Shortly after the results came in, Sinn Fein declared it would seek a vote on Irish reunification. Consequently, by voting in favour of Brexit, British voters may have endangered the progress of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, writes Karlijn Jans.
Karlijn Jans is a Europe Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
The results of the UK’s referendum revealed a clear regional split in attitudes towards EU membership, with Northern Ireland showing a clear 11.55% lead in favour of remaining, with a majority of 55.78%.
Between the late 1960s and 1998, Northern Ireland suffered from violent clashes between Protestants loyal to the UK and the Catholic minority who aspired to unite with the Republic of Ireland; the conflict claimed more than 3,500 lives.
Finally, in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed – a political framework focused on settling Protestant-Catholic hostilities. The framework set in stone a power-sharing government structure: no party could dominate the general assembly and crucial, fundamental decisions required cross-community support.
This Irish-British agreement also regulates the political powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly as part of the UK, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (i.e. the North-South Council), and the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. If the UK indeed does leave the EU, it could undermine vital components of the Agreement.
Both the Republic of Ireland and the UK have been members of the EU since 1973, and three major aspects of their membership have proven to be cornerstones of the Peace Process.
Firstly, a basic diplomatic rule is that consistent dialogue between hostile parties contributes to conflict resolution. As has been widely noted by experts, working collaboratively on European issues for an extended period of time has helped EU members, and in this case Ireland and the UK, understand each other better.
Using the EU as a platform, UK and Irish officials have built relationships and mutual trust by cooperating on a wide range of issues. The Good Friday Agreement is a notable example: the establishment of the North-South Council, which encourages communication between the Irish and Northern Irish executives, has proved vital to the peace process. Without the UK and the Republic of Ireland meeting in Brussels on a regular basis to discuss salient (European) issues, an important channel for dialogue will be closed off.
Secondly, the border areas of Ireland and Northern Ireland have received EU financial aid since 1989 through the EU PEACE programme. If the UK leaves, this financial aid, which is hugely supportive to the volatile peace process, will have to be restructured, and, in the worst case scenario, will cease to be available. Additionally, Northern Ireland will lose its right to receive similar structural and investment funds. Such losses could have a major impact on the socio-economic development of the region.
Thirdly, and perhaps most crucial, Brexit would mean that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would no longer allow the free movement of goods, services, and people. The border between the ‘two Irelands’ has long been a soft border where people could move freely between communities and even profit from cross-border movement of labour.
“Removing a European dimension that ‘softens the border’ between the North and South of Ireland,” notes Edward Burke of the Royal United Services Institute, “may upset the delicate equilibrium painstakingly constructed since the Good Friday Agreement.” With the UK relinquishing its membership status, it will become a ‘hard’ border with customs, passport checks, and official border crossings essentially separating the Irish communities.
Brexit signals a period of uncertainty regarding relations within the UK as well as the status of Northern Ireland. The EU has served as a vital platform of needed dialogue between the two Irelands, mitigating a history of conflict. Thus, one can argue that with one party leaving the Union, an important mediator in the conflict will disappear – necessitating the renegotiation of longstanding agreements between the UK and Ireland.
Therefore, various protracted consultative and legislative processes will have to be enacted. With that, the referendum could undermine the success of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, risking a re-escalation of violence. If nothing else, it might prelude future debates on the status of the different regions within the UK, and their potential desire to leave the UK in order to rejoin the EU.