European Affairs

Could Brexit jeopardize the peace settlement in Northern Ireland?     Print
By Brian Beary, Washington

BrianBeary.new1When Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness greeted Queen Elizabeth on a visit to Belfast earlier this week, the atmosphere in the room was oddly warm, bordering on jovial. “Are you well?” asked the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister McGuinness. Now in his mid-sixties and white-haired, he is remembered by many as the youthful, curly red-haired, fierce Irishman at the helm of the staunchly republican, nationalist Sinn Fein party and its militant wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

“Well, I’m still alive anyway,” the Queen replied. “I’ve been quite busy – quite a lot going on,” she said, with characteristic understatement. In one week, the British people voted to leave the European Union, thus throwing the United Kingdom’s two main political parties into total turmoil, the UK’s relations with its EU partners soured, the British pound plummeted to its lowest value against the U.S. dollar since 1985, and questions were raised about the very future of the United Kingdom.

The repercussions of Brexit for the Northern Ireland peace process, crafted so painstakingly in the 1990s and 2000s, are beginning to reverberate. At the very minimum, the Brexit vote heightens tensions among the community leaders. If mishandled, it puts at risk the hard-won gains of the past two decades.

Northern Ireland, like neighboring Scotland, voted to remain inside the EU, albeit by a slimmer 56-44% majority, compared with Scotland’s 62-38%. In so doing, Northern Irish voters chose a different path to England and Wales where the Leave side pulled off a shock win, apart from London, which voted solidly Remain.

Even before the final results were announced, McGuinness and his Sinn Fein colleagues were demanding that Northern Ireland not be taken out of the EU against its will. More controversially, they were calling for a referendum to reunify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland as a means of ensuring continued EU membership. Such a referendum, known as a border poll, is provided for in the 1998 Good Friday Northern Ireland peace agreement but should be called only if there is an indication that a majority in Northern Ireland wants reunification. It is far from clear that such a majority exists.

On the other side of the North’s political spectrum, the Protestant-dominated Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Arlene Foster, campaigned vigorously for a Brexit and is staunchly opposed to any severing of ties with the UK. The referendum results cut deeply across sectarian lines. Catholic, nationalist areas saw Remain votes of up to 75%, while Protestant, unionist areas were more evenly divided. The other main political party supported by Northern Ireland’s Protestants, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), backed the Remain side, albeit rather tepidly. As for the other main Catholic-supported political force, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), it was solidly pro-Remain.

In calling for the border poll, Sinn Fein remains a voice in the wilderness for now, with neither the DUP, UUP, SDLP, nor Irish or British governments advocating such a route.

Addressing the Irish parliament, Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said: “Rather than focus on a border poll, I believe that our immediate strategy should be to sit down with the British government and with the Northern Ireland Executive and to urgently discuss how collectively we are together going to protect the gains of the last decade and to prevent the worst effects of a UK departure from the EU.” Flanagan also said: “The fact that 56% of those who voted in Northern Ireland to remain are now faced with the prospect of their preference being set aside as a result of the overall result across the UK raises profound issues, as it does in Scotland.”

Flanagan has already met with the UK government’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, to discuss the Brexit fallout. Villiers, a pro-Brexit Tory, sounded a rather different note to Flanagan’s, however, when asked if Northern Ireland’s pro-Remain vote could be accommodated. “It is not possible within EU rules to have a part of a country being part of the EU,” she said. The UK’s overall pro-Brexit vote (52-48%) “is going to be respected,” she said.

Meanwhile, Northern Irish citizens are taking concrete steps to avoid being deprived of EU citizenship and the rights that entails, notably to travel and work in a single market of 500 million people with 28 (maybe soon to be 27) member countries. There has been a rush for application forms for Irish passports, so much so that the Irish government is urging people to calm down, fearful the Irish passport processing office will become completely swamped.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, anyone from Northern Ireland is entitled to an Irish passport. Until now, it typically would be people from the Catholic, Irish nationalist community exercising this right, motivated as much by pragmatism as by patriotism. But now that the UK is on Route Brexit, the demand for an Irish passport is likely to be just as strong from British-identifying, Northern Irish residents, mindful they will lose EU citizenship once the UK leaves. Ian Paisley Jr., a Member of the UK parliament and son of late Unionist leader, Reverend Ian Paisley, is publicly urging his constituents to apply for an Irish passport and is assisting them with the process.

With Ireland a part of the United Kingdom until 1921 and the two countries enjoying a common travel area (no visas, minimal identity inspections) since southern Ireland became independent, the prospect of a hard border being erected between north and south due to Brexit is alarming. During the sectarian warfare from 1968-1998, the so-called Troubles, the British army understandably conducted counter terrorism-motivated border controls. But once the peace settlement was put in place, those were removed.

July 12 will be a key moment in gauging the danger of the Brexit destabilizing Northern Ireland. The climax of the Protestant marching season, the day will see members of the Orange Order march through streets across Northern Ireland to commemorate Protestant King William of Orange’s military victory over Catholic King James II in 1688. The day has historically been a flashpoint, with many Catholics resenting how the Orangemen ensure the marching route takes in Catholic-populated areas. In recent years, July 12 has become a more peaceful and orderly affair and the sides wish to keep it that way. But with the strength of passions being unleashed by Brexit, it is far from certain this harmony will persist.