The United Kingdom exited the European Union at 11pm on 31 January 2020. Sparked by a narrow victory of 51.9% for the Leave campaign in the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership, the date marked the end of a period of debate and delay lasting more than three and a half years. Yet in many ways, 31 January marked only the beginning of the Brexit process. All levels of society will need to navigate the new relationship between the UK and EU in the months and years to come – from the British, Irish, and Northern Irish governments, to the institutions like Trinity that have depended on certain EU-wide legislation, to the people and communities in the North and along the border that may be most affected by Brexit.
“The border straddles my town, almost right down the middle,” said Mary-Kate O’Harte, one of many Trinity students hailing from the border region. “We literally cross it multiple times a day without even thinking about it.” Mary-Kate lives on the south side of the border, in County Monaghan, but hers is one of many communities that stretches organically from Ireland into the North. Though the Irish border is clearly demarcated as a firm line on most maps, for the thousands of people who travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland every day, the border is almost nonexistent as a physical presence. Unmarked by border wall or customs checks, a change in signage is one of the only indicators that the border exists at all.
“There were significant and sincere concerns that Brexit would result in a hard border and, potentially, a return to violence.”
Not long ago, however, these communities had a very different relationship with the border. “People don’t really understand how fresh the conflict is in people’s minds,” Mary-Kate said. “I remember checkpoints, the last ones were removed in 2005 which is less than 20 years ago. We had family members involved in conflict and smuggling. I walked past IRA graffiti on my way to school.”
“A lot of work has been done in the last decade or so to move past the conflict, and to focus on how we are more similar,” she continued. “The invisibility of the border is crucial to that. It means that I could go to school with kids with Northern addresses, and people can work and live and mingle.” The results of the so-called Brexit referendum, however, have threatened this newfound peace and security. Though hardly featured in the pre-referendum rhetoric of both sides, the Irish border issue became one of the largest sticking points in the negotiations between the United Kingdom and European Union in the time since the June 2016 vote. Ireland and the United Kingdom’s mutual membership in the European Union has proved a crucial basis upon which to carry out the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement – notably, the EU’s single-market has allowed the Irish border, one of the most physically and symbolically violent sites during the Troubles, to remain unmarred by customs checkpoints.
Though the question of what the Irish border will look like post-Brexit has become a matter of international concern, it will affect border communities above all. “During the past three years, there has been considerable uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration around the issue of the border,” said Cormac Ó Beaglaoich, a Trinity alumnus from a border community in County Armagh. “There were significant and sincere concerns that Brexit would result in a hard border and, potentially, a return to violence.”
Thankfully, the possibility of a hard Brexit has been all but ruled out. The current Withdrawal Agreement, which Westminster approved on 24 January 2020, seemingly resolves these concerns by aiming to keep the Irish border invisible. However, Boris Johnson’s government has done away with former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s backstop and the placement of a hard customs border in the Irish Sea; Northern Ireland will instead remain in the single market but also within the UK’s customs zone. This might include the introduction of a tariff and tariff rebate system, as well as physical checks on animals and produce travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure the quality of goods entering the EU’s single market.
The exact details of the Northern Ireland arrangements will remain unclear until a trade agreement between the UK and EU can be completed – a milestone Johnson intends to complete before December 2020, but which Tánaiste Simon Coveney has opined is “probably going to take longer than a year.” With the European Union seemingly unwilling to rush to meet Britain’s timetable, UK-based independent thinktank the Institute for Government has recently released a report predicting that the customs arrangements for Northern Ireland may take upwards of five years to design and implement. Until that occurs, the possibility that the border arrangements might radically change will remain. Despite Johnson’s recent campaign promise to “Get Brexit Done,” in many ways 31 January will only mark the beginning of the Brexit process.
Attracting students from Northern Ireland has long been a priority for Trinity. Provost Patrick Prendergast stated in 2014 that “Trinity has historically been a university for the whole island, attracting students with ability and potential from every county.” In 2013, Trinity launched its Northern Ireland Engagement Programme, sending current student ambassadors to schools and career fairs across the region. And in 2014 it launched a feasibility study allowing students from Northern Ireland to apply to Trinity with three A-levels instead of four. The Provost cited the feasibility study as an attempt “to restore and re-establish a relationship that has done so much to build close links on this island between people from all backgrounds and traditions.”
