A troubled calm: Northern Ireland since Brexit


Picture of Duncan Morrow
Duncan Morrow

Duncan Morrow is a Lecturer in Politics at Ulster University

Northern Ireland has always been different. Constitutionally anchored in the UK, its politics were radically distinct and separate, faithfully focused on the single overriding division over sovereignty. Division shaped everything, from school systems to residence and cultural hostility. Uniquely in Britain and Ireland, there was a permanent crisis over the right of the state to exist and the government to govern. And after 1969, the escalation of division into terror, emergency law and civilian deaths further emphasised its distinctiveness.

During and since the referendum, Northern Ireland has been different again. Although First Minister Arlene Foster and her party campaigned to Leave, a clear majority voted to Remain. Unlike Scotland, the divided nature of Northern Ireland’s politics means that there is no champion in its government for majority opinion, and no clear articulation of the existential implications for Northern Ireland of leaving the EU. One party in government insists that the retreat from international co-operation is but a minor detail in the context of continuing allegiance to the United Kingdom, and the other has renewed calls for a referendum on sovereignty – meanwhile thousands have reportedly renewed or discovered their need for an Irish passport.

The consistent priority of British policy in Northern Ireland since 1920 has been to control and contain violence and division. By 1985, attempts to achieve stability through British direct rule were judged to have failed and a new emphasis on cross-border co-operation in relation to security and the end of discrimination in Northern Ireland took its place. Ireland and the UK, partners in European integration since 1972, ceased to be enemies and developed a uniquely intimate partnership in relation to Northern Ireland. The high water mark of co-operation was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which sought to replace hostility with an agreed system of power-sharing, new arrangements to accommodate divisions over identity and the rule of law, anchored in a framework of international human rights and equality norms. Both governments accepted the right of majorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to determine sovereignty issues. Uniquely, both also recognised “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both… and confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

The Irish border is evidence that inter-state co-operation matters more than high fences when it comes to security

Translating principles into stable political practice has proved a delicate task. But nothing before now has placed a greater question mark over the framework of British-Irish co-operation, so painstakingly worked out in the peace process. In the absence of clear next steps, the potential for unintended turbulence is unmistakable.

At its simplest, the uniqueness is geographical. After Brexit, the Irish border becomes the land frontier between the UK and the EU. Although Leavers promise to ‘control’ borders, the Irish border is evidence that inter-state co-operation matters more than high fences when it comes to security. One of the most marked features of peace-building in Ireland has been the reduction in visible border security, the reopening of minor roads and the emergence of cross-border economies. Within the EU, the absence of customs control and the maintenance of the Common Travel Area allowed open access and increasing practical co-operation, easing Irish nationalist concerns about partition in Ireland without stimulating Unionist anxieties. Partnership between police services on both sides of the border has become routine. How post-Brexit control can be achieved without putting these achievements at risk is a challenge. But any evidence of closure, let alone refortification of the border, inevitably reinvigorates questions of security and identity.

Beyond the practicalities of hundreds of miles of frontier, the economic inter-relatedness of Ireland, especially in agriculture and food, tourism and energy security creates serious immediate and long-term challenges. Even the less radical alternatives to EU membership, such as the European Economic Area, maintains trade barriers for food, presenting significant obstacles for integrated companies operating in both parts of Ireland. In recent years, the EU has invested in an island-wide transport infrastructure, and Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland have been major beneficiaries of EU Structural and Regional Development Funds as well as targeted interventions for cross-border integration (INTERREG) and in support of peace (PEACE). How this is maintained or replaced is a crucial question for socio-economic continuity and growth.

The construction of border posts may provide popular targets for violent elements

The political and constitutional implications of Brexit carry even more obvious perils. Uniquely in the UK, everyone born in Northern Ireland can claim dual citizenship of the UK and the EU. Since the Agreement, semi-formal visits by Irish Presidents to Northern Ireland have become regular and pass almost unnoticed. In this context, the claim that ‘a majority’ in the UK voted to leave cuts no ice with Irish nationalists who insist that constitutional change requires majorities in Northern Ireland and point to the local majority for Remain. Practically, Brexit must grapple with potentially complex constitutional arrangements to protect human rights, equality and parity of esteem in Northern Ireland and agreed cross-border institutions.

None of these risks, or all of them, may crystallise. At one extreme, the spectre of restrictions to freedom of movement and barriers to participation in the Single Market put the entire edifice of inter-governmental co-operation and the fragile internal truce on identity and nationality at risk. Disproportionate economic costs to Northern Ireland from Brexit may change the levels of support for the wider constitutional structure. The construction of border posts may provide popular targets for violent elements that have been largely marginalised in recent years. Others argue that none of it will happen, as all sides seek practical and minimum-cost solutions to such obvious risks. Human rights are not directly affected by Brexit, and leaving the EU does not prevent bilateral arrangements.

Post-referendum Northern Ireland has been characterised by comparative public calm. But behind the scenes, there is ample evidence of serious anxiety and trauma. It is as if nobody expected the outcome, and nobody wants to provoke a crisis from a drama. Assurances that things will be managed are matched by little evidence of actual management. A proposal by the Irish government for a cross-border forum to manage the negotiations was given short shrift by the First Minister. Everything assumed in May has once more become uncertain. And there is the uneasy acknowledgement that as the dominoes of Brexit fall across the UK and Europe, Northern Ireland’s future will depend on decisions taken elsewhere.

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