Brexit casts shadow over Irish progress

Stephen Frain discusses the political consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the EU and what it will mean for Northern Ireland


Until the seismic events of last June, Anglo-Irish relations were arguably better than they have ever been since independence. It is now just over 100 days since the Brexit referendum, a referendum on Ireland’s future in which Ireland did not vote. The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union poses what is undoubtedly the biggest foreign policy challenge Ireland’s diplomats have faced in a generation, and puts the peace both nations toiled so hard for at stake.

A blossoming relationship

Britain’s political rapport with Ireland has improved immensely in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Recent events, such as the Queen’s state visit to Ireland in 2011, have been extremely successful in bringing both nations together in the process of reconciliation. This was the first visit of a British head of state to our shores since independence, and was a sign of a growing bond between the two countries – and of the fact that both the Irish and British alike were willing to put their sordid past behind them.

President Michael D. Higgins was received with rousing reception in the British House of Commons three years later in what was the first ever state visit of an Irish President to the United Kingdom. Higgins described the event as emblematic of a “closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable”. Division was once the order of the hour, yet one series of events in such as short space of time, made it seem possible  that peace and reconciliation between what were once two deeply divided states, could become a hallmark of our generation.

But despite all the years of effort to reconcile differences in a post-Troubles landscape, the casting of a ballot on one fateful day in June has put it all at risk. The impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland will be just as profound if not even more so than any other part of the UK. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union has not only underscored the lasting tensions between the two communities in the North.

But more worryingly, it has created the potential to recreate a divide which those involved in the peace process fought so hard to eliminate. The flagbearers of the Brexit campaign called for Britain to “take back control” of their borders. What thought was given to the Irish border may never be known, but the consequences are important.

Problems with Borders

Both Ireland and Great Britain have a Common Travel Area agreement, which as it stands, allows for custom free travel from the Republic to the North. The preservation of control-free borders in Northern Ireland was an instrumental factor in ensuring the peace process prevailed in the 1990s as it guaranteed a connection between nationalist communities on both sides of the border and helped erode the sense of division.

The Common Travel Area however was originally drafted in 1923, long before the implementation of European Union law. Now, the small country roads from Ballyshannon to Belleck, from Drumshambo to Drumcoo, and Newbliss to Newtownbutler will become the border of Europe. The problem with this is that in the aftermath of Brexit, whatever agreement was provided for between Ireland and Britain in the Common Travel Area agreement, cannot be decided upon between Ireland and Britain alone, any deal struck on the fate of an Irish border will be done in Brussels, many, many miles away from the people who it affects most.

A estimated total of 30,000 people cross the Northern Ireland border everyday for both work and study. Before peace, the military checkpoints were a sign of deep divisions between communities on both sides of the border. The return of such a border strikes right at the heart of the future of peace, jobs, and the livelihoods of so many who live in the surrounding areas. And political relations are not the only thing that is at stake here.

The economic prosperity of both nations relies heavily on free movement between the two nations. Not only that, the possibility of tariffed trade between Ireland and the UK, risks the future of countless small and large businesses in both countries. Ireland’s biggest trading partner has always been its closest neighbor, Britain. To place tariffs on imports and exports which have benefited from the EU’s free movement of goods for well over twenty years threatens to destroy an integral part of our two countries’ economies.

The question on everyone’s lips is what can be done about this. In charting the course ahead, both the Irish and British foreign affairs experts have emphasised the prioritisation of the North in negotiations going forward. Indeed the European Commission’s representative on Brexit Michel Barnier just recently visited Dublin to discuss Brexit implications with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The future of Anglo-Irish relations no doubt hinges upon the deal struck in the corridors of power in Europe. It cannot be denied that negotiating a special status on Ireland’s border, its trade with Britain and now even fair treatment of Irish workers in the UK in the wake of Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent comments on foreign workers’ rights, will be a tall order.

On top of all that, all sides must play their part in ensuring smooth running of proceedings in Stormont. The power-sharing arrangement in the North was already on tenterhooks prior to the Brexit vote. A rift in coalition between the DUP, the only other party along with UKIP who fully campaigned for a  Brexit, and Sinn Fein, who see the vote as a path towards reunification, is not out of the questions. Patience will be needed. Foresight will be necessary. And nothing short of skillful diplomacy will be required for the architects of the Brexit deal if we are to maintain what President Higgins’s has hailed as our “warm, deep and enduring Irish-British friendship”. We have always known the road to peace would be long, for now, we must hold our breath for just a while longer.