Written by Silke Shanley, with Stephanie Woronko
Friday, November 9th, 2018
Editors note: Silke wrote this piece on November 9th. A few days later, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced her cabinet had approved her draft 585-page Brexit deal. Now that the EU has approved the deal in principal, a vote in the UK Parliament awaits. The “Irish Question” continues to be knocked around. As the fallout continues, Silke’s detailed analysis helps contextualise the importance of the issue of the border in resolving Brexit. 

This year, the University of Kent celebrates its twentieth anniversary in Europe, having welcomed its first cohort of students at the Brussels School of International Studies in 1998 before expanding to Paris, Rome and Athens.

2018 marks another important milestone – twenty years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast on the 10th of April 1998. To mark both of these historic dates, the University of Kent’s Chancellor and former BBC host Gavin Esler invited Irish Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes for a discussion on Brexit and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

While the UK’s national borders featured heavily in the debates in the lead up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, these were framed in the context of immigration; however, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was largely ignored at that time.  Given that this border, which has such an unstable history, is the UK’s only land frontier with the EU, this perhaps deserved greater attention given that it has dominated the withdrawal negotiations between the UK and the EU.

The signing of the Agreement is largely recognised as the turning point of the Irish peace process, heralding the departure from the time known, rather euphemistically, as the Troubles, a period of violent conflict concerned with the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

Where nationalists wanted a united Ireland and therefore wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK, unionists wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. The two main religious groups in the province tended to identify according to historic alignment, with Protestants favouring unionism and Catholics supporting a united Ireland. The violence that ensued as a result of these divisive politics included bombing campaigns, riots, sectarian clashes and targeted assassinations. The victims of the Troubles were mostly civilian. A culture of fear and division was cemented in the communities which became increasingly segregated. As a result of the ongoing violence, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was heavily militarised. It was difficult to police and hard to avoid, as its snaking nature meant a direct route from one town to another could require more than one border crossing.

But after twenty-two months of fraught negotiations, the terms of the Agreement were finally agreed and delivered to the people of Ireland and the UK. The process had been a notoriously trying one, with inter-party fighting, political snubs and walkouts, all amidst ongoing political turbulence and violence. The talks continued seventeen hours past the midnight deadline on the Thursday. Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was undergoing treatment for a brain tumour at the time, was said to have thrown her wig on the table in frustration. Ultimately Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, and Bill Clinton, the US President, interceded to help get the deal over the finish line.

Alongside the provisions for the joint governance of Northern Ireland and disarmament of paramilitary groups, a key concept of the Agreement is what it is not: it is not a permanent answer to the question of the partition of the island of Ireland, nor is it a definitive mandate concerning the identity of the people of Northern Ireland. The Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and will remain so unless and until a majority of the people of both Northern Ireland and the Republic wish it to be otherwise. In addition, it allows the people of Northern Ireland to choose their own identity so that they can be British or Irish, or both. It took the spotlight away from the question of UK or Irish identity by giving the choice back to the people.

Currently, the existence of the border does not impinge on trade, industry or everyday life. Business can be conducted North or South of the border, and many people regularly drive back and forth to work, to visit family, or to  access services. Aside from convenience, the common EU membership also gave citizens of the Republic and Northern Ireland a joint connection and common identity above that of being Irish. They were all European.

Now, this important question of identity in Northern Ireland arose again in the wake of Brexit.

During all the discussion about a hard versus soft border, customs controls, and the economic and political implications of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the deeper impact of the border question has been lost. The prospect of Northern Ireland leaving the EU not only raised such logistical concerns, it increased the awareness of the border’s symbolism in the minds of those used to the seamless integration of the Republic and the North.

The separation of the UK from the EU is not merely a practical exercise, the question of the border has been raised, and with it, questions of unity, nationalism and identity. Where the Agreement took the spotlight away from the issue of identity in Northern Ireland, Brexit put it back in the limelight.

It is impossible to know the minds of the politicians debating the more esoteric issues surrounding Brexit, but perhaps to them the Northern Ireland peace process had been sufficiently relegated to the history books to warrant much thought. However, in Northern Ireland, there are certainly visible reminders of its fractured past. The border, although non-invasive for all intents and purposes, is dotted with abandoned customs houses and police checkpoints. Murals depicting paramilitary soldiers, heavily armed and wearing balaclavas, emblazon walls across towns and villages. Marches and parades in support of the different allegiances continue to stir controversy.    

