The Fate of Northern Ireland Amidst Brexit

By, Desmond Molloy SAR ’19

The last half of the 20th century is often remembered as a golden age for western Europe, marked by peace and prosperity. This was not the case for Northern Ireland, which was engulfed by a civil war between Catholics and Protestants, known as the Troubles, for just under thirty years (1). The conflict finally ended with the 1998 Good Friday Accord. Signed under the auspices of the European Union, the agreement provided Catholics with expanded civil rights, demilitarized cities like Belfast and strengthened ties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. In the short term though, such trouble is unlikely. Incumbent British, Irish and Northern Irish politicians have reason to fear a return to the Troubles and cling to Good Friday. Close ties between Dublin and London and extra EU provisions intended to ensure peace provide a framework for Northern Ireland to remain secure well beyond Brexit. In the long term, however, electoral politics may complicate the situation. The greatest threat to peace comes from the Catholic party Sinn Fein, which long functioned as a civilian affiliate of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Hardliners in Sinn Fein are already trying to make political hay from Brexit, hoping to push for reunification with the Republic of Ireland.

In the wake of Brexit, observers were concerned that the loss of the EU, which facilitated many provisions of Northern Irish peace, would lead to instability. The greatest concern among Protestant and Catholic Northern Irish alike in the wake of Brexit is the future of the border with the Republic of Ireland, the only land boundary between Britain and the EU. Another concern is that the EU development funding used to provide poor Catholics with opportunities other than the IRA will melt away, leading to popular discontent. Finally, the European Convention on Human Rights provided the legal underpinning for the Good Friday Agreement’s human rights provisions, leading to fear that removing the legal framework for Good Friday will free both sides of their obligations, making the balance in place for the past eighteen years untenable. But the ECHR in particular, and Brexit as a whole, need not automatically invalidate the accord. Theresa May’s Conservative government in Great Britain and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael coalition in the Republic of Ireland are under no legal obligation to scrap Good Friday in the absence of the ECHR or the EU, and can decide what to keep from the pre-Brexit agreement (2). Much of Good Friday is based on direct cooperation between the two governments. Despite concerns over the future of the border, a return to the checkpoints and barbed wire of the Troubles is highly unlikely. The open-borders agreement between London and Dublin predates the European Union by several decades (it was suspended when the Troubles broke out in 1969, but reinstated in 1998). While many liberal Britons bemoan the impending loss of the visa-free travel associated with the EU, neither Ireland nor Great Britain is legally obliged to change their border control policies as a result of Brexit (3). To the contrary, both governments announced immediately after Brexit that the border would remain open. Development funding is also independent of the EU. The United States, Great Britain and several other countries provide the majority of Northern Irish development funding through the International Fund for Ireland, which is not affected by Brexit (4). With the removal of the EU, British and Irish politicians can choose which of these arrangements to keep up. They are likely to simply stick with the status quo. Inertia is a powerful force; after almost two decades of living with Good Friday, British and Irish politicians are used to the treaty. Most of them are also old enough to remember IRA car bombings in London and Brighton, the forced disappearance of civilians in Belfast and the sacking of the British Embassy in Dublin.

But if the short-term conditions favor peace in Northern Ireland, electoral politics could push things in a different direction. Sinn Fein, the Green Isle’s most powerful republican party, has already moved to take advantage of post-Brexit chaos. Immediately after the Brexit referendum results were released, Gerry Adams, the party’s president, called for a “border poll” or referendum to determine whether Northern Ireland should unite with the Republic (5). Both Dublin and London rejected Adams’ suggestion. But if Sinn Fein gains power in the Northern Irish Parliament, such a referendum may find its way onto the table. Despite decades of work on reconciliation, Northern Irish schools and neighborhoods are still largely segregated (6). The Catholic dream of a united island is still strong. Whether it will prove more powerful than memories of a nightmarish past remains to be seen.

  1. McKittrick, D., & McVea, D. (2002). Making Sense of The Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books.
  2. “The Northern Ireland Peace Agreement”. 10 April 1998. United Nations Peace Agreements Database. http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/IE%20GB_980410_Northern%20Ireland%20Agreement.pdf
  3. Republic of Ireland, Citizens Information Board. (n.d.). Common Travel Area between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Retrieved September 29, 2016, from http://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/moving_country/moving_abroad/freedom_of_movement_within_the_eu/common_travel_area_between_ireland_and_the_uk.html
  4. Archick, K. (2015, March 11). Northern Ireland: The Peace Process (United States, Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service). Retrieved September 29, 2016, from https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS21333.pdf
  5. Bardon, S. (2016, July 19). Gerry Adams welcomes Kenny’s comments on Border poll. The Irish Times. Retrieved September 29, 2016, from http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/gerry-adams-welcomes-kenny-s-comments-on-border-poll-1.2727135
  6. Archick, K. (2015, March 11). Northern Ireland: The Peace Process (United States, Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service). Retrieved September 29, 2016, from https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS21333.pdf

Photo Credit: Newcastle University