Brexit's Threat to Northern Ireland

By Burke, Edward | The World Today, August/September 2017 | Go to article overview

Brexit's Threat to Northern Ireland


Burke, Edward, The World Today


In 1921 the British government employed crude sectarian arithmetic to carve out six counties from the rest of Ireland. Its aim was to create a Protestant-dominated jurisdiction in the north of Ireland that supported remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The centenary events planned for 2021 presented an opportunity for Northern Ireland to show a decidedly different aspect, marking itself out as a place where power is shared and diversity is cherished. Brexit has made that prospect much less likely. The vote to leave the European Union has eroded much of the bedrock of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, hardened the political divide in the province and dealt a significant blow to British-Irish relations.

Both the British and Irish governments stand accused of advancing narrow interests at the expense of the Good Friday Agreement. In May the Irish government angered Unionists by demanding - and winning - a commitment from the EU to quickly integrate Northern Ireland into the European Union in the event of a united Ireland, prompting Unionists to accuse Dublin of trying to use Brexit as a tool to advance Irish unity.

Meanwhile, the British government has negotiated a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, calling into question its long-standing role as an even-handed mediator in the province.

For two decades the Good Friday Agree- ment has been underpinned by the principle of consent between the two traditions - Unionist (mostly Protestant) and nationalist (mostly Catholic) - and between the two governments.

Britain enjoys sovereignty over Northern Ireland but it has been careful to consult with and not contradict Dublin on key issues. Brexit was a seismic violation of that principle: voters in Britain imposed a far-reaching constitutional change on Northern Ireland without the consent of its people - 56 per cent of whom voted to remain in the EU - and directly against the expressed wishes and interests of the Irish government.

The Brexit vote was another hole in a Northern Irish power-sharing executive that was already listing badly following disagreements over budget cuts, dealing with the legacy ofthe Troubles and the status of the Irish language.

The executive limped on until January before collapsing over the scandal of a mismanaged, possibly corrupt renewable energy scheme that appeared to implicate former First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster.

DUP support for Brexit angered the nationalist community, which has increasingly thrown its support behind Sinn Féin. Nationalist parties won more seats than Unionists in Assembly elections in March - the first time in Northern Ireland's history that nationalist representatives outnumber Unionists in a Belfast parliament. This in turn alarmed moderate Unionists and saw a commensurate rise in support for the DUP in June's general election.

The announcement in January 2017 by Prime Minister Theresa May that the UK would leave the EU single market and customs union came as a profound shock to Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland - a customs border will have to be re-established and tariffs on the movement of goods and services appear likely.

The DUP is also concerned at the prospect of a customs border. But Arlene Foster's party - so used to loudly proclaiming its patriotism - is unable to offer a nuanced view on British sovereignty that favours the handing of some powers back to Brussels after the UK leaves the EU. Ulster's Unionists will take a back seat on Brexit.

Northern Ireland is much more dependent on trade with the South than vice versa. Around a quarter of the North's goods exports go to the South, but less than 2 per cent of the Republic of Ireland's goods exports go to Northern Ireland. Leaving the EU customs union without a tariff-free trade agreement for agri-food products would have a particularly damaging effect on this sector and for the Northern Irish economy - agricultural products make up 35 per cent of Ulster's exports compared with 10 per cent for the rest of the UK. …

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