It seems that Northern Ireland had been forgotten up with the months leading up to the UK’s vote on Brexit. Yet the combination of Brexit and the DUP/Tory coalition thrust this tiny country into the forefront of both British and European news. All of this sudden attention revealed just how little the British government and general public know about the volatile social climate of NI – or even about the position of the Irish border. Does this ignorance mean disaster looms for Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland is made up of 6 counties (Fermanagh, Armagh, Tyrone, Derry/Londonderry, Antrim and Down) in the province of Ulster which is under British rule – as opposed to the other 26 counties of Ireland, which are ruled from Dublin. As with Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland operates using a devolved government, giving local politicians power over a range of societal issues. However, the Northern Irish government has been at a standstill since January 2017 due to inter-party disagreements. Despite the majority of the population voting to remain within the EU, as a part of the UK, Northern Ireland will be obliged to leave the EU along with Great Britain. Many people from outside Northern Ireland assume that the act of leaving the EU will automatically mean the end of the free movement, and the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Should one take a quick glance at an Irish history textbook, however, it soon emerges that this could have disastrous consequences.
Tensions in Northern Ireland exist between those who define themselves as Protestant and Catholic; terms which refer to political views rather than religious, with Protestant acting as a synonym for Unionist (wanting to be included in the UK) and Catholic a synonym for Nationalist (wanting a United Ireland). Unionists see themselves as having a British identity and Nationalists see themselves as having an Irish identity, with many also choosing a dual nationality. This tension grew into hatred and exploded during the Troubles, a guerrilla war which ran from 1968 to 1998, and the remnants of which are still very much alive today.
Since the partition of Ireland in 1921, a border has existed between NI and the Republic. This poorly drawn, bumpy line which cuts towns, rivers and houses in two has since been one of the most troublesome areas of the island. What began as a soft border gradually became harder due to the economic tension between the Irish and British governments and World War Two. During the Troubles, the border was at its tightest, with helicopter patrols, British Army surveillance posts stationed at the main crossings, and a heavy security presence due to large-scale paramilitary activity – especially in border cities such as Derry/Londonderry. This is a far cry from the border today, where the only indication of crossing it is a change in road signs and mobile phone service.
In dealing with Brexit, the effect of a hard border on different Northern Irish identities must be considered. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 did much in the way of bringing peace to Northern Ireland, prejudices, hatred and paramilitary activity are still rife in the country today. The introduction of a border reminiscent of the Troubles era will serve as a visual reminder of the regression of intercultural relations. Whereas Unionists will enjoy the sense of a closer union with Great Britain, a hard border will serve as a symbol of the barriers to the Nationalist goal of a United Ireland, thus further alienating the two groups and reinforcing the problematic idea of tribal politics. Brexit was an easier choice for the rest of the UK, who didn’t consider the ramifications this might have for neglected Northern Ireland. One of the prominent ideas of Brexit was taking back control of British borders, however, the consequences of this for Ireland weren’t acknowledged.
But what to make of the rumour that Brexit may bring about a United Ireland? Many Nationalists see Brexit as an opportunity to achieve the goal of a 32-county republic. This unique situation certainly may persuade some Unionists to change their opinions, as their desire to remain in the EU may trump their desire to remain in the UK. Declan Kearney, a member of Northern Ireland’s leading nationalist party, Sinn Féin, stated in a 2016 interview with RTE ‘we now have a situation where Brexit has become a further cost of partition, a further cost of the Union and Sinn Féin will now press our demand, our long-standing demand, for a border poll’. However, the imposition of a United Ireland on a nation with scars that are still fresh may be just as dangerous as the introduction of a hard border. If the reduction of days that the Union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall can cause nationwide riots, attacks on politicians and death threats as it did in 2012 and 2013, one can only imagine the political upheaval that would be caused by integration into the Republic of Ireland. The terms of the Good Friday Agreement state that a referendum must be held for a United Ireland if polls show support for one. However, with the shockwaves of Brexit still resonating, the weight of an imminent United Ireland may be too much to bear for Northern Ireland, less than 20 years after the Troubles.
In light of these issues, the question must be posed: does post-Brexit Northern Ireland deserve a “special” status concerning its land borders? Absolutely. A hard border is destined to cause irrevocable damage in all spheres imaginable. Economically, trade relations between the UK and Ireland will be heavily impacted due to the reimposition of duties on goods traveling between the two countries. Socially, Unionists and Nationalists will be driven even further apart. Although the border has all but disappeared today, people’s memories do not disappear as easily. In a country still reeling from the death of over 3000 people, all efforts should be made to maintain peace.