Ever since the June 2016 referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the trail of the negotiation process for a deal over post-Brexit United Kingdom(UK) and European Union(EU) relations presents nothing but an act of spiralling down to the discussion of same contested issues with no prospect for resolution. Of the issues such as Britain’s divorce bill and EU citizens’ rights in the UK that serve as a gateway for further talks on the future relationship, the Northern Irish backstop is at the crux of the delay in reaching a Brexit deal. The backstop is a much mulled over arrangement to avoid a hard border in Ireland in all circumstances and hence, to avoid bringing back ‘The Troubles’ again. This article attempts to examine the case of Northern Ireland border, for which it is important to understand the crucial point of conjunction for the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and the European Union, i.e. the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The Good Friday Agreement (1998)
The Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement was a significant development in the Northern Ireland peace process which led to the present devolution of governance in Northern Ireland. The agreement lay down provisions for status and governance of Northern Ireland under the United Kingdom, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
In the late 1960s, the Northern Ireland region was marked by complete instability due to ‘The Troubles’, an ethno- nationalist conflict that led to the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process. At the heart of the issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Unionists/loyalists, who were mostly Protestants and Eurosceptic, wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the United Kingdom and nationalists, who were mostly Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. Hence, the devolution arrangements in Northern Ireland are subject to an international treaty which emphasizes greatly on the peaceful reconciliation of two major communities.
The significance of the European Union
The European Union has played a catalytic role in the Northern Ireland peace process. The Good Friday Agreement was crucial in redefining relations between the Irish islands and making the borders less visible. However, crucial to the framework of the agreement was the common EU membership of the parties of the agreement that is the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Also, the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, examining the British and Irish links in the Northern Ireland conflict emphasizes on the European Union economic and political support to the peace process and determination of both governments to develop close cooperation as partners of the European Community.
The acknowledgement and political, economic support of the European Union had further bought legitimacy and respect for the Irish stakes in the Brexit debate. However, there has been no limited approach by Northern Ireland to the European Union for inputs on the Brexit deal. This was further exacerbated by the General Elections in June 2017, which saw the representation of only one major party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the Westminster Parliament. This further reduced the say of Northern Ireland in the outcome of the Brexit deal. The failure to restore the Executive was particularly serious in the light of Brexit’s potential implications for the Good Friday Agreement (Murphy, 2018).
The on-ground divergence of unionist and nationalist communities influenced by local political parties has produced unexpected and ambiguous referendum results. A year after the referendum result, there was even less common ground between the (pro-leave) unionists and (pro-remain) nationalists than before it (Murphy, 2018). It was in this use of EU as a point of divergence between communities that posed a major risk to the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process by the Brexit debate. Moreover, the consequences of a hard Brexit will have far-reaching effects on this argument and the European Union will cease to act as a common ground for peace, support and cooperation.
Impact on the Northern Ireland border
Three devolved administrations form a part of the United Kingdom, which is, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The uniqueness of Northern Ireland lies in its geographical location. It is the only part of UK that shares a land border with another EU member state, the Republic of Ireland. Also, it is the only part of UK that is geographically detached from the rest of the United Kingdom.
A post- Brexit scenario, depending on the degree of ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of a deal, will result in border controls, particularly in the north-south region of Ireland affecting the free movement of goods, capital and people across these borders which in turn, will compromise the Good Friday Agreement between the three member states. 27% of Northern Ireland’s exports go to Southern Ireland and 23% of the province’s imports come from Southern Ireland. Since a third of those exports to the Republic of Ireland are of food and livestock, the restoration of any sort of border, customs checks and delays would hit the farmers badly (Economist, 2018). Hence, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Irish backstop plan to avoid a hard border did not go well with the Ulster Farmers’ Union of Northern Ireland. The backstop provides for a plan to keep Northern Ireland in European Union Customs Union and in the regulation of the European Single Market until an alternative framework is reached which is outside the jurisdiction of the European Union. However, the time period for which it will remain under EU Customs Union is not clear and any kind of EU control over the Irish Sea and border goes against the main demand of the Brexiteers to taking back ‘control’ or getting their ‘own country back’ (Aughey, 2017).
Across the Irish border and the Irish Sea, the free movement of goods, labour and capital existed greatly due to the legal realities and trade provisions of the European Union which and are manifest in the processes of standardization, regulatory harmonization and mutual agreements that affect business on the ground (Murphy, 2018). Moreover, EU investment in border regions to maintain stability also proved to be beneficial for Northern Ireland in many ways. Thus EU membership remains crucial to this economic relationship between the north-south and Ireland-UK borders in order to remove the ‘border in the mind’ (Aughey, 2017) and thus work towards consigning the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
In order to maintain the above-mentioned status quo in terms of relations between north-south Ireland and the United Kingdom, one way of association with the European Union is the European Economic Area (EEA) option (Doherty, 2017). If Brexit happens, Northern Ireland would leave the European Union along with Britain. However, securing continued participation of the EEA for Northern Ireland would ensure access to the single market which would then ensure free movement of goods, services, capital and people under the norms of the European Union with no commitments to the ‘ever closer union’. However, it would lose the membership of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The access to migrant labour and rights of tourists from EU states to Northern Ireland would also be maintained. Under the EEA, Northern Ireland would not be subject to the customs union and out of the European Court of Justice. However, UK will have a say and hold over a majority of agreements on behalf of Northern Ireland. An important aspect of the EEA option is that the obligations and benefits here are very clear ensuring stability and a common European economic entity in the spirit of the Belfast Agreement in a post-Brexit world (Doherty, 2017).
However, it is to be noted that going through the EEA option would require UK legislation and Northern Ireland legislation and mutual cooperation of the EU, its member states and other participating European Free Trade Agreement member states. This would also require compromises from the UK on major issues which can be contradictory to the fundamental Brexit demands.
There would have to be a political arrangement between Dublin, London, Belfast and Brussels over the membership of Northern Ireland to the EEA as a separate trade entity, de facto or de jure from the United Kingdom (Doherty, 2017).
The conclusion of the Brexit debate, ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ or no Brexit at all, will have far greater implications for Northern Irish citizens than any other stakeholders. With Brexit at its door, the country is confronted with a situation wherein a complete churning of social, political, economic and constitutional arrangement seems indispensable. Any kind of resolution to the Brexit debate on 29 March 2019 will further result into a complete ‘new chapter’ or the revival of an ‘old chapter’ existing pre-1998 agreement in the Northern Ireland peace process. In negotiations or deal presented by Prime Minister Theresa May, the consent of the Northern Irish people- a majority of them voted to remain in the European Union- must be of prime consideration, when it comes to the issue of Irish backstop. Association with the European Union in some of the form is beneficial for both, United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and is definitely the way forward for economic and political stability. This will require negotiations and compromises in such a direction particularly by the United Kingdom to clean the increasing mess and the ever-increasing ambiguity in a divorce from the European Union.
Aughey, C. G.-H. (2017). Northern Ireland and Brexit: Three effects on 'the border in the mind'. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 497-511.
Doherty, B. &. (2017). Northern Ireland and Brexit: The European Economic Area option. Belfast: Queen's University Belfast.
Economist, T. (2018). Please Surrender. The Economist, 49-50.
Murphy, K. H. (2018). The EU's Influence on the Peace Process and Agreement in Northern Ireland in Light of Brexit. Ethnopolitics, 276-291.
Image Credit: South China Morning Post
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