The Ire in Eire: Brexit’s Long Shadow on Northern Ireland

On 25 July 2016, Theresa May finally took her long due flight to Belfast. It had been more than ten days since she assumed office as the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK); and a month since UK voted to opt out of the European Union (EU). May, after taking office, expressed great concern about how gravely important Scotland was for the UK. Understandable, considering last year’s fizzled theatrics [read: Scottish independence referendum] and Scotland’s contravening pro-remain mandate.

However, May hardly spoke anything about Northern Ireland – despite its overwhelming ‘remain’ mandate – until her recent trip. When in Belfast, she met the two prime political leaders in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Martin McGuiness of Sinn Fein (SF). In her meeting, she bluntly stated that the historic Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, which brought an end to the Irish conflict, would be upheld. Although staunch rivals, both Foster and McGuiness agree on one thing – maintaining the existing ‘soft border’ between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland in post-Brexit UK. May graciously assured them so.

“No one wants a return to the borders of the past,” she said.

Fairly and squarely, no one does.

But, this is the same Theresa May who when campaigning for a remain vote had argued that Brexit would invariably alter border arrangements within the UK. Not many disagreed with her then. After all, the Northern Ireland-Ireland border is the only land border that UK shares with any EU country.

What magic potion has she chanced upon to all but entirely reconcile with that critical reality is for time to tell. But, one can only hope that she has not forgotten the bloody past of London’s troubled dominion across the Irish Sea from where, not too far back in time, the Union Jack faced the wrath of an overwhelming insurgency.

“The Troubles” of the Past: The Irish Conflict in Retrospect

The historical roots of the Irish Conflict – referred to as “The Troubles” in popular press – go back to the asymmetric sectarian divide between Catholics and English Protestants (Anglicans) in the Eire (Gaelic for Ireland). Today, Ireland is bifurcated into two halves – the sovereign Republic of Ireland (or simply ‘Ireland’) in the south, and Northern Ireland, a political dominion of the United Kingdom containing around 6 counties of the Ulster province in the north. While the former is populated by a Catholic majority, the latter boasts of a dominantly Protestant population. This critical split led to one of modern Europe’s bloodiest sectarian conflicts.

The Troubles, however, is hardly a religious conflict. As veteran British journalist Peter Taylor was to write later, “The conflict in Ireland is about national identity and territory and not about being Catholic or Protestant. Unlike Al Qaeda, religion is not what drives the paramilitaries.” Rather, it was about majoritarian self-rule and minority fear psychosis – the radical Catholic Nationalists, or Republicans, fought a long war, beginning 1916, against British forces and Protestant Loyalists to liberate Ireland from the English Crown and establish a unified, sovereign Republic.

The infamous Irish Republican Army (IRA) and later, its equally notorious successor Provisional IRA (PIRA), represented the peak of Irish militant republicanism, the dark years of 1968-1998 particularly notorious for mutliple civilian bombings.

All of it finally came to an end in 1998 with the GFA, after several failed attempts at reaching a peaceful settlement. The GFA, considered as a triumph of Blairite counterinsurgent diplomacy, managed to address the key flashpoints of the conflict. The IRA agreed to disarm, along with the Loyalist paramilitaries. The Westminster and Oireachtas (Parliament of Republic of Ireland) decided to set up collaborative mechanisms for extensive devolution of powers to a local elected assembly and executive in Northern Ireland through a British-Irish Council (BIC). The agreement mandated the sovereign south with some degree of legislative control over the Parliament in the north. Since then, Northern Ireland’s intimate relationship with the sovereign south has been paramount for its economic sustainability.

What does Northern Ireland Stand to Lose?

With Brexit, Belfast stands to lose a lot more than a soft border. It risks losing a whole continuum of EU-sponsored support programs that the GFA guaranteed. The PM’s linear assurances of upholding the agreement in a post-Brexit scenario seems dubious at this stage. The GFA is not merely about a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ border, but is much wider in scope in terms of north-south integration. May did not move beyond the border issue to talk about how her government would salvage Northern Ireland from a probable economic collapse when EU is compelled to withdraw its regional funds.

The GFA without EU is like a steam engine without coal. A careful analysis of pre-1998 EU programs in Ireland shows us that it played an absolutely central role in the Irish peacemaking effort. In fact, since 1995, Europe has paid £1.3 billion to support peace in Northern Ireland through two key programs, PEACE and INTERREG. Without existing EU assistance programs in the Eire, which had already put in place usable modules for integration, the GFA would not have been possible.

Amongst the many things that the GFA ensconced, the ‘North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC)’ was the primary collaborative structure. It was set up to contrive functional structures for border assistance in sixty different sectors including, but not limited to, agriculture, tourism, and education.

Trade value between the north and south gradually rose, reaching a peak of almost 2665 million GBP in the year 2008. All of this was hugely facilitated by EU’s common travel area and single market designs, which in fact, existed even before the GFA was ratified. In many ways, the agreement was a structural derivative of existing EU programs.

