Though it may be hit hardest, Northern Ireland isn’t talking enough about Brexit


Picture of Mary C. Murphy
Mary C. Murphy

Mary C. Murphy is Lecturer in politics and Jean Monnet Professor at University College Cork

Northern Ireland is in election mode. The fifth elections to the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly take place on 5th May, less than three weeks before the UK referendum on EU membership. Any expectation that the looming referendum would spark spirited discussion of the EU on the election trail has been emphatically quashed. This election, like those before it, remains resolutely focused on local issues and influenced by old communal rivalries.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority in Northern Ireland favour continued UK membership of the EU. The latest Danske Bank poll, however, reveals that 26% of the voting public in Northern Ireland are unsure about how to vote on referendum day. This high figure is not altogether surprising. Political parties were late to develop their positions and have not been vociferous in communicating their views. As a consequence, the debate in Northern Ireland has been muted and it is also compounded by a lack of information. The precise impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on Northern Ireland has not been comprehensively investigated, although there is a view that Northern Ireland, more so than any other part of the UK, will be worst affected if there is a vote to leave. The immediate impact of such a vote is likely to be economic and political instability. The pound sterling may fluctuate in value and the position of the UK’s prime minister may become untenable. Scotland may begin to agitate for a second independence referendum, unleashing uncomfortable conversations in Northern Ireland about the future unity of the UK.

Upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections and the ongoing political stalemate in the Republic of Ireland are preventing serious discussion on Brexit

In the longer term, negotiations concerning the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU may well be difficult and protracted. The future Northern Ireland Executive will face a considerable task in representing and promoting specific Northern Ireland interests. Of key concern will be the status of the border between North and South; trade arrangements with EU member states, most notably the Republic of Ireland; and, in the absence of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and EU structural funding, access to ongoing financial support for Northern Ireland’s farmers and other regional initiatives.

Events in the Republic of Ireland are a factor here too. The Republic of Ireland’s recent general election returned a highly-fragmented parliament. ‘Normal’ political activity has been temporarily suspended as political parties and independent TDs (MPs) thrash out some sort of deal to agree a minority government. Here too, discussion and consideration of the UK referendum has been limited as politicians focus their energies on government formation. In contrast to Northern Ireland, however, key political forces in Ireland are emphatically in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.

Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland has settled since the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. This has been subtly aided by the broader European context. The EU’s single market facilitates an open border between North and South, and allows for free movement between the two jurisdictions. This is not just economically valuable, but in the context of the peace process, it is politically symbolic too.

In the event of a UK vote to leave the EU, the Republic of Ireland will contribute to the discussions around the terms of the UK’s exit strategy. Where other EU member states may be less well disposed to offering the UK an advantageous post-Brexit relationship with the EU, the Republic of Ireland will be keen to protect its ‘special’ relationship with Britain. But the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections and the ongoing political stalemate in the Republic of Ireland are preventing serious discussion of how best to accomplish this objective. Distracted by electoral concerns, the political parties and their leaders on both sides of the border are not focused on how best to deal with a UK vote to depart the EU.

The maintenance of some existing free movement arrangements is in the clear interests of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are small signs of scope to facilitate such an arrangement. Jens Zimmerman, member of the German parliament’s finance committee, has acknowledged the special relationship between the UK and Ireland, and cautiously suggested some possibility for a ‘bilateral solution’ should the UK choose to leave the EU. It is crucial that authorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland leverage such views and use them to construct a post-Brexit dialogue that is favourable to their interests. This requires access to detailed data and information, knowledge of how to navigate the EU political environment, and skilled political negotiation.

Local issues and old rivalries continue to linger, and the EU debate has largely failed to capture the political or public imagination

To some extent, Northern Ireland will have an ally in the Republic of Ireland. Politically and strategically, there is an onus on Northern Ireland to contribute robustly to political discussion within the UK and be plugged into what’s happening in Brussels as the remaining 27 member states draw up a UK exit deal. The referendum campaign and current elections should have presented an opportunity for this type of discussion and debate to materialise. In Northern Ireland, though, local issues and old rivalries continue to linger, and the EU debate has largely failed to capture the political or public imagination. This may be regrettable, but there is still time.

After 5th May, the incoming Assembly and the Executive will have a unique opportunity to place the issue of Brexit high on their agenda, and political parties will be freed to engage in referendum campaigning. Such moves have the potential to stimulate serious consideration of the EU question and the choices facing voters in Northern Ireland. Political commandeering of the post-election period may mean that in Northern Ireland, the best of the debate is yet to come.

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