How a ‘Brexit’ could unravel the Northern Ireland peace process

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Belfast - is peace threatened by a 'Brexit'? [WilliamMurphy/Flickr]

If the UK were to vote to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum the implications would be many and varied. Some of these implications have received coverage, others have not, warns Paul Brannen.

Paul Brannen is a Labour MEP for the North East of England.

One area given little attention to date is the impact that an EU exit would have on Northern Ireland and especially the peace process.

I recently asked a senior politician from Northern Ireland what he thought the consequences of our leaving the EU would be.  His reply was swift: “It would be a nightmare”. 

This lack of attention is in many ways remarkable, because it becomes apparent fairly quickly that exit from the EU could well undermine 17 years of peace in a region that previously suffered decades of violence, civil strife and political failure. It’s easy to forget that it was only in 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement was signed, laying the constitutional foundations for a new, functioning Northern Ireland Assembly and executive that has seen power sharing between former bitter adversaries. As the only internal EU peace process that receives financial contributions from the EU, Northern Ireland has become an example to the wider world that what may seem unachievable is possible, giving hope to people around the world who currently face civil conflict and unrest.

A total collapse of the peace process

However, with politics in Northern Ireland already on the brink of breakdown and the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy, a UK EU exit threatens a total collapse of the peace process.

Following UK exit from the EU, the nature of the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would fundamentally change.  Instead of it being a porous border between two fellow EU member states it will become a ‘hard’ border, raising a whole host of questions regarding customs controls and trade tariffs, cross-border institutional cooperation and freedom of movement. In all likelihood it would create the bizarre prospect of a guarded and fenced or walled border between the two countries, something not seen even at the height of the Troubles – for without such an obstacle the eurosceptics refrain of “Give us back control of our borders” will be meaningless.

Joining the then European Economic Area (EEA) on the same day in 1973, the economies of the UK and its neighbour the Irish Republic have become entirely interdependent, with trade between the two states worth a huge €1 billion per week. The absence of any form of immigration control between the two entitles UK citizens to live and work in Ireland – and vice versa – and permits almost 24,000 employees to travel freely across the border to go to and from work every day. For those who aspire to a united Ireland the notion of any kind of ‘hard border’ makes this prospect more distant, so undermining the peace process in key sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

Loss of key funding structures for farmers, the fishing industry, small and medium sized enterprises and community regeneration programmes would have a devastating impact on a region where incomes are 22% lower than the EU average. As a region with high levels of unemployment and heavily dependent on manufacturing, many comparisons can be made between Northern Ireland and the North East of England, the region I represent in the European Parliament. Indeed, the North East is the only region in the UK that is likely to be financially worse hit than Northern Ireland by a ‘Leave’ vote. 

Repealing the Human Rights Act

Special mention must be given to a development which is feared will run parallel to UK withdrawal from the EU – that of the repeal of the Human Rights Act by the UK government and a subsequent UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. My Labour colleague for the North East, Jude Kirton-Darling, has done much to raise awareness about the worrying prospect of such a move for the UK as a whole, however nowhere will this be more keenly felt than in Northern Ireland, where a removal of these key protections may well be the fatal blow to the peace process. Indeed, as Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, has pointed out, the Human Rights Act of 1998 “is woven into the structure” of the Good Friday Agreement that was signed in the same year. “The shared emphasis on human rights is part of what makes the peace process credible,” he says. Repeal of this crucial act would not only breach the terms of the peace process, it would also undermine the very fabric and structure of politics and government itself in Northern Ireland.

The psychological impact of a ‘Leave’ vote in David Cameron’s referendum and subsequent exit from the EU would be a tragedy for Northern Ireland. EU exit would not be cost free: would the end of the peace process in Northern Ireland be a price worth paying?

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