The Fate of Northern Ireland Following Brexit
On Wednesday, Oct. 17, the 27 leaders of the European Union convened in the European Council in Brussels, Belgium to discuss Brexit. In June 2016, Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving the EU. More than two years later, negotiations are still underway to find a Brexit deal that both the British government and EU leaders can agree on.
Britain is expected to leave the EU in March 2019, but British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be stalling, reportedly frustrating her European counterparts.
A crucial question that has May “appealing for time” is that of the Irish border. How the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and Ireland, which is part of the EU, should be managed following Brexit is a contentious issue. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, says it “could prevent a Brexit deal from being reached.” Considering Northern Ireland and Ireland’s tumultuous past, it is of utmost importance that any agreement reached does not exacerbate tensions.
Questions of identity and politics in Northern Ireland are delicate, even more so now that a border with the EU is put into the equation. Northern Ireland went through a 30-year-long period of political and sectarian violence and conflict between its Catholic and Protestant communities, and the division between these two groups still resonates today. The conflict was brought to an end by a 1998 peace agreement, which gave people the “freedom to identify as Irish, British, or both” and helped “dismantle Northern Ireland’s once heavily-policed and militarized border with Ireland,” according to The New York Times.
Since Brexit, there has been mounting worry about the Irish border. Many are predicting a return to the past; a “hard border” would mean greater control and policing, and increased checks on goods crossing the border could affect trade.
According to Barnier, preventing a hard border is an essential “condition for peace and stability for this island following many tragedies.” The complexity and tensions surrounding the Irish border have led May and EU leaders to come up with the “Northern Irish backstop,” a plan that would prevent the possibility of a hard border even if Britain leaves the EU before a complete deal is made.
There have been propositions by EU leaders for an open border, which would allow Northern Ireland to continue to trade as a member of Europe’s customs union. May also suggested that the whole of the United Kingdom should stay within the customs union for a certain period of time.
However, these propositions have been criticized and negotiations are still in the works to find a deal that Britain, the EU, and Ireland can approve of. In the meantime, Irish identity and peace along the Irish border hang in the balance.