Brexit: The Northern Ireland conundrum

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Some commentators fear Brexit could see Northern Ireland descend back into the violence of the 'troubles'. [NH53/Flickr]

The implications for Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU are more complex and potentially more dangerous than those facing any other region of the UK, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche was a senior Irish Fianna Fáil politician, and Ireland’s former Minister of State for European Affairs.

In the case of Northern Ireland, Brexit impacts on four sets of relationships, the general EU–member state relationship, the North­–South relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the British–­Irish relationship and most sensitively within Northern Ireland itself, the complex and historically troubled interal communal relationship between the Unionist and Nationalist communities.

During the long months of debate and in the run up to referendum voting day in June, this complex set of relationships was a topic of discussion on the island of Ireland.  However, it was little more than a sidebar issue in the UK ‘mainland.’

The complex, layered and potentially dangerous impacts of Brexit for Northern Ireland simply slipped the attention of many the protagonists in the UK debate.

The possibility – hopefully remote – that the Pandora’s box of history closed by the Good Friday Agreement and the drawn out Northern Ireland Peace Process could be prised open was ‘ducked’.

The voters of Northern Ireland, like their counterparts in Scotland, emphatically supported the proposition that the UK remain in the EU. And like their counterparts in Scotland the voters of Northern Ireland are now stuck with a reality that was not of their choosing.

All of the issues that arise for the other parts of the UK apply also to Northern Ireland. There are, however, two very ‘Ulster’ issues.

First, there is the question of how the border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic of Ireland is to be dealt with.

Second, there is the rather more focused question as to who will step in to replace the remarkable and generous support given by the EU to the  NI Peace Process.

The ‘border question’, which has been the focus of a frenzy of high-level meetings between London, Dublin and Belfast in recent days, is a particularly thorny problem.

On the island of Ireland ‘The Border’ is an issue of deep political, cultural and psychological significance.

The border came into existence with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. It was unusual from the outset. Passport and immigration controls common elsewhere did not apply. Under what was to become known as the Common Travel Area, free passage without passport or identity papers, has been permitted since 1923. Customs checks on the border were abolished on 1 January 1993 with the creation of the single market. Ironically, given its symbolic importance in the Irish psyche, the Irish border is one of the least marked borders in any part of Europe.

The possibility of a new ‘hard border’ appearing between the two parts of the island of Ireland raises the spectre of the divisions that saw over 3,500 people killed during the 30 years of ‘the troubles’ in a corner of Europe that contained less than 1.7 million people.  While the relative tranquillity now enjoyed by the people of Northern Ireland hopefully rules out a return to the mayhem that lasted for almost three decades from the mid-1960s, the issue should not be ignored.

During the course of the referendum campaign in Northern Ireland the then British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, a pro-Brexit campaigner, claimed that in the event of a UK withdrawal from the EU the position on the border between Northern Ireland & the Republic would remain unchanged. Ms Villiers did not explain how an open border with the EU and a key focus for those favouring Brexit, an end to free movement, could be reconciled.

The Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, who’s Democratic Unionist Party also campaigned for a Brexit vote, also discounted concerns about a ‘hard border’ reappearing, pointing out that “it would be in nobody’s interests to see impediments to trade and travel imposed on (the) border”. The conundrum of an open border between a country that subscribed to free movement and one that did not was also avoided by Ms Foster.

On visits to Northern Ireland, David Cameron, then Chancellor George Osborne and Teresa May, then UK Home Secretary, challenged the position of both.

Cameron insisted that border controls would be necessary – either as a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or by way of checks at exit points between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The latter ‘solution’ is anathema to Ms Foster, the Unionist parties and probably to many outside the wider NI community.

George Osborne was even more specific.  Quitting the EU would, he said, bring new immigration checkpoints, border controls and an end to free movement – and “a real hardening of the border imposed either by the British government or indeed by the Irish government.”

Theresa May said that it was “inconceivable” that there will not be changes in existing border arrangements if the UK pulls out of the European Union.

The Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny spoke of the damage that the return of a ‘hard border’ could do, warned  of the “extra costs to governments, businesses, consumers and anyone else seeking to travel between North and South” and cautioned that the return of the border would “present an opportunity for others with malign agendas to exploit”. A new hard border would damage the decades of peace and reconciliation and play into “an old narrative – one of division, isolation and difference”.

A month after the UK vote the border is now very much on the agenda. As mentioned earlier, there has been  a flurry of meetings in London, Belfast and Dublin involving the British and Irish prime ministers and the leaders of the NI executive on the issue. The matter has also been raised  in discussions between the Irish taoiseach, the German chancellor and the French president.

While the problems that a new border could cause are now at the fore and commitments to finding a ‘pragmatic solution’ have been given and repeated, it is not at all clear that either Dublin or London have a readymade blueprint in mind as to what that ‘pragmatic’ solution will look like.

A second, rather considerable ‘elephant in the room’ is the issue of the very extensive funding that Northern Ireland receives from the EU. While less complex than the border issue it is a significant matter in the context of building inter-communal relations – an essential element of the NI peace process.

In the period 2007-2013 more than €2.9 billion in funds flowed from Brussels to Belfast.

Over two thirds of that funding was channelled to Ulster’s farming and rural communities. Single farm payments in the period amounted to almost €1.56 billion, the NI Rural Development Fund received €394.8 million and an additional €21.56 million was paid under the EU Fisheries Fund. Surprisingly Ulster farmers in large numbers voted for Brexit evidently believing that the farming community would be ‘looked after’ post Brexit from the ‘savings’ that the UK Exchequer would make by ending its payments to the EU.

The EU has also been a particularly generous supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland. Three PEACE programmes which operated from 1995 to 2013 received €1.3 billion in EU funding. The PEACE IV programme, which operates until 2020, is earmarked for funding to the tune of €229 million (with a further €41 million from local ‘top up’ funding). These programmes promote peace and reconciliation across Northern Ireland and cross-border initiatives involving four border counties of the Republic. They will continue to require support for some time.

While the pro Brexit campaigners made much of the £350m per week in ‘savings’ that would be achieved by leaving the EU, one searches in vain for any discussion as to how much of the hypothetical savings would be channelled into Northern Ireland or how the gap that will appear ‘on the books’ in NI when EU funding is no longer available will be plugged.

A short briefing paper looking at the consequences of Brexit for the Northern Ireland economy that was prepared for the NI Assembly in early 2015 contains an interesting quote: “In multilevel government, each level of government (including the central government) will maximise social and economic welfare within its own jurisdiction.”

In the context of Northern Ireland the quotation is particularly apt. The fact that the thorny and complex issue of the border is, only now, being examined and that issues like the funding gap have yet to be discussed illustrates just how little attention those championing a UK exit from the EU or those in the Westminster bubble in general pay to the wellbeing of Northern Ireland or its people.