Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
One of the most discussed issues throughout all of the Brexit negotiations has been how the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will affect both countries either side of the Irish border.
Not only will Brexit have a significant impact on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland’s (ROI) economy and travel, but due to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement being based upon EU law, the peace agreements that are currently in place may need to be rewritten. Despite The Troubles having been brought to an end over 20 years ago, the question of whether Northern Ireland and the ROI should be reunited has been raised once again.
At the height of The Troubles, an estimated 3,600 people had been killed in shootings, bombings or other means of violence that were a direct result of the ongoing fight between the mostly Protestant unionists (who wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom) and the mostly Catholic nationalists (who wanted all of Ireland to be reunited as one sovereign state). The 1998 Good Friday Agreement overcame various problems that had been a point of contention between the two sides and, as a result, was able to resurrect peace within Northern Ireland. One of the major solutions was removing armed guards and passport checks at the border that runs between Northern Ireland and the ROI. Today, the only distinction when crossing the 310 mile long border is a road sign telling you that you have left one country and entered another. The lack of border controls and checks satisfied nationalists as there was not a physical separation between the two countries. Simultaneously, it also satisfied unionists as Northern Ireland was able to remain part of the UK. Crucially, this relaxed approach to border regulation could only be enabled because both countries possessed EU membership. This enrollment to the EU meant that citizens from either side of the border had the right to travel freely between their countries.
With the United Kingdom leaving the EU and currently having no set Brexit deal (and therefore having no insurance that UK residents will still be able to travel freely), there have been discussions as to whether a controlled, manned border will have to be put in place instead. Professor Rory O’Connell (Director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University) has said that:
‘the 1998 Agreement found nuanced solutions to difficult issues of sovereignty, identity and the border, embedding these in a rights-respecting framework. Brexit risks unpicking these carefully, painfully worked out solutions.’
The argument over whether there will be a physical Irish border or not has led to renewed arguments to reunite Northern Ireland and the ROI. Worryingly, this has increased fear that the carefully constructed peace pact that has existed for 20 years may be about to come to a crashing halt.
It’s important to note that both unionists and nationalists within Ireland do not want a physical border and controlled border checks. An estimated 20,000 people cross the border every day for work and many resources – such as specialist cancer treatment facilities and children’s hospitals – are shared between both countries. The need for freedom to travel across the whole of Ireland is imperative not only for economic growth, but also in order to ensure social cohesion. However, as the UK will no longer be apart of the EU, the goods crossing over the Irish border must be examined – if they are not then the UK will have to open its borders to the rest of the world and not impose any checks or tariffs. Consequently, the UK cabinet has stated that the goods passing between Northern Ireland and the ROI will have to be inspected once the UK departs from the EU.
This uncertainty over whether there will be a physical border put in place and if so where, has provoked panic that there will again be political turmoil and violence throughout Ireland. Due to internal divisions, the devolved government within Northern Ireland – which will always be a mixture of unionists and nationalists – has not been functioning since 9th January 2017. As a result, whilst Scottish and Welsh representatives have been present at Brexit negotiations, Northern Irish delegations have not. Many politicians on both sides of the border have raised their concerns over the possible re-emergence of variants of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) if a physical frontier is put in place to separate Northern Ireland.
Residents living next to the border have also voiced their unease that there will be a return to the upheaval and bloodshed that many still remember and fear. These two nations have fought so hard to maintain peace for the past 20 years and there has been a concerted effort to raise a new generation that is built on the values of reconciliation and unity. It’s a scary thought that the psychological barrier that many have strived to overcome may be reinforced again by a physical border.