, and new border arrangements risk destabilising the fragile scaffolds which hold up the peace process.

The government in the Republic of Ireland are also concerned about the impact of the NI leaving the EU. A solid border would have a negative impact on trade in both the north and south of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s trade sector is heavily reliant on the Republic of Ireland, and vice versa, therefore politicians on both sides of the border are deeply concerned about the negative economic impact Brexit is likely to make on the Irish economy if free trade is restricted.

Having decisively rejected Brexit, many in NI were left feeling resentful towards British Brexiters for taking them out of the EU. Anti-Brexit campaigners in Northern Ireland have also contended the legality of Northern Ireland being forced to exit the EU, challenging the decision in the High Court and suggesting that Northern Ireland could perhaps “veto” the decision. The High Court ruled out this possibility on 28 October. According to Reuters, Raymond McCord, one of the plaintiffs, has stated he plans to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court, the UK’s highest judicial body.

There is a real sense in Northern Ireland that those in Westminster care very little about what impact a British exit from the EU has on those across the Irish Sea. In general, the British government tend to prefer to let Stormont deal with its own problems, which is understandable when the decision can actually be controlled by those within Northern Ireland. However, on the issue of Brexit the opinions of voters in NI were drowned out by those on the mainland, even though arguably NI will be more profoundly affected by the decision than anywhere else in the UK. Therefore, Westminster cannot afford to take its usual laissez-faire approach to Northern Ireland lest the existing apathy towards the Brexit process grows into something more serious, potentially undermining the Good Friday Agreement.

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