Generation Brexit


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The Withdrawal Agreement does little to clarify Northern Ireland's uncertain post-Brexit future

Posted by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (Admin) Mar 26, 2018

The transition deal does little to clarify Northern Ireland’s uncertain post-Brexit future, writes Sarah Gerwens (left), Andrea Alonso Ramos and Eliana Abdo (right).

In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, ending the dismal and bloody ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, which had seen over 3,600 people killed since 1968. 20 years and one Brexit referendum later, Northern Ireland has once again become the subject of heated political debate: As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland will be leaving the EU along with the rest of UK. Meanwhile, Ireland will remain in the Union. All parties now worry that NI will have to choose between maintaining a close economic, social, and borderless relationship with the Republic of Ireland - or with the rest of the United Kingdom. Unionists in Northern Ireland (who want close ties with the UK) and the British government are concerned about creating a split within the Kingdom, while Northern Irish nationalists (who want close ties with the Republic) and Ireland worry about (re)creating physical, political, and economic boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Satisfying both camps appears increasingly impossible. While the draft withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU, released on March 19th, includes a section regarding Ireland/Northern Ireland, it falls short of providing a final and viable solution. Furthermore, the agreement has not been finalised and is already under fire from several sides. Given the island’s history of conflict and violence, a sustainable and successful solution of this issue is crucial - but so far none is in sight.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement regulates the relationship between Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. It called for the disarmament of paramilitary groups that were active during the conflict, created the Northern Ireland Assembly, explicitly enshrined religious rights and freedoms in the region, and defined the status of Northern Ireland. To aid reconciliation, the Agreement also enables all individuals born in Northern Ireland to elect whether they want to have British or Irish (so EU) citizenship or both. Furthermore, a fundamental tenant of the peace deal is the open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Until the Brexit referendum, the implementation of these points was not an issue. While both Ireland and the UK belong to the European Single Market,  goods, capital, services, and, most importantly, people can move freely between them. With the U.K.’s departure from the Union, however, free movement between the Republic and Northern Ireland as well as the EU citizenship of Northern Irishmen might no longer be guaranteed.

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement announced by EU and UK officials on the 19th of March emphasises both parties´ commitment to honouring the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and preventing a hard border. However, the deal has not been ratified and does not propose a concrete and final solution to the issue, rather it includes a “backstop” option. This means that if the United Kingdom leaves the EU without having reached a deal, Northern Ireland will remain in the single market and customs union. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be prevented, as promised, however, a de facto hard border between the island and the rest of the UK would be created instead. This prospect has raised concerns particularly among unionists, but also in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the agreement outlines that “cooperation [between Ireland and Northern Ireland] across the full range of political, economic, societal and agricultural contexts relies to a significant extent on common Union legal and policy frameworks”. Such a statement hints at the fact that any viable solution would have to include some degree of regulatory difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The negotiations are complicated by the worry that if this issue cannot be resolved, the whole transition deal is in peril - since ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

Northern Ireland, which voted ‘Remain’ by a majority of 55,8% to 42,2%, has expressed concerns about the implementation of a ‘hard Brexit’ which would ultimately lead to the creation of an EU-policed border separating the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. This could include the reintroduction of checkpoints and tariffs, preventing travel and trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Irish Nationalist party Sinn Fein has therefore proposed that Northern Ireland should retain a ‘special status’ within the EU to prevent a hard border on the island. Meanwhile, unionists are concerned about the creation of a different kind of barrier: divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Kingdom. 

These opposing viewpoints were already evident in the Brexit referendum results: unionists were more likely to vote ‘Leave’, while Irish nationalists mostly supported ‘Remain’. The UK aims to recognise and respect unionist as well as nationalist demands: Theresa May’s government has vowed to maintain “the Common Travel Area and associated rights” as well as to avoid “a hard border for the movements of goods”. In short, the UK government hopes to preserve Northern Ireland’s current relationship with Republic as well as Britain. However, as outlined above, the desire to avoid any regulatory or political difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Kingdom might be irreconcilable with the need to prevent a hard border on the Irish island.

Ultimately, conflicts within and about Northern Ireland are in no one’s interest. The 'Troubles’ were one of the most violent conflicts of recent European history and the undoing of the Good Friday Agreement could significantly impede the continued reconciliation process. No at all or a bad Brexit deal is equally undesirable for all parties involved. Thus, there is hope that these concerns will motivate an effective, yet thought-out, resolution of the Northern Irish issue. To achieve this, a new round of EU-level talks about the issue...arlier in March. However, simultaneously satisfying the unionists’ demand for UK-wide regulatory uniformity and the nationalists’ call for a close relationship with the Republic and the EU will continue to be difficult. A Northern Ireland that is British as well as European is possible, but only if all parties are willing to compromise.

This post represents the views of the author(s) and not those of the Generation Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Sarah Gerwens, Andrea Alonso Ramos and Eliana Abdo are MSc Students at the LSE European Institute. 

This post was edited on Mar 27, 2018 by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz

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Comments (2)

Tiffany Wei says... Jun 9, 2018
When I was working in the European Parliament last fall, one of the biggest concerns of the EP was that there be no resurgence of divisions or violence between Northern Ireland and Ireland. In your opinion though, who should be the ultimate decision maker regarding the status of Northern Ireland and Ireland. Should it be the people of the Irish isle or should it be from the top down (either UK gov. or EU)?
Elena95 says... 4 months ago

Very interesting article about a very relevant topic. Just visited Northern Ireland this weekend and people there are very concerned about Brexit! 

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