Northern Ireland: Brexit’s biggest loser?


Editor’s note: This is Part I of a series Jessica Jacques is writing on Northern Ireland for LeipGlo.

The 23rd of June will, of course, go down as an historic day for Britain and the EU. And, just in case you forgot, for Northern Ireland.

With a population of around 1.8 million, this constituent unit of the UK was largely forgotten in the debates running up to the Brexit negotiations. Despite much well meaning rhetoric coming from Theresa May, it is difficult to see how Brexit will not negatively affect the small province, which has been wrought with difficulties dating back to its foundation in 1921.

How did Northern Ireland vote?

The backing of Brexit by England and Wales may well have been a surprise for many. But that 44% of Northern Ireland chose to leave the EU should provoke questions as to why a province that owes so much of its stability to the EU would vote this way.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) campaigned strongly in favour of a Brexit. Its leader, Arlene Foster, claimed she saw the referendum outcome “as an historic opportunity to build up this nation state again.” Recently it emerged the party received a financial donation to champion the Brexit cause.

In the last (2015) election, the DUP gained about 26% of the vote, followed by their staunch rivals and coalition partners Sinn Fein, with just under 25%. Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, like many others in the UK, was strongly against the idea of even holding a referendum.

“Dragging us out of Europe will be to the detriment of all our citizens and will be bad for business, trade, investment, and wider society,” he said.

Northern Ireland and the EU

Northern Ireland is a long way from its heyday in the early 1900s as a producer of linen and textiles, with Belfast at the forefront of shipbuilding. In Northern Ireland today, 50,000 jobs depend on trade with the EU. £460 million is also contributed to Northern Ireland in EU grants for innovation in transport, job creation and regeneration of rural areas.

Moreover, much of the stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland since the early 1990s has been underpinned by the EU (unlike the rest of the UK).

The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into the law of Northern Ireland in 1998.

The EU PEACE program for Northern Ireland had been set to run until 2020. More recently relaunched as PEACE IV, it is heavily invested in cross border schemes, specifically programs targeting young people, and those aiming to promote economic and social stability as well as ethnic diversity.

According to John Bruton, former Prime Minister of Ireland, joint membership of the EU has transformed the relationship between the UK and Ireland from a “bilateral unequal relationship” into an equal membership – with the two states as adherents of a bigger ideological project.

In this regard, the situation of Northern Ireland is more akin to that of Slovenia or formerly communist Eastern European countries. On its website, the European Parliament states that “this programme is now seen as an example of peace-building policy to be shared throughout Europe and other regions.”

Developments since referendum

It would be easy to compare the “Bremainers” with those in America who claim Trump is “not their president.” Or to simply portray them as whining protesters, unable to accept the outcome of a democratic decision.

Yet accepting and carrying out the outcome of the referendum is different, because there are serious questions about whether it is legally binding, considering the low margin of victory and the underwhelming turnout levels. Despite this, Theresa May is charging ahead unimpeded in what looks increasingly like a “hard” Brexit.

In Northern Ireland, there are ongoing movements and appeals to stop Brexit. None of them, however, have managed to gain serious traction.

Even by August of last year, cross community groups in Northern Ireland had mobilised themselves and written to Theresa May to urge her to consider the implications of Brexit for the peace process in Northern Ireland, as well as the individuality of the province’s situation.

In two separate challenges, Northern Irish politicians and human rights campaigners went on to claim that leaving the EU was in direct contradiction to the terms of the Belfast Agreement. Politicians from across the spectrum argued that it would be unlawful to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary authorisation, and that Brexit would undermine the agreement’s legal and humanitarian obligations.

In October, the High Court in Belfast rejected these challenges to Brexit. The North’s Attorney General John Larkin, QC, told the court that not one “comma, full stop, word or phrase” in the Belfast Agreement and related legislation would be affected by Brexit.

“There are no substantive obligations in the Belfast Agreement which requires continued membership of the European Union,” he added.

In November, it was announced that the case, led by Raymond McCord, a victims’ campaigner, would go before the Supreme Court in London. McCord’s son was murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1997.

McCord’s team propounded that the Belfast Agreement, adhered to by the British and Irish governments, gave the people of Northern Ireland an effective veto to change in constitutional position.

In the consequent hearing at the Supreme Court in London, it was ruled that this principle applies only to the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and not in the European Union.

More recently, border communities have taken matters into their own hands in a more creative way. Protesters in County Louth set up a customs check point at the border crossing of the main motorway linking North and South. The theatrics are designed to raise awareness of the difficulties that a reinstatement of a hard border could create.

For those over 35, the memories of the Troubles are still strong and poignant enough to consider the issue a most serious one. The role of these memories is also relevant for polling figures on the Northern Ireland situation, with surveys in 2013 showing that a majority would vote to remain part of the UK, and therefore maintain the status quo.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has also expressed his strong support and commitment to fighting against a hard border after Brexit. But officials have already begun investigating possibilities of dealing with a reinstatement of the border and custom checks: such a move is much more complicated given the fact that there are now over 250 crossing points between North and South.

It is not for want of trying that supporters of the UK’s membership of the EU have failed to find constitutional means to block or impede Brexit. What is also clear from the British government’s words to date, is that their position is tenuous.

Perhaps the most telling event in the Brexit process so far was the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU. He was a man with tantamount experience and ability to navigate the Brexit process, which since the referendum has appeared vastly more complicated than anyone could have imagined.

In his resignation letter, Rogers suggested there was “muddled thinking” in the Brexit decisions and called upon his peers to “challenge ill-founded arguments and… [to] never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power.”

For now, concerns about Northern Ireland seem to have fallen on somewhat deaf ears. But with surprise elections to be held in the provinence in March, much is to play for. The proceedings will, no doubt, add some more excitement to these fascinating years in European history.

Jessica grew up “am schönsten Arsch der Welt“ in Northern Ireland and studied European Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. She lived in Italy for a year, where her favourite course was "The Economics of Happiness." She hopes to use this space to share her musings on and comparisons between Germany, Ireland, Britain and Europe.

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