20. August 2017

Northern Ireland’s Brexit Opportunity: Building Bridges, Not Borders

The UK and the EU will eventually part ways in 2019. Some say Northern Ireland may fall through the cracks. Others claim it will land on its feet. Or could Brexit be an opportunity to establish a new sense of Northern Irishness which transcends factional politics?

A Comment by Grace McLoughlin


“Good Fences [Don’t] Make Good Neighbours”

Politics in Northern Ireland is almost entirely domestic and ideological. Brexit, by contrast, is for the majority in Northern Ireland neither of these things. In the face of a regional vote to Remain, which remarkably required part of the Unionist majority to cross partisan lines, Brexit is rather a crude and inconvenient reality. It not only incites uncertainty about the future of the peace process and the status of the border, but also involves the elimination of one of the only shared realities pertaining to all with regard to Northern Ireland’s place in the world: its EU membership. The overarching power of the EU played a key role in underpinning peace in Northern Ireland, as did the umbrella identity it provided.

EU membership, common to both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, created a precedence for a plurality of identities in a place that had been formerly binary. The advent of EU membership allowed the people of Northern Ireland to share an awareness of belonging to something that transcended and encompassed local identities. The Good Friday Agreement further facilitated this notion of plurality. Citizens of Northern Ireland were granted the right to self definition, to choose for themselves British or Irish citizenship, or both. Where one door closes, another opens, however. As one transcendent and inclusive identity faces its imminent demise, the opportunity to establish a new sense of Northern Irishness which recinds factional politics has materialised.


“… For Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

Brexit initiates an impending and unavoidable change in circumstance, beyond the control and reach of local decision-makers. Stagnant identity politics, rooted in historical conflict and perpetuated by navel-gazing and a refusal to compromise, will be unquestionably overstepped by the Brexit process and outcome. Northern Ireland will, in turn, shape its future in how it chooses to respond, either as passive victim or unexpected benefactor. Taking on an active role by developing a common Northern Irish voice could allow a divided society to move beyond the politics of the past which has, until now, impeded its civil and civic development. Since the Brexit vote, a new sense of Northern Irishness has emerged amongst the public. Their political representatives ought to capitalise on this by replacing ideology with realism.

Advancing mutual policy positions in the present would foster an identity and sense of collective purpose in and for the future. This would serve to surpass and invert the factional, local identities of history, a role once played by EU citizenship. Uncompromising ideology would be replaced by stark realism, basic facts, common interests and a pluralistic, outward-looking attitude to national and international relations, as Northern Ireland furthers its interests as an integrated entity. Such a policy would have two elements to it: dual citizenship and a special status for the region.


Dual Citizenship, Dual Responsibility

The fact of entitlement to dual citizenship alone could be hugely profited from by Northern Ireland, were the political will there to do so. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were hugely disruptive, in terms of both civil society and economics. Fewer than twenty years after the beginning of the peace process, the region still requires massive financial support from both the UK and the EU. This point was acknowledged by the UK government in their latest position paper of 16 August.

Since the people of Northern Ireland will, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, continue to have the entitlement to dual EU-UK citizenship after Brexit, Northern Irish politicians ought to put their differences aside as to where their domestic identifications lie, and focus on their responsibility to represent Northern Irish, rather than sectarian, interests. Were the dual responsibilities of the UK and EU to Northern Irish citizens be emphasised, Northern Ireland could lobby for a situation where it suffers minimal reductions in the subsidies it receives. This support is integral to its continued transformation into a self-sufficient entity, in terms of both its economy and civil society. Beyond the actual subsidies themselves, the political push for them, founded on an awareness of and emphasis on the communion of common interests and plural identities, would further bolster this transformation of civil society.


Act of Union

A second focus of a mutually-beneficial policy would be the border and a special status for the region. In their Brexit position paper, the UK government gave concrete support to the maintenance of the border as it is, essentially invisible. The EU and Ireland have also asserted the need to avoid a hard border. For this to be realised, one part of the island of Ireland will most likely need to somewhat change its relationship with its respective union. A change in relations with the EU is not at all in the interest of the Republic, and such a suggestion would be ardently opposed.

The Democratic Unionists have rejected the idea of a special status for Northern Ireland, although it has been a suggestion posited by Sinn Féin. Should the DUP allow reason to overtake emotion, however, they could come to realise that staying within the customs union, but remaining part of the UK, could be as close to a perfect compromise for Northern Ireland, as it is possible to get in terms of both Brexit and long-term divisions. Both parties would concede upon, and paradoxically also approach, their political endgame. A special status for Northern Ireland would also require the politics of the past to be put aside in favour of a politics for the future. Consequently, a sense of duality would be strengthened, as both connections and differences between Northern Ireland and the other parts of the British Isles would become more pertinent.

A special status and a more pronounced sense of Northern Irishness would change the nature of relations with the rest of the UK, moving Northern Ireland closer to it but also further away. Should the nature of the Common Travel Area have to change and checks be implemented between the isles, the border would still remain soft. The maintenance of the union with Britain would also be supported, since the ‘United’ Kingdom refers to a union of distinct entities, while a ‘United’ Ireland refers to the merging of two parts. Furthermore, a soft border means a more resilient one. Flexibility lends itself to longevity. However, ties with mainland Britain would be somewhat loosened too, since a ‘special status’ necessarily implies difference. Nationalists could take comfort since while the ‘United Ireland’ dream would have to be parked, strong ties with the south could be preserved and all-island cooperation deepened.


From Fracture to Future

Brexit is undoubtedly a huge challenge to both the material circumstances and the identity of Northern Ireland. What is overlooked is that this challenge can be about more than crisis management. The ensuing shake-up could be exploited to facilitate a burst of civic and political development. As Brexit unfolds, the time is ripe for a discussion about shared goals, and hopes and dreams for a Northern Irish society which transcends the divisions of the past and looks to a common future.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image source: „MYPs debate in House of Commons Chamber“, UK Parliament, http://bit.ly/2hNePFI, lizensiert unter Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.


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