Though initially Trinity’s efforts appeared to be paying off, applications from Northern Ireland dropped 20% for 2018/2019, and again by another 20% for 2019/2020. An obvious contributor to this drop seems the uncertainty around Brexit. Trinity students hailing from Northern Ireland and the UK have thus far been able to avail of the benefits of EU citizenship, including paying EU instead of international fees and having access to the Erasmus+ programme. According to Trinity, current students from the UK and Northern Ireland have a guaranteed fees status and will not see a fee change for the duration of their undergraduate degree. Depending on the trade agreements that are eventually negotiated, Irish students studying in the UK and UK students studying in Ireland may either be able to continue paying EU-level fees at their respective institutions or end up having to pay international fees. Continued UK participation in the Erasmus+ programmes is even more tenuous; though mobility to and from the United Kingdom beginning before the official Brexit on 31 January 2020 will be able to continue, the House of Commons recently voted against a proposed amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement that would have required the British government to seek continued membership of Erasmus+. Such changes will doubtless effect not only UK students but Irish students wishing to do their undergraduate studies or Erasmus year at British universities.
“I think having any kind of Brexit, having this other thing that separates us, will have a negative impact on how we relate to each other…”
One controversial solution for at least a portion of affected students comes in the form of support for the UK’s various independence movements. All three of the UK’s devolved legislative bodies – the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish Assembly – have voted against Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. In Scotland, where support for the Remain campaign in 2016 stood at 62%, recent elections have yielded high support for the Scottish National Party. The SNP has been calling for a second independence referendum on the basis that independence would allow Scotland to regain EU membership.
Similar arguments have been made to reopen the case for a United Ireland. “It’s important to remember that a majority of citizens in the North voted against Brexit,” opined Cormac. “We didn’t consent to Brexit in 2016 and we don’t consent to Brexit now.” He added, “In the event of a united Ireland, the North will automatically re-enter the EU, with all the benefits that entails.”
In anticipation of Ireland’s upcoming general election, several parties and candidates have expressed their support for a referendum on unification – fuelled, at least in part, by renewed discussion of unification in anticipation of Brexit. Out of the three highest-polling parties, Sinn Féin has pushed for a unity referendum by 2025 and Fianna Fáil has promised to set up preliminary preparations for a future referendum. However, some fear that reopening the question of unification has the potential to cause more problems than it will solve.
Like the rest of the country, Trinity has seen its share of debate on Irish unification. In Hilary term 2017, students voted in a referendum on whether TCDSU would be mandated to support a United Ireland. Cormac was one of the volunteers for the pro-Unity campaign. Though on Erasmus in Belgium at the time of the referendum, Cormac contributed by helping to run the campaign’s Facebook page, posting pro-Unity articles and student testimonials.
Referenda at other Irish universities, including UCD and DCU, have yielded pro-Unity majorities. In contrast, 55% of Trinity’s voters opted to adopt a position of Neutrality on the issue, outstripping the 43% in favour of unity and 2% against unity. It should be noted, however, that other Irish universities were offered a binary yes/no choice — “which is more reflective of how a national referendum on Irish unity would be conducted,” Cormac pointed out. In addition, the referendum suffered an unexpectedly low voter turnout despite the contentious nature of the question posed. Cormac recalled a common argument that “the issue wasn’t relevant to students,” leading to voter apathy; had the vote instead occurred today, with Brexit’s imminent arrival posed to greatly change the status quo regarding the North, perhaps it would have become an even greater object of campus debate.
Regardless of what the next months and years bring, Northern Ireland’s de jure exit from the European Union will deal a symbolic blow. “I think having any kind of Brexit, having this other thing that separates us, will have a negative impact on how we relate to each other,” says Mary-Kate. Countless communities will have to navigate a new relationship with the border. Trinity students from the North will be attending university in a state one more step politically distanced from their own.