The post-GFA period saw the overall degree of cooperation increase manifold. The agreement instituted a new collaborative body – the Special EU Programs Body (SEUPB) – to manage cross-border EU Structural Funds (EUSF). Under the SEUPB, PEACE and INTERREG were re-sanctioned, in addition to other proposed programs like SPPR and Leader II. While ensuring a booming economy in the north, such a design also fastened the process of north-south integration. Dr. Etain Tannam, Professor of International Peace Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, writes: “The Good Friday Agreement both overlaps with this EU dimension (through the creation of the SEUPB) and also potentially provides an independent effect on cross-border co-operation.”

As of now, Northern Ireland is still heavily dependent on financial assistance provided by the EUSF, the current slot slated to terminate in 2020. In addition to PEACE and INTERREG VA, this massive pool of funding includes European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF), the European Agricultural Guidance & Guarantee Fund (EAGGF), and the Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG). In total, EU has kept aside 3225.1 million Euro for Northern Ireland till 2020.

In the instance of a UK exit from the EU, the latter is under obligation to cut off (or at least downscale) all multi-sectoral assistance programs currently in place in the Eire. On 22 July, Martin McGuiness said at a BIC meeting:

“[…] our economy was set to receive €3.5bn in European funds between 2014 and 2020. A sizeable portion of that will be at risk if we are forced out of Europe…such funds will, of course, not be available at all in the years following 2020 and I don’t think anyone seriously believes that the British Government will reimburse these losses.”

Sinn Féin MLA Michelle O’ Neil, while musing over a potential exit before the referendum took place, said,

“[…] a referendum in favour of Brexit would be disastrous for agriculture and rural development in the North because it would hinder access to vital EU markets and lead to reduced agricultural support.”

 In Post-Brexit Northern Ireland: Road to Dystopia?

What does post-Brexit Northern Ireland look like? At the outset, heavily clouded. Although the GFA succeeded in dismantling the IRA’s motivation for a violent struggle, sectarian sentiments, which are so deeply entrenched in the north, have hardly diffused in entirety. It would be hugely misleading to argue that in NI, an absence of violence implies an absence of social ‘capacities’ for violence. Despite the successful termination of the armed conflict, the north has remained awkwardly straddled between unresolved emotions of two hostile communities.

These latent tensions have only stiffened over time, surfacing during popular events. On the 12th of July, the ‘Orange Order Parade’ – an annual march of Protestants – witnessed a standoff between 200 Republicans and Protestants when the latter marched down Ardoyne, a disputed Catholic-dominated neighbourhood of Belfast. One day before, some Protestants Loyalists saw their houses burnt by unidentified arsonists.

Although the GFA led to a complete dismantling of IRA’s mobilisation networks, a new splinter group, locally known as the “New IRA” seems to be emerging. Opposed to the peace process, this new group has already carried out a series of attacks against ex-IRA members and security officials, including a car bomb that killed a police officer shortly before Easter.

Earlier this year, MI5 raised the threat level for terrorism in Northern Ireland to “severe”, and in mainland Britain to “substantial”. Interestingly, it was Theresa May who, in her capacity as the Home Secretary, ordered it. Even the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland conceded to the fact that the IRA isn’t completely gone yet.

Although the north is largely peaceful today, one can hardly deny that militant sentiments still crawl under the grafted skin of the north. Fresh murals of masked men with assault rifles still adorn walls in not just Northern Ireland, but also Scotland. Unionist hooligans are still heard singing “No Surrender to the IRA” outside high-profile public events, most recently Euro Cup matches in France and Belgium . Neutralisation of the organisation in this case, has not translated into a total diffusion of the ’cause’, which only needs a political opportunity to resurface in full armour. Brexit threatens to widen these ‘political opportunity structures’ for radical Republicans by strengthening the case for Irish independence and eventual unification. In case of hard border sealing and the resultant territorial isolation that the north would face, radical political groups like the Sinn Fein could garner a large support base for an Irish referendum with much ease.

To rehash Sinn Fein’s fierce political proclivities, one may look at what McGuiness said a day after the Brexit vote results were declared:

“The British government now has no democratic mandate to represent the views of [Northern Ireland] in any future negotiations with the European Union and I do believe that there is a democratic imperative for a ‘border poll’ to be held.”

Brexit’s -presumptive repercussions on Northern Irish economy, polity, and society are very categorical, and hence demand specific responses from Westminster. It is fairly easy to state that the GFA would be upheld, but much harder to explain how. In a June 2016 interview to The Guardian, Bertie Ahern – former Irish PM and one of the GFA drafters – said that assurances of a common border transit area like old times in a post-Brexit scenario are inconsistent with the reality.

The GFA, however, is not an isolated piece of document that merely sanctions a soft border, but is intrinsically linked to the elaborate EU developmental blueprint – something that has rendered the north massively dependent on external funding. As a termination point of years of painstaking diplomacy and wanton bloodshed, the GFA is absolutely precious for Northern Ireland’s wholesome stability. Much would depend on how the new leadership at Number 10 negotiates the exit deal with Brussels. This time round, the sailor’s wheel rests in the hands of the powerful, and a storm might just be gathering.

[This piece was published on 02 August 2016 in The Citizen.]

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