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Wed 12 August 2020
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Northern Ireland has been marginalised and maligned throughout the Brexit process and will soon see the consequences, argues Mike Buckley

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Every government has a responsibility to seek the best outcomes for its population. In the context of Brexit, which will only damage the country’s economy and compound the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, this seems far from the UK experience.

“A Brexit hit is looming”, according to the LSE, for sectors that have emerged relatively unscathed from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not the act of a normal government. 

But, amid the coming chaos, it is Northern Ireland that has been most let down by the Government.

Its needs have been disregarded by Prime Ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Both have viewed it as an annoying side issue on the way to the perfect Brexit, instead of a priority that should be treated carefully due to its troubled history and precarious peace process. 

Johnson will come to rue his policy over Northern Ireland. His chosen form of Brexit will lead to increased difficulties in three main areas: the peace process, human rights, and the economy. In each, Northern Ireland has seen progress since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – which has ushered in an era of relative peace and stability since it was signed in 1998 – but this progress is tentative at best and vulnerable to new shocks in ways that the rest of the UK is not. 

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THE BREXIT THREAT

A widespread view in England is that Northern Ireland’s Troubles – the ethno-nationalist conflict ostensibly between Protestants and Catholics – ended in 1998.

Life has been transformed for the better there, but violence has never been completely absent. Paramilitaries remain active, albeit largely engaged in violence within their own communities, including punishment beatings, rather than violence targeted at political opponents. 

But this relative peace exists because there is optimism. People’s material circumstances are improving, while the identity issues that underpinned the conflict have been somewhat calmed by the Good Friday Agreement. The tragedy of Brexit is that it imperils both of these sources of optimism. 

The peace process did not begin or end with the Agreement – it is a work in progress that is being destabilised by Brexit.

A crowning achievement of the Agreement was that it took identity out of the equation. The economic and legal rights of everyone present in Northern Ireland were guaranteed whether they were Irish, British or both. Citizens could choose to be Irish or British with no consequences for their rights to reside, marry, seek employment or education.  

Brexit reintroduces the question of identity and citizenship, creating significant differences between Irish and British citizens while imperilling the Good Friday Agreement itself, much of which rests on EU law.

In one sense, British people in Northern Ireland will get a better outcome than anyone else in the UK. They will be able to retain EU citizenship in parallel with British citizenship, but they will become second-class EU citizens, retaining free movement but lacking representation in the EU Parliament.

Meanwhile, Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland, who may have lived all their lives in the country but for whatever reason have not chosen to become British citizens, will find that their rights are precarious. The Common Travel Area – the open border agreement between the UK and Ireland – does not provide individual rights in the same way as EU membership. The status of frontier workers, for example, who live on one side of the border and work on the other, is undefined. 

In theory, no one loses any rights until the end of this year, but Government services are increasingly turning away non-UK nationals, often profiling people based on skin colour. Irregular border checks have been increasing since 2016, adding further tensions. 

Brexit is likely to bring economic calamity to the whole of the UK, but here too Northern Ireland is a unique case. Whereas Prime Minister May’s solution was to keep the whole of the UK in some form of customs union, preventing a hard border, Johnson chose to carve Northern Ireland off from Great Britain.

On paper, Northern Ireland remains in the UK’s customs territory, but in reality it will be a regulatory colony of the EU. The border will now be in the Irish Sea and all goods traffic will be subject to customs checks. The associated costs – up to £6,000 per container – will be borne by businesses transporting goods, thousands of which go back and forth every day. 

These costs will be passed on to Northern Ireland consumers, who already have the lowest wages of any region in the UK, the highest indebtedness and the lowest discretionary income per household. This fragile region will, in the middle of the Coronavirus recession, be faced with another economic hit – this time inflicted not by a pandemic but by its own Government. 


AN UNSUSTAINABLE UNION?

People in Northern Ireland are understandably angry about how they have been treated.

The Northern Ireland economy may be only 1% of UK GDP but, if the UK Government derails it as part of Johnson’s Brexit fantasy, its 1.8 million inhabitants will be the ones to suffer. 

The question must be asked whether this is a sustainable end game for Northern Ireland. Is it feasible for the country to be stuck between full-Brexit Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the EU, with many of its citizens carrying dual British and Irish – and hence EU – citizenship, while its representation in Westminster remains limited and its influence in Brussels non-existent? 

The tensions that Brexit adds to the peace process, the outcome of which is not taken for granted by anyone in Northern Ireland, are not insignificant. The return of Stormont provides some political outlet, but its powers are limited and its ability to influence Westminster negligible since the DUP lost its casting vote. 

For now, Northern Ireland has no choice but to accept its lot and do its best with the opportunities and challenges it faces. But, just as Johnson has belatedly woken up to the increasing likelihood of Scottish independence, he may soon have to face calls for change from Northern Ireland. His response could determine its future. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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