Theresa May and the Brexit campaigners have jumped yet another hurdle in their crusade to take Britain out of the European Union as the House of Commons have overwhelmingly voted in favour of giving the Prime Minister permission to trigger article 50 and start the process of exiting. Fears among EU citizens living in the UK have heightened by the failure of an amendment designed to protect their status as legal residents. Additionally, the initial concerns from businesses regarding trade have not necessarily been cured by the release of the Brexit White Paper, which promises to, “forge ambitious free trade relationships across the world.” Uncertainty has plagued all discussions surrounding Brexit, but nowhere is that uncertainty more daunting than in Northern Ireland. Here, the ever present fear of sectarian violence reemerging over the border has been heightened by a breakdown of the Stormont Parliament.
With only 3% of the overall population of the UK, Northern Ireland voted alongside Scotland to remain in the EU. While the broader issues of the referendum debate remained important, Northern Irish voters also had particular fears regarding the impact of Brexit on their shared border with the Republic of Ireland. In 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty established the six counties that constitute Northern Ireland. Today, these six counties contain the highest population of Protestants and Unionists on the island. This area remained part of the UK while the other 26 counties became an independent state. If they leave the European Union, then this will also be the only land border within the United Kingdom. The problem is that currently no passports or immigration documents are required to cross the border. Indeed, at the moment it is hardly noticeable when one crosses in and out of the North. This was not always the case, however. The memories of armed British forces and watchtowers along the border are still within living memory as the sectarian tensions known as the Troubles only ended in 1998 with the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement.
The rationale for re-introducing a hard border is theoretically simple. With immigration control central to the Brexit campaign, the option of leaving an unchecked EU border within the UK presents obvious concerns. The integration between North and South in terms of economics cannot be overstated as over 14,000 people commute across the border daily for work. Trade is another concern as goods often cross multiple times in the process of manufacturing. The White Paper published by Downing Street has used the Common Travel Area, a pre-EU agreement between the UK and Ireland, to assure residents of both countries that long standing ties between the nations will remain in place. However, there are legal concerns over what the EU will allow, and moreover there is general uncertainty over what the extreme anti-immigration advocates will accept. There are many questions over the feasibility of a hard border which the Irish ambassador to the UK dubbed, “invisible.”
The security issues that would arise from a hard border are also a source of concern. The Northern Ireland police federation has warned against such a measure saying that it, “would make sitting ducks of Northern Ireland police.” The relationship between police and nationalists (those who wish for a united Ireland and to leave the UK) is often tense. There were high numbers of civilian casualties in the Catholic and Nationalist communities during the crackdown on Provisional-IRA terrorism. This was further exacerbated by the 38 year involvement of the British Army and by special forces units, known as the B-Specials, who were particularly prone to harassing the nationalist community. Following the Good Friday Agreement, the police force was restructured to be more inclusive of both communities. If the police were to be employed to enforce an already-contentious border, the fear is that this imagery would fuel violence, resistance and restart the bloody conflict.
This uncertainty is exacerbated by the current political climate ailing Stormont, the center for devolved government in Northern Ireland. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Parliament in Stormont shared power between nationalists and unionists to ensure that no community was excluded from policy decisions. The results of this have been largely successful, with the Unionists usually holding the position of First Minister and the Nationalists in position of Deputy First Minister. However that arrangement was shaken when Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, the Deputy First Minister, resigned his position in protest of a poorly executed renewable energy scheme on the part of the First Minister, Arlene Foster. This resulted in the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, since the idea behind power-sharing requires both positions to be filled. With a snap election scheduled for March 2, the lack of a Stormont government to shape the outcome of the Brexit-strategy is a cause for concern. There is historical precedent of Westminster misunderstanding or underestimating the reality of the Northern Irish problem, with Margaret Thatcher being a particularly unpopular figure among Irish nationalists both north and south of the border. Without a government in place to advise the Prime Minister, many fear that the implications of a hard border will not be fully articulated.
So what then are the possible solutions? The option of maintaining the soft border is ideal but relies on the co-operation of the British and Irish governments, as well as approval from the broader European Union as a whole. With many member states out for blood, the will to punish the UK may overwhelm the situation and limit the options available to avoid conflict. Another proposition has been to introduce a border on mainland Britain only, as this would be easier and cheaper to enforce and would avoid the problems associated with a land border. However, there is a risk that Unionists in Northern Ireland would view this as a betrayal, being fiercely protective of their status as citizens of the United Kingdom. A more drastic option would be to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU because it voted in favour of staying, but this would create issues with Scotland and the feasibility of a United Kingdom half in and half out of the EU. Now that Parliament has supported the right of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, it looks as if any legal challenge to Brexit stemming from Northern Ireland or Scotland will not be valid.
Nothing reignites conflict as quickly or as bitterly as a fearful population and an uncertain future. While this is obviously somewhat of a worst-case scenario, it is also not nearly as unlikely as Theresa May and others in Downing Street would like to believe. Until Stormont regains its voice in British politics, and until the real negotiations begin, an uneasy peace will be temporarily maintained. In this instance both Unionists and Nationalists have the will to find a manageable solution, but the bigger players have to be willing to put aside their grievances and co-operate. A hard won 20 year peace is what is at stake.
Image by Giuseppe Milo
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