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- Brexit has thrown the future of the Northern Ireland peace process into doubt with warnings that it could pose an “existential crisis” to the province. May’s determination to leave the single market and custom’s union raises the prospect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the south. Any change to current system would be “very destabilising”. Northern Ireland is being left without a voice in Brexit negotiations.
LONDON – Brexit will be a “disaster for Northern Ireland” which risks being “pulled apart” by the debate over the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, experts and politicians from the province have told Business Insider.
The Irish border issue is so contentious and difficult to solve that it threatens the whole Brexit process, but the impact is already being felt in the most divided part of the UK.
Northern Ireland has been without an executive since its Assembly collapsed in January and is virtually voiceless in negotiations between the UK and EU so far, despite the future of the province being one of three key areas being discussed first.
The fractious and violent political past of the region is also still a live issue, with former Prime Minister John Major warning that Brexit now threatens the fragile peace process, twenty years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Dr Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast told Business Insider that the Brexit process so far has been “profoundly destabilising” for Northern Ireland.
“The British government has mishandled and mismanaged the peace process through Brexit. It has been profoundly destabilising for Northern Ireland and it has reopened the British-Irish sovereignty fracture that the EU and the peace process did so much to heal and mend, and we avoid that point at our peril,” Professor Harvey said.
The constitutional question
Brexit has reopened the debate over Northern Ireland’s status as a part of the UK but with close ties to the Republic of Ireland.
Stephen Farry, the Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, told BI: “Brexit brings the constitutional question back onto the table.”
Describing the province as an “anomaly,” Farry said: “Brexit and particularly hard Brexit means putting in new boundaries, new borders, new divisions, which rubs to the contrary of the whole ethos of the peace process.”
He added that Brexit is “an existential threat. Northern Ireland is being pulled apart.”
“[Brexit is] an existential threat. Northern Ireland is being pulled apart.”
Northern Ireland came into existence in 1921, when Ireland was partitioned, leaving the province as part of the United Kingdom.
Its uneasy relationship, as a constituent part of the UK but also part of the island of Ireland, has been underpinned by both parts of Ireland being in the EU.
The Belfast agreement or Good Friday agreement of 1998 also relied heavily on membership of the EU, with assumptions made about the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the UK.
One of the key parts of the deal was that anyone born in Northern Ireland can be a citizen of Ireland or the UK, or both. Questions have now been raised about how this can continue after Brexit.
Geoff Nuttall, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Affairs told BI that: “It is important to realise how big a role EU membership has had in maintaining the peace process.
“Everything is thrown into question by not knowing what the arrangements will be post-Brexit,” he says.
Professor Harvey added: “we are actually having a conversation about the United Kingdom as a union state” following the EU referendum, with Scotland and Northern Ireland both posing “existential” questions for the future of the country.
“I think the union state takes a lot for granted and takes itself for granted in the UK. Constitutional unionism is a contested political position.”
The border issue
The Irish border currently only exists on paper as shown below:
… this is what the Irish border looks like. Road with white line is Republic of Ireland, where the white line stops is Northern Ireland pic.twitter.com/Tpbsu1Zdo4
— Siobhán Fenton (@SiobhanFenton) October 8, 2017
There are currently no border controls meaning goods and people move freely in and out of the province.
However, if Prime Minister Theresa May and her government stick to their current plans to leave the customs union, then there will need to be some form of new border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in order to avoid smuggling between the UK and EU.
Lord Peter Hain, a former Labour Northern Ireland secretary and a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign said: “The responsibility for finding a solution to the Irish border issue lies with the UK Government, and over a year after the referendum, we are yet to hear any realistic and concrete proposals from them.
“Brexit must not lead to the re-imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. That is non-negotiable. A hard border would damage the economy by restricting trade, and harm the lives of thousands of people who cross it every day. And in doing so it would damage the peace process at a time when power-sharing has never looked so fragile.”
As Nuttall explained to BI: “around 30,000 people cross the border every day” and it is “just woven into people’s lives.” Any threat to the current system would be “very, very destabilising.”
The UK government has yet to flesh out any firm proposals on what to do about the border after Brexit. At the Conservative Party conference this month, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire ruled out staying in the customs union, but also ruled out any “physical infrastructure” on the Irish border, or a new customs border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland.
The government is still insisting that there is a solution where it can retain the current “soft” border whilst leaving the customs union and single market. However, it’s not clear how this would work.
A “tragic” lack of voice
Northern Ireland is currently lacking a powerful single voice to represent a common position on Brexit. Without a functioning assembly or government, it has been unable to have the same strength of voice in Brexit negotiations as Wales or Scotland.
While Wales and Scotland’s first ministers Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon met the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, Northern Ireland has not been represented.
Farry said: “We don’t have a voice, and that is very much to our detriment. The UK government is very much framed around a ‘one size fits all approach’ and they do not notice the differences.
“There’s no substitute for the Northern Ireland Executive being able to give its own opinion.”
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by 56% to 44% in the referendum, yet is being forced to leave the bloc along with the rest of the UK.
Nuttall said that NICVA “has a responsibility to not just to our members but to wider society to highlight our concerns,” as the organisation is worried “about the lack of government and the lack of representation on Brexit.”
The group, which represents about 1,000 members from the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, surveyed its members before the EU referendum, and 80% wanted to remain.
The Irish border is one of three key issues the EU has insisted be tackled first in Brexit talks, alongside citizens’ rights and the divorce bill, which shows the importance of the topic.
Northern Ireland has been forced to rely on the Irish government in Dublin to push its case for a “soft” Brexit, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar intervening to question the UK’s approach.
Professor Harvey said that it is “tragic” that Northern Ireland has lacked a voice in the Brexit process so far, but the Irish government has been “much more impressive” than the UK and is “fundamentally important.”
“It is striking just how much emphasis has been placed in the Brexit conversation on Northern Ireland and the Irish border… it has really dominated a lot of the conversation… The Northern Ireland question has escalated to an EU level.”
When asked if he is optimistic for Brexit and Northern Ireland, Farry has a simple answer: “No. It’s tricky.”