The Brexit threat to Ireland

(Based on an article in The Economist)

It is twenty years since the Good Friday Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998. Ireland has come a long way since Northern Ireland’s long war ended.

Now with the UK and Eire both EU members there is no visible border; there are no barriers; there are no passport checks. In fact there appear to be no signs.

The noticeable change as you leave the UK is that speed limits are in kms not mph and the change of flag from the union jack to the irish flag.

The deal between the governments of Britain and Ireland, in conjunction with the main Northern Irish parties and the paramilitaries some of them spoke for, spun a delicate web of compromises between the province’s Protestants, most of whom want to remain in the United Kingdom, and its Catholics, who more often identify with the Republic of Ireland.

The “Troubles” of the previous 30 years—the most recent spasm in a conflict dating back to Britain’s planting of Protestant settlers in the 17th century—caused the deaths of more than 3,500 people, mostly civilians.

Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, later described signing the deal as “one of the few times in the job I can honestly say I felt contented, fulfilled and proud.”

But now their is bickering. The mood is sour. Newspaper stories are provocative in a population that is basically split 50/50.

In Belfast the Stormont assembly has lain empty for over a year.

What happens when Britain leaves the European Union next year. Questions that the Good Friday Agreement had carefully put aside—on borders, identity and to whom Northern Ireland really belongs—are dangerously back in play.

Under the agreement Ireland gave up its claim on the north and Britain agreed to a mechanism by which Northern Ireland could secede via a future referendum.

The Northern Irish gained the right to citizenship of the United Kingdom, Ireland, or both. International bodies were set up to give the two countries shared oversight of how the place was run. A devolved government was established at Stormont, one in which nationalists and unionists would share power.

Security has been transformed. In 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles, 498 people were killed in sectarian violence. As recently as the early 1990s the annual death toll was around 100. Now it is in the low single digits. Northern Ireland’s murder rate is equal to the British average, its overall crime rate slightly lower. Gone is the barbed wire and the barricades. Belfast feels like a normal European city.

Yet not all the past is so deeply buried. Paramilitary gangs on both sides of the sectarian divide are active in organised crime.

Such organisations live on because Northern Irish society is still divided. Physical walls, known as peace lines, still separate some working-class Catholic and Protestant areas. Indeed, more have been built since 1998, because they are popular. Residents will argue that they are there as protection from extremists not the majority.

Surveys show that three-quarters of people would like to live in integrated neighbourhoods, and two-thirds would send their children to mixed schools.

A handful of mixed social-housing developments have been started, but they may not be easy places to live. Basically there remain predominantly protestant and catholic areas with their own social structures; their own schools etc.

In other areas there has been progress. Integration has deepened in the workplace, helped by laws compelling big firms to publish the religious breakdown of their staff. Catholics hold nearly half the jobs in both the public and private sectors, in line with their share of the population. Catholics hold high-profile public offices, including those of attorney-general and Lord Chief Justice. Their share of police officers has risen from one in ten at the turn of the century to one in three, after a temporary affirmative-action programme.

National and religious identities are blurring, particularly among the young. Surveys find that about a third of the population considers itself British, a slightly smaller share says Irish, and around the same reports itself to be neither, but rather Northern Irish.

But local politics is increasingly muddy. In 1998 the main forces in Northern Irish politics were the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which represented the moderate forms of unionism and nationalism, respectively.

Those two parties have since been swept aside by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA and the only party that stands at elections both in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In January last year Sinn Fein walked out or government; without its participation, the institutions cannot function. Fourteen months without a government have brought legislation to a standstill.

Last year the UK’s conservative party concluded a support agreement with the DUP, which agreed to support Theresa May’s minority government in Westminster on important votes in return for £1bn ($1.4bn) of extra money for Northern Ireland.

To get Stormont back up and running, Ireland has called for a meeting of the agreement’s British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference—which could be chaired either by Ireland’s foreign minister and Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, or by Mrs May and Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach.

Britain has not taken up the offer perhaps because the government’s hands are tied by the DUP deal.

What is more, Mrs May and Mr Varadkar have another matter on their minds: Brexit. In 1998 Britain and Ireland were, in the words of the Good Friday Agreement, “partners in the European Union”. On March 29th 2019 it is likely that this will cease to be the case. In 2016 the High Court in Belfast ruled that Brexit would not formally invalidate the agreement, as some had argued. But it will complicate the relationship hugely.

Britain and Ireland have identified 142 areas of cross-border co-operation. Combined cancer services, a single wholesale power market and police intelligence-sharing give an idea of the range. Officials reckon most of this can more or less continue, though it will involve mountains of work—but regret that future initiatives will be harder to get started.

Northern Ireland has received a lot of EU money, via initiatives such as Peace IV, worth €270m ($335m) in 2014-20. The signs of EU supported projects are everywhere.

Unlike funding from Britain (tainted in the eyes of some Catholics) or America (long involved in the peace process, but seen as leaning towards the nationalists by some Protestants), EU grants are viewed as neutral. The EU has indicated that some funding can continue after Brexit; it is unclear how this can happen.

The biggest problem concerns the border, around which Mrs May has drawn three negotiating “red lines” that seem to run into each other. She insists that Britain will leave the EU’s customs union and single market. Yet she also promises there will be no new customs checks or physical infrastructure at the Irish border, or any between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The government argues that trusted-trader schemes, waivers for small firms and unspecified technology could let customs checks be carried out invisibly. So far the EU is not convinced. Some member states are unwilling to turn a blind eye even to trade by small businesses. And no one, including the Northern Ireland committee of Britain’s Parliament, has yet identified technology that could enforce customs controls without any infrastructure.

The opposition Labour Party backs membership of a customs union, as do a handful of Tory rebels. Mrs May said in February that she was open to a customs “arrangement”, which could amount to something very similar. Yet Jacob Rees-Mogg, who speaks for an influential caucus of Eurosceptic Tories, has said that the right to set tariffs, possible only outside a customs union, is “non-negotiable”. And it is not clear that membership of a customs union alone would be enough to maintain the invisible border, anyway. If Britain leaves the single market and diverges from EU regulatory standards, goods crossing the border would need to be checked.

Unfortunately no one was thinking through this at the time of the Brexit vote. At any other point between the EU and the UK there will likely be a new hard border. People and goods moving from mainland Europe to Ireland and into the UK via Northern Ireland will presumably have to be subject to those border controls and tariffs.

Back in the troubles Bessbrook, near Newry, was home to the busiest heliport in Europe, operated by the British army. The local roads were so dangerous that it had to fly men and supplies around the 18 nearby watchtowers.

One of the most tangible wins for everyone in the 1998 agreement was the removal or the border. No one wants people in uniforms with arms and dogs.

Brexit has re-ignited a mood of Irish nationalism and unionist mistrust of the British government. And an solution will not please everyone.

A few days after the Brexit vote Sinn Fein demanded a unification referendum a few days after the Brexit vote.

Could it happen? Northern Ireland’s Catholics will soon outnumber its Protestants. A poll in 2015 found that 30% of Northern Irish would be in favour—and when respondents were told that it would mean higher taxes (a near certainty, as Ireland could not afford the £10bn of subsidies that Britain shovels to Northern Ireland each year), the figure dropped to 11%. Support in Ireland dropped from 66% to 31% when the financial implications were pointed out.

It is unknown how much Brexit will move those figures. But at a time when populist nationalism is on the rise around the world, matters of culture and identity can sometimes count for more than economic self-interest.

With a crystal ball – Ireland will unify. The questions are when and how do we get there peacefully?

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