The UK and Ireland’s Brexit Divide Deepens
Emma DeSouza reports on the implications for remain-voting Northern Ireland and the Union of Ireland’s positive relationship with the EU, amid ongoing complications over the Protocol
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As the United Kingdom and Ireland continue to tread along their respective courses, the significant divergences between the two neighbouring nations’ paths only become starker, with few more sharply delineated than the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
Brexit has not only had profound implications for the nuanced relationships formed between the two countries, but for the future of the EU as a whole. While Ireland leans further into its European identity, the UK becomes increasingly isolationist. How might these divergences impact the future of Northern Ireland?
2022 has seen Ireland significantly increase its presence and profile on the global stage, establishing itself as an integral member of the EU and securing a raft of influential positions.
Irish diplomat David O’Sullivan was selected to head up enforcement of the EU’s Russia sanctions. Irish Minister and Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan was appointed as the EU’s lead on climate talks. Irish trade unionist Esther Lynch was elected as the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. Irish judge Síofra O’Leary has been elected president of the European Court of Human Rights.
For a small country with a population of five million, Ireland has considerable stature – a position that has only grown since the Brexit vote.
Meanwhile, having gone through three prime ministers, four chancellors, two foreign secretaries and countless other political appointments in the space of 12 months, the UK has been plunged into recession. Forecasts predicted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that the UK economy will contract by more than any other nation in the G7 group next year.
Public support for Brexit is at an all-time low, with one in five Brexiters now saying they think it was wrong to vote to leave the EU – and that’s before the full impact of the UK’s decision takes hold. The recent poll by YouGov revealed only 32% of people believe it was right to leave the EU.
Despite this, the UK Government continues to seek further divergence from the EU and risks a trade war with the bloc over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the UK legislation which would seek to unilaterally override parts of the UK-EU Agreement.
While this year’s third Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has placed the controversial bill on ‘ice’ in the hopes of a negotiated solution, tabling legislation to depart from an international agreement has already had an impact.
As a result of the UK Government’s actions, the EU held back on granting UK access to the Horizon funding scheme, which is vital to the research capabilities of UK universities. Meanwhile Irish researchers are leading on several large-scale projects funded by Horizon, including efforts to create an EU data marketplace and the largest European Union farm-safety project ever funded.
Ireland has seized upon the opportunities availed by maintaining full membership within the EU and, since Brexit, have increased direct trade links and broadened international cooperation, including a new electricity interconnector agreement with France.
Against the backdrop of these political and economic divergences dangles the future of Northern Ireland. Having voted to remain in 2016, the region has been thrown into political flux with the prospect of a vote on Irish unity now firmly on the political agenda.
There are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns in development, with the establishment of pro-unity groups such as Ireland’s Future, and a newly formed pro-union group titled Together UK led by former First Minister Arlene Foster.
In October, members from ten political parties, including four party leaders, spoke at an Ireland’s Future conference in Dublin attended by 5,000 people. Academic research is taking place in universities across the island, and debates, opinions pieces, and polls are an almost daily occurrence in mainstream media.
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The tide has most definitely shifted and unquestionably the fact that a united Ireland would mean re-joining the EU will be a big pull factor. Polling in the Irish Times shows that 54% of people in Northern Ireland favour EU membership, with 37% of all voters in Northern Ireland saying the prospect would make them more likely to support Irish unity. Shifts are also present in identity, with an 8% decline in those describing themselves as British in the 2021 Census versus 2011.
Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher has said that he “firmly believes that there will be a very warm place in the European Union for the new Island” and Fine Gael MEP Maria Walsh has remarked that “one of the saddest days in democracy was when the UK left”, adding that “when you look at the generation that wanted to remain, ultimately it’s going in one direction”.
When faced with the option of either remaining in a shrinking UK and being subsumed from the inside by fervent English nationalism or joining an increasingly progressive and influential Ireland rife with opportunities and access to full European membership, voters in Northern Ireland may not have a difficult a decision to make.
The same can be said for Scotland, as polling for independence reaches its highest level to date, with 56% in favour following the Supreme Court ruling that Scotland will require Westminster’s permission to hold a referendum. Polling is consistent following the ruling, which will surprise few. Even Wales, which voted to leave the EU in 2016, has a growing independence movement.
Should the Labour party find itself vying for support from another party to form the UK’s next government –for example, the SNP – one can be certain of the cost that partnership could have.
We are hurtling toward seismic referendums across these islands over the next decade, leaving few options for those of us along for the ride but to brace for the turbulent reality of Brexit Britain.