Rioting in Londonderry/Derry in April 1971. Photo: Flickr
Arguably the most complicated part about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is its border towards Ireland. During the transition period throughout 2020, goods and people can still travel freely to the UK from the EU, and from the UK to the EU. The UK is in all aspects, except officially, still part of the EU, and must comply with its laws and regulations. This will probably change as 2020 turns into 2021. If the negotiation between the EU and the UK fails to broker a deal, or the deal that is brokered is a restrictive one, the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland (and hence the EU) might become a hard one. Such an eventuality would be complex and damaging for trade, but potentially also outright catastrophic for the only part of the UK that share a land border with the EU, namely Northern Ireland.
The existence of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was a large contributing factor to the decades-long conflict that killed 3500 people, commonly known as the Troubles. Stemming from centuries old tensions, the conflict erupted in 1969 and did not end until 1998, when the peace deal called the Good Friday Agreement (or “Belfast Agreement”) was signed by the fighting parties. Bringing an end to the violence. At the core of the Troubles was an ethnic and religious conflict between the Catholic nationalists and the Protestant loyalists/unionists, where nationalist are pro-Irish unification and the loyalist/unionists being pro-British (United Kingdom). Nationalists saw themselves as being oppressed by the unionist majority and locked out of the labour- and housing markets while unionists saw any civil protest by nationalists as a front for an eventual unification with Ireland.
The conflict turned Northern Ireland into a low intensity war zone and the protestant and catholic communities became severely segregated, which they still are until this day. This segregation also shows when examining the map of which areas voted for Brexit. The areas that voted to remain within the EU are all Catholic/nationalist majority areas whereas the leave-areas are populated by a protestant/unionist majority.
Despite its history and deep running divisions, Northern Ireland has been relatively peaceful since the ceasefire thanks to the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday agreement removed security barriers and checkpoints between Ireland and Northern Ireland, effectively eliminating the border between the UK and Ireland. The agreement also stipulates that Northern Irish citizens have the right to Irish, British or dual citizenship, thus alleviating the question of nationality by letting nationalist be Irish and unionists be British, while they live in the same geographical area.
If the UK decides to leave the EU single market and restricts the flow of goods and people, some kind of border will need to be put in place between the EU (Ireland) and the UK. Exactly where this border should be placed in Northern Ireland, was one of the main sticking points that made Brexit such a gruelling process. (On the one hand, placing the hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would not be in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, and would not be well received within the Catholic/nationalist community. On the other hand, a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would not be well received within the Protestant/unionist community as it could be seen as undermining the Northern Irish status as part of the UK.) The border-question was also one of the reasons why Theresa May’s deal fell through and she ultimately resigned, as well as the reason why Boris Johnson sought a new election after failing to get his deal through parliament too.
Protest sign on the Northern Irish border. Photo: by Jamie Casap
A compromise was struck in the Brexit negotiations to avoid a return of communal conflict in Northern Ireland. In the case that no deal has been negotiated between the EU and the UK at the end of the transition period, some sort of customs check will be set up, not at the border towards Ireland but in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, effectively creating an external border within the UK. Unsurprisingly this does not sit well with unionists who see this deal as a sign of the UK leaving Northern Ireland behind to be subsumed with Ireland and the EU. In fact, it was largely because of unionist opposition that a Brexit-deal took so long to conclude. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a Northern Irish unionist party, did not support either of Theresa May or Boris Johnson’s deals, andmanaged to stop them from going through as they held a pivotal position in parliament. The deal only passed after Boris Johnson’s Conservative party gained enough seats following the December election to carry the Brexit deal without the support of the DUP, leaving unionists feeling betrayed.
The provisions in the Good Friday Agreement are safeguarded by this Brexit-deal, and a border towards Ireland no longer poses a risk of once again lighting the spark of communal conflict in Northern Ireland. However, it’s far from certain that a potential border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain doesn’t pose a threat of violence. In the same way nationalist won’t accept any move that would undermine Northern Ireland’s close connection to Ireland, unionists react with anger towards provisions that undermine Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. When the Belfast City Council in 2012 voted to limit the amount of days the Union Jack (the flag of the UK) could be flown over Belfast City Hall, loyalists came out in protests that quickly turned violent, leaving 56 police injured and 560 people arrested. This event has become known as the 2013 Belfast Riots. It’s hard to say what a border between Northern Ireland and the UK might lead to in terms of violent reactions, but it seems clear from the 2013 Belfast Riots that loyalists still see violence as a valid option. However, the fact remains that if the UK is to fulfil its promise of regulatory and trade autonomy from the EU, which the current administration seems dead set on, there has to be some sort of border between the EU and the UK somewhere. A great task hence lies before the negotiators from the EU and the UK, in concluding how the parties can maintain good trading relations, whilst safeguarding British autonomy as well as the stability in Northern Ireland.