Theresa May’s Northern Irish Conundrum

 

Over the course of the UK’s EU membership, Northern Ireland has reaped the benefits more than most. Increased cross-border trade, social cohesion funds, and the Union’s support for the Good Friday Agreement are all portrayed as examples of this small region gaining considerably from being part of the EU. Accordingly, it is hard to find an area in the UK with more to lose from Brexit. Peace and prosperity were put forward as the primary reasons for Northern Irish citizens to vote to remain by figures as eminent as Bill Clinton[1] and the fate of the region will be a source of intrigue in the coming years.

This week, Northern Irish citizens voted for the third time in ten months. The recent collapse of the Stormont Assembly necessitated a second election of MLAs in less than a year, with the Brexit referendum sandwiched between these events. Northern Ireland makes for an interesting case in examining Britain’s exit from the EU given that it is the only region in the UK with an EU land border (except Gibraltar). Furthermore, being the region in the UK with the lowest ‘remain’ vote in 1975, it may be surprising to some that they voted by 56% to 44% to stay in the Union in 2016. This occurred despite the biggest party in the country – the Democratic Unionist Party – urging citizens to vote leave.

Although Europe was not the defining issue in the most recent election (the RHI scandal took that award), it emerged as a significant one. When results were announced on Friday, the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had seen its advantage in the Assembly drop from 10 seats to just one over the second largest party, the nationalist and anti-Brexit Sinn Fein. In the immediate aftermath, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams declared that “Nationalists in Northern Ireland have voted to oppose Brexit” and reasserted an earlier position that Northern Ireland should receive ‘special-designation status’ in the EU[2]. Yet, planned three-week negotiations to agree a new Assembly looks very short considering the differences between the parties over a range of issues (including Brexit), leads to questions arising as to whether Northern Ireland will have a functioning Assembly when the Conservative government invokes Article 50.

Should the parties fail to reach an agreement in the designated timeframe there are two options – return to the polls or direct rule being administered from London. While the former would appear to offer no solution to the impasse, the latter would result in claims of a democratic deficit as Northern Ireland’s role in the Brexit debate is reduced.

There are plenty of risks going forward, and foremost among these is whether a hard Brexit means a hard border on the island. Should import tariffs from the Republic of Ireland be introduced “many products moving across the border could suddenly become anywhere from 5% to 25% more expensive”[3]. Agriculture in particular would be hit hard, as this has evolved into an increasingly cross-border activity. Other aspects, such as Derry citizens working in Donegal – or vice-versa – would also become more problematic in the event of a hard border.

Funding represents a further Northern Irish-related item that will be on the agenda in Brexit talks. The region is designated as being in transition by the EU, and receives significant social cohesion funds as a result. In addition, the PEACE IV programme grants the region further funding on account of the continuing peace process. Both these financial packages are unlikely to continue in a post-Brexit Europe given the trajectory taken by May and her Conservative government.

What is evident in all this is the need for Northern Ireland to have a voice in negotiations. The recent elections in the region produced many questions over the issue of how it will attain this voice, and the following three-week negotiation period will hopefully provide enlightening answers.

[1] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/03/yes-support-jeremy-corbyn-falling-he-would-still-win-third-labour-leadership

[2] http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/gerry-adams-nationalists-have-voted-against-brexit-1.2997194

[3] p.19, http://crossborder.ie/site2015/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Policy-Paper_Brexit-Ireland-and-Northern-Ireland-June-2016-1.pdf