There has been some bewilderment at the apparent lack of interest, and at times, the profound ignorance surrounding the border and the status of Northern Ireland and, even sometimes, the Republic itself. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent Brexiteer and Tory MP, was heavily criticised for his decision not to visit Northern Ireland as part of his efforts to understand the interplay between Brexit and the border, believing that “wandering across a few roads” would not provide him with any further insight. Andrew Bridgen, a British Conservative member, stated in an interview on BBC Radio Ulster that he believed that as an English person he had the right to an Irish passport. David Davis, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, seemed to ignore the fact that the Republic of Ireland was not part of the UK by referring to the border as “internal”.

Michel Barnier, the chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, has said that although he is convinced that a deal with the UK is necessary and is 90% agreed, problems over the border could lead to the failure of the Brexit talks. At a high level, Britain, Ireland and the EU all agree that a hard border should be avoided, however, there has been discord on how to actually achieve this goal.

The UK’s approach was to contemplate the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and to focus on technical solutions, such as IT systems to track goods and calculate tariffs, or electronic customs declarations, that could be employed so that the post-Brexit border would remain as frictionless as possible. Whether this infrastructure is even feasible remains to be seen, however, Ireland and the EU did not want merely a promised hodgepodge of technical fixes but rather an overarching holistic solution to the border issue with clear commitments from the UK at the withdrawal stage. Although there is now agreement that there should be a legally binding backstop arrangement (which would ensure that an open border is maintained until a new trade deal between the UK and the EU is negotiated), there is still no accord on the actual terms of this backstop.

With Brexit scheduled for the 29th of March and the political wrangling ongoing, the UK has the option to seek an extension of the post-Brexit transition period, which would allow further discussions on the border issue. This would leave Northern Ireland at centre stage and the status of the border uncertain for an even longer period.

But as MEP Hayes pointed out in his discussion with the Chancellor, the issue of whether there is a hard border or a soft border, or if it can be resolved by technical solutions, is really beside the point. The issue is not one of trade, but rather one of emotion, and Brexit has opened up a Pandora’s box of nationalist sentiment.  

There has been concern, and some might say scaremongering, that the renewed visibility of the border may also give rise to renewed violence. Ireland’s current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, drew the attention of fellow EU leaders at the recent EU Summit in Brussels to an IRA bomb attack at a Newry customs post during the height of the Troubles, warning that violence was a real risk should a hard border become a reality.

Whether these fears are legitimate is up for debate. In response to the Taoiseach’s comments, Gregory Campbell, MP with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), maintained that there was no evidence of increased violence, however, Senator Neale Richmond, Fine Gael Brexit spokesman, stated that the Taoiseach was following expert opinions from, among others, the Chief Constable of the PSNI and the Deputy Commissioner of An Garda Síochána.

The Taoiseach was heavily criticised for his reference to this historic incident of violence at the border, with Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, calling it the “the bottom of a very deep barrel of threats, deception and rhetoric” and warning that such comments stir up “false fears”.

There have also been accusations that fears  of a return to violence have been used as a threat rather than a warning, and more as a political chess piece to obtain the best deal possible in the Brexit negotiation process.  Where the Taoiseach was accused of stirring up fears to further Ireland’s agenda in Brexit negotiations, Mr Wilson warned of the potential of the Taoiseach’s remarks to further the Republican agenda.

The Pandora’s box mentioned by MEP Hayes has certainly been re-opened, and people’s feelings of national identity, although important, should not be used as a tool to further a political agenda.

Whether the course of Brexit would have been different had these implications been considered at an earlier stage or not, it is hard to imagine the fate of Northern Ireland taking much precedence in the heated rhetoric of the 2016 referendum. What started as a dispute essentially over regulatory divergence seems to now be deeply entrenched in issues of identity and belonging.

Given that the Agreement left the option for further referenda on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland should there be evidence of sufficient public appetite, the impact of any further rhetoric regarding the border should be carefully considered.  With the Brexit and backstop negotiations ongoing, perhaps it would be wise for those involved to take an approach that recognises the complexities and historical context surrounding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic rather than merely seeing it as the final obstacle or a bargaining chip.

Silke Shanley is from the Republic of  Ireland, born in the United Kingdom. She is currently an M.A. candidate in Political Strategy and Communications at the Brussels School of International Studies.

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