Northern Ireland has been at the centre of Brexit negotiations, with the possibility of Irish reunification always in the background. Five years after the vote and a few months after the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, let’s take a look at the situation.
Until the very end of last year, a no-deal Brexit was still feared in Europe and Ireland was at the centre of these debates because a hard Brexit meant the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, effective on 1 February 2020, reassured a lot of people but negotiations were still going on. This is because the Internal Market Bill threatened the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is supposed to ensure that no physical border would be established in Ireland.
Today, no border has appeared and this is not expected to change. However, things aren’t totally resolved yet and recent articles point to continuing Brexit difficulties for Northern Ireland, such as problems with the Covid vaccine or the construction of inspection posts in ports.
Let’s take a look at what happened, what’s still happening, and what could happen in the future for Northern Ireland. With the comments and analysis of Professor Christophe Gillissen from the University of Caen, France, this article explains what’s at stakes, by giving a French outsider’s perspective on the question.
Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union before Brexit
Northern Ireland, where almost 56% of the population voted to remain in the European Union (EU), will lose a lot with Brexit. “It is a relatively poor region,” Prof Gillissen said, which explains why it benefited so much from European structural funds.
The agriculture sector benefited from these funds and also from the Common Agricultural Policy, which represented 85% of the average Northern Irish farmer’s income. “The British government promised to compensate for the loss of money, but will it do so? It remains to be seen,” Prof Gillissen exposed, without hiding his own doubts on the question.
Northern Ireland has a different link with Europe: “The EU played a part in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, but a discreet one,” Prof Gillissen reminds us. Even if it was in the background, the European context was very important for the peace process between unionists and nationalists and “we should not underestimate its importance”.
European institutions gave Irish and British ministers support when negotiations were difficult, and the Single Market established in 1993 helped build a space in which nationalists could feel close to the Republic of Ireland without making unionists leave the UK.
“All this can seem somewhat secondary, but without this European context, things would have been much more complicated,” Prof Gillissen summarizes. The EU gave financial support through PEACE programs, in which funds were given to border regions in Northern Ireland and in the Republic to help the economy and strengthen the peace.
Could Brexit damage this? As an international treaty, the Belfast Agreement can’t be modified but “this dialogue has become a little bit complicated,” Prof Gillissen notices. “Since the 1990s, there have been ups and downs, and currently, it’s a period of down.” However, the Irish government’s priority is to “limit the damage, keep the dialogue alive, and maintain some trust.”
The Brexit negotiation for Northern Ireland and the Irish border
“It became possible for people with very different goals to coexist in Ireland,” Prof Gillissen said about the previous situation, under which everyone could be satisfied. “The unionists were still in the UK and the nationalists could think that reunification was underway because there was no border anymore.”
Brexit threatens this balance. For the professor, “it consolidated the old divisions between nationalists and unionists, and created tensions, which is not good regarding the relationship between the two communities.”
“Brexit has also been very important regarding local political life,” Prof Gillissen affirms. In the region, all political parties campaigned in favour of Remain, except one: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
When 56% of Northern Ireland voters stood against Brexit, “[the DUP] was a little bit alone.” However, they weren’t alone at the national level. They even became very important for Theresa May when they helped her keep her majority in the House of Commons.
Since the beginning of the negotiations, a hard border in Ireland was categorically refused by the EU: “it risked reviving the political tensions and threatened the peace process, it also would have had a damaging impact on the economy in the North and the South of Ireland.”
Theresa May’s compromise to avoid a border didn’t satisfy the DUP, and they strongly opposed her, but when Boris Johnson secured a landslide victory in the last election, he didn’t need the DUP anymore. The final deal regarding the border looked very much like May’s. “A lot of people think the DUP made a strategic mistake”, Prof Gillissen analyses.
The professor thinks that if the DUP had been more flexible regarding the backstop, they wouldn’t be in their current situation. “The Unionists’ absolute priority is to stay within the UK and they see that Northern Ireland is treated differently,” which is a bitter pill to swallow for them. “The [DUP’s] results aren’t to the height of their expectations,” Prof Gilissen concludes.
But the border has two sides and it also worried the Republic of Ireland. “Brexit has been a true nightmare for the Irish government,” Prof Gillissen said, reminding us that the United Kingdom is Ireland’s largest trading partner.
