Erin Go Bragh? Hard Brexit and Invisible Border in Northern Ireland

Tuesday, 25 July 2017 09:15
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by Giovanbattista Varricchio (EPOS)
EPOS Insights


Northern Ireland has a well known sad past of conflict, terrorism and civil war, whose worst period between the '60s and 90's - called Troubles - caused thousands of deaths and tens thousands of injured. The conflict between the Independentist, on one hand, and the Unionists, on the other, resulted by an overlapping of cleavages from ideologies, to religion and ethnicity. The Troubles ended with the so called Good Friday Agreement in 1998, still nowadays the cornerstone of peace and democracy as well as constitutional order in Belfast.

After the result of the Referendum on Brexit last year, with the majority of UK people voting to leave the EU, the ethno-nationalist wave has strengthened in Northern Ireland, where the “remain” option won with 56% of votes. Also in Scotland the majority of voters supported European Union in the referendum, but despite these local victories, Brexit is now a reality and is challenging British and European politics. The 310 miles border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is thus one of the most sensitive issues that negotiators on both sides are going face.

Considering that about 35,000 to 40,000 people cross the debated border on a daily base, is clear to what extent the introduction of checkpoints on the line between the two states, could endanger the local communities, the workers that found their jobs on the other side of the border and all the business activities that are related to import and export to and from Northern Ireland. Effectively, together with the theoretical possibility to introduce again checkpoints – a terrible souvenir from a terrible past for people who remember the decades of civil war - the other fundamental question is whether or not to apply trade tariffs on goods crossing the land border.

Leaving the European Union, United Kingdom is in fact going to leave also the common market that the Union provides for its member states and a complex new arrangement is needed to define the overall trade deal between UK and EU. Particularly in Irish land, as a matter of fact both entities on the northern and southern side of the border are highly dependent on reciprocal trade. That's why many politicians such as the Republic of Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney are asking for a special status: "If we're going to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there needs to be some relationship with the customs union and common market that allows Northern Ireland to be able to operate the way that it does today", as he stated in an interview to the Irish Independent.

Also national parties in Belfast are not immune from the issue: on one hand the most of the unionist community supported Brexit, moreover the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is now a key ally in the new conservative government led by Theresa May and of course its opinion is going to be relevant in negotiation concerning the Irish question. Anyway the official position of the DUP is to achieve a deal in which the land border will be the less hard possible, a position shared also by the British Brexit Secretary David Davis who spoke even of an “invisible border”. On the other hand, the Repubblican and Independentist community is not so optimistic and the idea to have again a hard border dividing the island is perceived as highly possible and frightening for many. The main Independentist party, the Sinn Fein (SF) campaigned to remain in the European Union and now is worried about the future results of negotiations. The head of the SF, Gerry Adams is convinced that UK is going for a hard border and has already asked for a referendum in Northern Ireland to leave the UK in favour of a united Ireland.

The possibility of a referendum on this subject is provided by the above mentioned Good Friday Agreement and there is no doubt that it will constitute a new challenge for UK in the context of Brexit. The unique way the UK will be able to avoid the possibility of a referendum that will probably cause the secession of Northern Ireland, is to defuse the reasons why of the resentment of the Repubblican community and to reach a deal with the Republic of Ireland and European Union granting the actual “invisibility” of the new border both in terms of custom tariffs and free movement of Irish people. Not an easy task, but still a fundamental one for the very survival of United Kingdom.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Tuesday, 25 July 2017 09:21
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