On Thursday, June 23, British citizens voted to leave the European Union (EU). The impacts of the decision were immediately felt by global markets and led to political uncertainty on the continent. On Friday morning, the British pound fell to a 30-year low, the Canadian dollar a six-year low. Concerns about the future of the EU and possible dissolution of the United Kingdom (UK) have also been prominent in political analysis of the “Brexit.”
While it is too early to fully grasp and foresee the impacts of this vote on international and national politics, some concerns, such as the political stability of the UK and particularly the peace process in Northern Ireland, do require immediate attention.
Northern Ireland has been at peace since the signing of the 1998 Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement. This agreement was seen as an important victory after some 30 years of low-intensity, seemingly intractable, conflict between predominantly Catholic, nationalist/republican and predominantly Protestant, unionist/loyalist communities. While the conflict had many dimensions, it focused on governance. The nationalist/republican community wanted reunification with the Republic of Ireland, while the unionist/loyalist community wanted to remain part of the UK.
As a result of the 1998 Agreement, a power-sharing arrangement was put in place. While Northern Ireland is a “devolved” region of the UK like Scotland and Wales, the Agreement allows for a referendum, should the majority wish it, on joining Ireland. The Agreement also recognizes the importance of British and Irish identities. Practically, this means that people born in Northern Ireland have a right to both British and Irish citizenship.
Arguably, the success of the peace process has rested on the support of British and Irish governments and their common EU ties. The EU has often been described as a peace project. Herman Van Rompuy, first president of the European Council, stated that the EU is the “biggest peacemaking institution ever created in human history.” While some would suggest a more nuanced understanding of its success, the EU has certainly played an important part in supporting peacebuilding activities around the world.
The EU has been a crucial partner in the peace process in Northern Ireland; since 1995, it has contributed €1.3-billion to peacebuilding activities there. Much of the EU funding has been used to support community initiatives and nongovernmental organizations working in some of the most divided communities. Many of the individuals working for these organizations are ex-combatants, former members of paramilitary organizations. In this way, potential spoilers have become integral to the peace process.
The effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland’s peace process were not prominent in discussions prior to the referendum or press coverage after the vote. But those familiar with Northern Irish politics have expressed concern and are urging that more attention be paid to Northern Ireland. In one commentary in The Guardian, the writer notes that “English nationalists have planted a bomb under the settlement that brought peace to Northern Ireland and close cordiality to relations between Britain and Ireland.”
Approximately 56% of people—11 of 18 constituencies—in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Sinn Fein (SF), one of the key parties representing the nationalist/republican community, not surprisingly supported the decision to remain in the EU. It was even less surprising that, following the Brexit results, SF called for a referendum on a united Ireland. Again, predictably, the leading unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which had campaigned for Brexit, suggested that the criteria for holding the referendum had not been met. Still, the SF leadership has looked to the Irish government for special arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Division between the two main political blocs in Northern Ireland is expected. The British and Irish governments will need to work with each other and the parties in Northern Ireland to maintain the political stability that was so hard to achieve. The role the EU will choose to play remains to be seen.
The soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, courtesy of the peace process and EU membership, has been key to nationalist/republican perceptions of the future of Northern Ireland. The absence of checks and passport requirements between the two allowed ease of mobility and softening of political positions. Remaining a part of the UK was more acceptable when it did not seem to affect the ability to travel anywhere on the Irish island.
The new border controls that Brexit supporters voted for will effect perceptions of both physical and mental barriers—and nowhere as much as in Northern Ireland. Ignoring this reality will only lead to more uncertainty in a place where unresolved conflict simmers just below the surface.