“Even if there is a troubled history between them, the two countries are condemned to get along because of their proximity.” Dublin did its best to avoid a hard border in Ireland and achieved its goal, even if the final treaty still affects their commerce with the United Kingdom.
Of public opinion on the Brexit negotiations, “there has been some lack of understanding,” Prof Gillissen observes. “The reactions were mostly surprise, astonishment, disappointment and worry in Ireland.” He also mentions that in Ireland, like in a lot of other countries, people thought there had been “propaganda, a lot of lies, and political cowardice” during the Brexit campaign.
With everything that was at stake, the Irish government mostly wanted to limit the damage a no-deal Brexit could do. “In the end, there was a sort of relief,” Prof Gillissen remarks. It was not perfect, but “the worst has been avoided.”
Northern Ireland torn between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland
What does this situation imply for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom? Once again, it’s a mixed picture. Depending on the sector, Northern Ireland is closer to the Republic or to the UK. The region is torn between these two countries, both in public opinion and in some very practical ways.
“Brexit heads in the direction of an economic reunification of the island”, Prof Gillissen says. With no border control between the two countries but controls in Northern Irish ports on goods coming from the UK and possible tariffs, Ireland looks like a single economic entity.
The European Single Market regulations will still be applied in Northern Ireland, even if they are not applied in the UK anymore. This means regulations could be different between this region and the rest of the country, if and when Britain decides to change its market rules and diverges from the European ones.
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However, “at the political level, we are not there at all,” Prof Gillissen notices. With unionists totally against reunification, the situation is complicated. “Public opinion in Northern Ireland doesn’t seem to be in favour of reunification, at least for now.”
And public opinion is what matters most: “it’s the condition sine qua non”. The professor explains that under the Belfast Agreement of 1998, if polls indicate that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland are in favour of a United Ireland, then the British government would have to organize a referendum.
“But it’s an enormous job, complicated and sensitive,” and London doesn’t want this to happen. “Boris Johnson’s government presents itself as the one who finalised Brexit, it can’t see itself as the one who provoked the end of the United Kingdom with the loss of Northern Ireland”.
Even Dublin isn’t in a hurry to make reunification happen. It would be an expansive process and it’s not clear that Ireland could afford to give as much financial support to the North as the UK does.
“In Dublin, the government also knows how sensitive the question is,” the professor adds. “A lot of unionists will strictly refuse reunification; it could provoke strong tensions and even bring back political violence.” The Republic prefers to go slow and be careful: “if they speed up, the unionists will turn on them.”
A United Ireland: just a utopia for now?
The professor, from what he observes in his studies, isn’t very confident in the idea of a United Ireland for now: “I tend to think that reunification is not for tomorrow, maybe for the day after tomorrow, but it doesn’t seem to appear in the near future”. However, he mentions that opinions in Northern Ireland are slowly changing and that Brexit could have an impact on them.
Prof Gillissen explains that before the Brexit vote, the population was relatively satisfied with the situation, even nationalists, grateful for the invisible border. People knew that the question of reunification could bring back political tensions that are unwanted. But things are changing, sometimes in the most surprising way.
The professor studied polls saying that if the Brexit referendum was re-run today, around 70% of Northern Ireland would vote against Brexit. “Still according to polls, some unionists start to think that maybe, with what Brexit brings, they could be better in a United Ireland.”
The Brexit deal helped preserve the status quo in Northern Ireland, even if things are “slowly moving forward”. Everything would have been different if a hard border had been reintroduced in Ireland: “the situation would have been explosive.”
Things are a little simpler, when we consider the question of the Irish as a people, not as a republic and a region. For instance, everybody who was born or lives in Northern Ireland can apply for an Irish passport. The professor notes this as one of the first impacts of Brexit: “Today, a lot of Northern Irish ask for the passport to remain European citizens and to be able to travel freely in the European Union.”
Brexit is a huge subject for analysis. For now, Northern Ireland is stuck between the UK and the EU. Questions will continue to be asked and maybe some answers will be found, but carefulness is the key. Did you know about the ins and outs of the situation? What do you think about the Irish reunification? Let us know in the comment section!