Competing Brexit demonstrations last week outside Parliament. Photo Credit: Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By: Krystel Von Kumberg, Columnist
In June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union: 51.9% to 48.1%. [i] The key issue with the referendum is that the United Kingdom has historically been ruled by Parliament, not through direct democracy. The lack of precedent, coupled with the sheer complexity of extricating a country from an institution as complex as the European Union, meant that then Prime Minister David Cameron underestimated the event he triggered. The novelty of this process also meant that checks on erroneous media claims were never implemented, allowing the Leave Campaign to peddle fatuous nonsense. This lack of informed, sober reporting prevented a real discussion about the security concerns that would ensue post-Brexit. Specifically, it ignored the potentially catastrophic consequences for Ireland. This is significant because Brexit negotiations have shaken the foundations of the Irish Peace Process. The British government had deployed a force of 32,000 for 25 years in Northern Ireland to protect the population, highlighting the extent of time and effort that was needed to prolong the peace. [ii] Given the uncertainty over Brexit and the potential of violence to return to Ireland, even this number of security personnel might not be enough.
In 1921, Ireland was divided, with the Republic of Ireland gaining independence from the UK. The predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland, meanwhile, remained part of the UK. This partition did not resolve everything, as the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is still contested by the Unionist and Protestant communities, which desire to remain part of the UK, and the more nationalistic and Catholic side, which seeks unification with the Republic of Ireland. [iii] Brexit reopens the question of sovereignty and citizenship, meaning that the violent political turmoil that plagued the island for decades could recrudesce. As a result, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that, through civil rights, policing and justice helped establish a durable peace in Ireland, might fall apart. This is especially true if the UK leaves the common market, as that would mean the return of inflammatory customs posts and checkpoints at the intra-Irish border.
Brexit represents a journey to the past and a desire to reconstruct a lost identity based around the UK’s former great power status. This romantic yearning for the past has, unfortunately, caused more practical issues to be neglected. For example, a staggering 83% of Leave voters and 80% of Conservative Party members have said that the Brexit process is worth undergoing even if it leads to the unraveling of the Irish peace process. [iv]
The government has issued reassurances that it has no intention of returning to the hard border of the past, but it has provided no real alternative. A hard Brexit, no-deal Brexit, and even a softer Brexit could still light the fuse that triggers the reemergence of conflict. There will, nonetheless, have to be some type of land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit. This ambiguity over the future of the intra-Irish border and London’s confused rhetoric has created fertile ground for Peter Robinson, the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to reopen an old wound by publicly demanding a united Ireland. [v] The DUP, a Protestant unionist party, has held significant sway over British Prime Minister Theresa May, as it has agreed to support her minority Conservative government on a case-by-case basis. The DUP has recently rejected the Prime Minister’s border proposals, but it does not represent all the people of Northern Ireland. The largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, and the DUP tried collaborating and sent a letter to the Prime Minister highlighting the impact Brexit would have on Northern Ireland. However, this collaboration soon collapsed due to domestic political controversy and the increasingly polarization over Brexit.
Prime Minister May has been ensnared by three incompatible goals: “an exit from the EU single market and customs union, no hard border with Ireland, and an all-UK approach to Brexit.” [vi] May has been battling over a divorce deal with the EU that can satisfy Brussels, her own party, and the DUP, whose 10 votes she will likely need to get the agreement through the House of Commons. It has become increasingly clear that no political solution to this trilemma exist. The so-called backstop compromise of drawing-up a customs border in the Irish Sea and maintaining regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU is one proposed solution, but it would not be an all-UK approach. Moreover, Scottish nationalists have argued that if special arrangements are made for Northern Ireland’s Remain majority, Scotland, which voted primarily to remain, should be offered a special deal as well. [vii] The backstop as described could also simply end up halting Brexit altogether, as the E.U. has announced that no agreement with the British can be finalized until there is a clear guarantee that there will be no hard border.
The level of brinksmanship continues to rise, as Irish diplomats, in an attempt to enhance their leverage, have said that Brexit may trigger an “Irexit”. The fact that there “are more peace walls now than in 1998, with the International Fund for Ireland reporting nearly 70% of Troubles-related murders” taking place near these murals, highlights how likely it is that a bloody conflict will ensue post-Brexit. [viii] With the strong possibility of more conflict yet to come, a recent survey reveals that 69% of people in Northern Ireland are now supporting Remain. [ix] We might, therefore, soon witness an Irish version of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. [x]
The question remains: Will the Irish border issue derail Brexit or exacerbate its consequences? The EU will not consent to a reciprocal arrangement that allows Northern Ireland to serve as a regulatory backdoor leading to the European single market, so a border will undoubtedly be erected if a Brexit deal is made that does not keep the UK within the common market. Were this to occur, the ghosts of the past will come back to haunt Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and with it the entire United Kingdom.
[i] “EU Referendum,” BBC, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results.
[ii] James T. Quinlivan, “Force Requirements in Stability Operations,” Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, (Winter 1995): 4.
[iii] Amanda Sloat, “Brexit could Jeapordize Peace in Northern Ireland—and America is Ignoring It,” Time, June 29 2018, http://time.com/5325315/peace-ireland-border-brexit/.
[v] Brian Hutton and Amanda Ferguson, “Peter Robinson’s Irish unity remarks ‘music to the ears’ of Republicans,” The Irish Times, July 28 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/peter-robinson-s-irish-unity-remarks-music-to-the-ears-of-republicans-1.3579645.
[vi] Amanda Sloat, “Brexit could Jeapordize Peace,” Time, June 29 2018, http://time.com/5325315/peace-ireland-border-brexit/.
[vii] Libby Brooks, “Sturgeon: Brexit chaos makes Independence case stronger every day,” The Guardian, November 15 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/nov/15/sturgeon-brexit-chaos-makes-independence-case-stronger-every-day.
[viii] Amanda Sloat, “Brexit could Jeapordize Peace,” Time, June 29 2018, http://time.com/5325315/peace-ireland-border-brexit/.
[x] Michael Burleigh, “Brexit vs. the Irish Question,” Project Syndicate, November 7 2018, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-irish-question-uk-breakup-by-michael-burleigh-2018-11.