Ireland caught in the middle of an impossible Brexit?
On 23rd March, the European Council decided on the conditions of the transition period following Britain’s exit from the European Union on 29th March 2019. These guidelines specify the inclusion of the UK in the Single Market and Customs Union during this transition period. However, as the UK government has already stated its intention to leave the Single Market and Customs Union, the four freedoms of movement, namely that of people, goods, capital and services, will no longer apply.
The logical outcome of this would lead to a hard border between the two Irelands. The 500km border currently separating the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – which is part of the UK – is currently at the heart of much debate. The possibility of a hard border threatens to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, potentially ending 20 years of peace within the country. The nationalist party Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s second major party, suggests that a referendum on reunification could be the only solution to this issue.
The fragile peace of Good Friday Agreement
This year, Ireland commemorates the twenty-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement was signed on the 10th of April 1998 and put an end to three decades of conflict between Catholic separatists and Protestant loyalists, whose violence claimed around 4000 victims.
This agreement is made up of three strands. The first addresses the creation of new democratic institutions: The Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, the latter made up of 108 elected members. The aim of this was to distribute power between both nationalists and unionists.
The second strand establishes the creation of a North/South Ministerial Council. The agreement also reaffirms that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which led Dublin to revise its constitution, in particular Articles 2 and 3, which set out territorial ownership of Northern Ireland.
Finally, the third strand implements the creation of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. In concrete terms, this strand instates Northern Irish autonomy through the devolution of powers from London, as is the case with Scotland and Wales, in order to satisfy the unionists.
This agreement also aimed to end, once and for all, paramilitary armed violence within the two years following the referendum that finally put the peace process in motion. The IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups were disbanded, re-establishing peace on the island.
The peace agreement has clearly reached its goal of pacification, as noted in The Irish Examiner, one of Ireland’s more liberal daily papers: ‘Sectarianism still thrives […] . Nonetheless, amid fresh attempts to undermine the peace accord by Brexiteers in Westminster, it is worth remembering the ordinary differences the agreement has provided for the North. Gone are the armed checkpoints, violent street clashes, repeated horrific bombings, everyday fanaticism, and a fear of entering certain neighbourhoods.’
Nevertheless, in terms of integration, Northern Ireland is not quite there yet. According to the nationalist newspaper the Irish Independent, ‘there is still a long way to go before reaching total reconciliation between Catholics, historically in favour of reunification, and Protestants, supporters of the union with Great Britain.’
Being the country most exposed to the consequences of Brexit, Ireland fears most the reestablishment of a hard border with Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, which would threaten the fragile state of peace established through the 1998 Agreement. Garrett Carr, a journalist for The Guardian, walked the length of the border that separates Ireland. He claims that if Brexit does eventually happen, all the efforts made to live in harmony for the last twenty years would have been made in vain. The Agreement is more than just a law or an armistice; it is also representative of the immense movement behind its very conception. The Agreement owes its existence to this support and motivation, which will suffer considerably under new border controls.
What solution for post-Brexit Ireland?
The European Union’s Chief Negotiator for Britain’s exit, Michel Barnier, has claimed that ‘Brexit is a real risk for Ireland’. It could indeed be argued that the main cause for concern is Westminster’s insistence on leaving the single market and the customs union, both of which not mandatory when leaving the European Union. Northern Ireland’s decision to leave the EU on the 23rd of June 2016, with 56% in favour, is the root of this issue, affecting both sides of the border.
A political agreement reached last December puts forward three solutions to the border issue: signing a free-trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union, eradicating all customs borders; the use of new, different types of border controls; or the absence of an agreement and Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union and the single market. The third proposed solution would, according to Michel Barnier, lead to increased controls on the exchange of goods coming from the rest of the UK. Michel Barnier believes that these new restrictions could create a border of their own. The checks would not be carried out at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, due to the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement, but instead would take place at UK ports, consequently creating a border within the UK itself.
The UK has the chance to suggest any other more effective solutions to the European Union before October this year.
Theresa May has vetoed this final proposition, rejecting any possibility of a hard border within the United Kingdom. This option would, according to May, threaten “the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom by creating a customs barrier and a regulatory area in the Irish sea, and no UK Prime Minister would accept it”.
The UK has suggested two alternatives. One proposes a cooperative trade deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The other proposes a streamlined customs procedure to reduce any trade tension, with specific conditions for Northern Ireland, making border checks as unrestrictive as possible.
In any case, it remains a thorny issue, and the British government’s lack of initiative will inevitably lead to the problem being resolved by the EU’s negotiators. The suggestions proposed by the UK remain rather vague and offer very few practical solutions. Ex-Prime Minister and Conservative politician John Major implores the UK to urgently find a solution: ‘As Britain, it is our responsibility to find one, it was us who created the problem, and not the European Union’.
A possible referendum on reunification?
Brexit has opened up for the first time the possibility of a referendum on Irish reunification. In fact, according to Mary Lou Macdonald, head of the republican party Sinn Féin (the only party currently present in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), Britain’s decision to leave the EU offers ‘a great opportunity not only to reunify the country territorially but also to create a more modern, democratic Ireland.’ The party is considering a possible referendum within the next decade.
The Good Friday Agreement took into account the possibility of a referendum if polls indicate significant support in the North in favour of unification. However, as the majority of the Northern Irish population are Protestant and pro-British, for now it doesn’t seem like unification is on the cards. Perhaps the nation will take a leaf out of their rugby team’s book, where Ireland and Northern Ireland are one.