On the night of April 18th 2019, 29-year-old journalist Laura McKee was shot dead in Derry, Northern Ireland. McKee was an award-winning journalist known for her reports on a young generation of Northern Irish people, the so-called “Ceasefire babies”, who’ve grown up in the shadows of the almost 30-year-long civil war. In 2016, she was named one of the ”30 under 30 most influential people in media in Europe” by Forbes Magazine. McKee was shot when reporting on riots breaking out in the Creggan district of Derry and died in the hospital later that evening.
The border town Derry, also known as Londonderry, is a place of symbolic significance to modern history in Northern Ireland. In 1972, British military troops opened fire against Catholic civil rights protesters in what came to be known as the Bloody Sunday. The incident has been described as the starting point for the civil war on Northern Ireland commonly known as ”the Troubles”. With British military troops on one side and pro-Irish paramilitaries on the other, the conflict would come to kill over 3,500 people and injure tens of thousands until peace finally was achieved through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
But recent political turbulence in Northern Ireland indicates that the conflict isn’t dead. In January 2019, a car bomb went off outside a courthouse in central Derry. Over the last year, sporadic rioting has taken place around the city. Laura McKee arrived in Creggan on April 18th to report on such a riot. She was hit by gunfire when standing too close to a police vehicle. The police claimed that the New IRA (Irish Republican Army) was most likely responsible for the death of McKee. The New IRA later admitted responsibility for the killing, just as they did for the car bomb in January.
Politico’s correspondent Naomi O’Leary has described Northern Ireland today as a society marked by political deadlock, divided communities and lack of opportunity. She claims that ”the Brexit process has led to increased intercommunity tensions and uncertainty about future arrangements at the border with the Republic of Ireland”.
She’s supported in her view by a survey from Queen’s University Belfast, suggesting that the results from the Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland was split along ethno-religious lines. A majority of Northern Irish citizens rejected the idea of Brexit. However, while 85 % of Catholic and 90 % of nationalist (Irish-identifying) voters wanted to remain in the EU, 60 % of Protestant and as much as two-third of unionist (British-identifying) voters wanted to leave.
With the unionist party DUP backing the Tories in the British Parliament, the absence of any effective power-sharing government in the Stormont (Northern Ireland’s regional parliament in Belfast), and top British politicians considering altering the Good Friday Peace Agreement, O’Leary suggests that Brexit could serve as an “accelerant for violence” in Northern Ireland.
UK’s membership to the EU was a central component of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The agreement serves both as a regional multi-party commitment between most Northern Irish political parties and as a bilateral agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Under the terms of the agreement, Northern Irish citizens have a right to choose between British, Irish or dual citizenship, and are guaranteed equal rights regardless of perceived nationality. About 20 % of the Northern Irish population have chosen Irish citizenship only.
However, this guarantee is in large extent upheld by EU Law. Because British and Irish citizens are also regarded as EU citizens, that means they fall under the same EU regulations concerning for instance health care and education. It also means they’re covered by special rules created by the EU to enable cross-border application of said rights.
In a comment to Politico Daniel Holder, deputy director of a Northern Irish human rights group called the Committee on the Administration of Justice, exemplifies what Brexit might mean to Irish citizens from Northern Ireland by pointing to education fees. Today, Irish citizens from Northern Ireland pay as much as British citizens (a so called “home rate”) to attend university in Northern Ireland.
Post-Brexit, however, it is unclear whether they’d be allowed to pay the British home rate or the more expensive rate for EU citizens. While forcing Irish citizens from Northern Ireland to pay more for the same education as British citizens would be discriminatory in regard to the Good Friday Agreement, allowing Irish citizens to pay less than EU citizens from the rest of the EU could be discriminatory in regard to EU law.
If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, the legal situation thus becomes very unclear for the part of Northern Irish population who are Irish citizens only. Will they still have the same citizen’s rights as the rest of the population in Northern Ireland, or will they fall under whatever rules may apply to EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit?
On the other hand, will Irish citizens in post-Brexit Northern Ireland retain more of their EU-based rights than their British countrymen and women, such as the right to live and work freely throughout the EU? And will they still have a right to vote in the elections to the European Parliament?
In light of the Brexit debate, the Irish citizens of Northern Ireland have found themselves in a legal vacuum. If Brexit means Brexit and results in a clear separation of UK and EU law, it is unclear whether the Irish population in Northern Ireland would be considered British or EU citizens first.
According to Naomi O’Leary, there’s also concerns about the UK Government’s alleged ambitions to ”throw off the jurisdiction of European Courts, which have been a last recourse to justice for people in Northern Ireland in the past”. By this, she presumably means both the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It should be noted that Britain leaving the EU only excludes the country from the ECJ, as the UK will still be party to the European Convention of Human Rights and will therefore have to accept the continued jurisdiction of the ECtHR.
Peace in Northern Ireland has not yet lasted as long as the civil war did. Despite the ambitious Good Friday Agreement, Northern Irish society remains deeply divided between Catholics and Protestants and Republicans and Unionists. Brexit seems to have awoken a resting conflict, and Northern Ireland is once again torn between its British and Irish loyalties. The younger generation of Northern Irish citizens, who Laura McKee made it her life’s work to portray, will probably to some extent have their future decided by the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations.