Given how much Brexit, along with those seeking to undermine it, has overshadowed my news feed since the referendum, it is surprising how little the problems of implementing it in Ireland have featured. If anyone ever wanted a case in point for why Brexit might be problematic, they need look no further than the Good Friday Agreement.
The removal of a manned border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was fundamental to demilitarisation of Ireland and the reduction of tensions in the late 90s and early 2000s. If unregulated immigration was the primary concern of voters who wanted Britain to leave the EU, a situation where Northern Ireland leaves but the Republic of Ireland remains in Europe becomes untenable, because anyone with the ability to live and work in Ireland (ie. any European citizen), can move north into Northern Ireland, and then across the channel to anywhere in England, Wales or Scotland unchecked. The result would be that we have less say over who can enter the UK than before Brexit, because we no longer have any direct say in which countries can and cannot join the EU, or can be granted the right to live and work in Europe.
Theresa May stated her desire to maintain a “seamless, friction-less border” during a meeting with Edna Kenny, leader of Fine Gael at the end of January. But what was left out, fairly typically for May, was any substance of how this could be practically achieved.
This has all come at a particularly difficult time, with Martin McGuinness’ recent resignation as deputy First Minister and the seeming corruption of the DUP in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that preceded it, Northern Ireland are about to enter their second national Assembly election in two years. Beyond hinting at the increasing incompetency of the DUP, these events show a breakdown of the relationship between Unionists and Nationalists and point to a growing instability. It would be wise, then, for Westminster to pay particular attention to the needs of Irish people both north and south of the border. It is important to remember that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union; it doesn’t take a particularly large leap of the imagination to see how the vote could be seen as the English (who, along with the Welsh, voted to Leave) exercising their authority over the sovereignty of the Irish people.
It is vital for the ongoing peace in Ireland that the government are diligent and attend to the needs of the Irish public when establishing a border between the United Kingdom and Europe in Ireland. Even if they are diligent, it may be untenable. If there comes a point (on either side of Brexit) when the people of Northern Ireland decide that they would rather be part of the European Union than the United Kingdom, Theresa May must respect the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and allow a referendum on the people’s desire to be part of a united Ireland. If she neglects these obligations then Northern Ireland may be in for a difficult future.