Brexit and Northern Ireland: key issues and possible consequences

In this post Alan Whysall sets out the key issues for Northern Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations and examines the likely consequences. He suggests that, if things do not go well, there is a risk of the unwinding of political and social progress. It is urgent that the options for Northern Ireland are quickly and honestly analysed, and that the Executive takes coherent positions on them. But there has been little such analysis in Northern Ireland so far: Brexit reinforces the need for policy development capacity outside government.

Julian Dobson

Credit: Julian Dobson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On 23 June, Northern Ireland’s voters preferred by 55.8 per cent to 44.2 per cent to remain in the European Union.

Northern Ireland is in many ways in the front line of Brexit: the part of the UK with a land border with an EU state, where a large proportion of the population identifies itself with another EU state, considering itself Irish more than British. But the debate started very late, despite the efforts of an NGO established to develop it. Little analysis of the questions involved has emerged – the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons produced a useful report but nothing comparable was undertaken locally. Once again, the Northern Ireland system – Executive, Assembly, media, civic society – has found it hard to move beyond the traditional issues of Northern Ireland politics.

Key issues for Northern Ireland in a negotiation

Northern Ireland will need to have analysed the impact of various outcomes from a negotiation, and decided which to press for, and what special treatment it would be looking for, so far as those outcomes leave flexibility.

The most obvious issues are around the border: does it become ‘hard’? So, if the UK is not in the Single Market, can customs duties be avoided – is it feasible that Northern Ireland should have any sort of special status? If not, are customs controls on the border inevitable?

And if free movement ceases in the post Brexit UK, so that some people lawfully in Ireland are not welcome to cross the border, can the Common Travel Area with Ireland survive, and what controls would there be, and where? Would passports have to be shown? And would that be on the border between the two parts of Ireland, which was always highly porous even when there was an enormous security presence at the height of the Troubles, or more feasibly at the seaports and airports between the two islands? Either option will greatly offend many people in Northern Ireland, and the Executive may struggle to reach a common position on them.

There are also important questions about handling criminal justice relations within the island of Ireland, which EU arrangements such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) have greatly facilitated. Extradition, which the EAW procedures superseded, was once, albeit in a different context, a cause of much friction in relations between the governments.

Then there is the question of EU funding for projects in Northern Ireland – perhaps €1.2bn worth between 2014 and 2020. A large number of community schemes, for example, often in areas still suffering the longer term legacy of terrorism, depend on the EU PEACE IV programme. In addition, 87% of Northern Ireland farm incomes come from direct EU payments. The Executive will no doubt find it easy to demand that Whitehall simply takes over responsibility for giving them the cash, but it is not clear that will be conceded-that a post Brexit UK agricultural policy, for example, will be at all as generous.

The impact of Brexit

What will be the consequences? They are obviously unforeseeable, to a large degree depend on the terms of departure, and may be exacerbated by prolonged uncertainty.

The most obvious possible impacts are economic. For example, cross-border trade accounts for 37 per cent of Northern Ireland’s exports. And Northern Ireland has very successfully sought Foreign Direct Investment over the years, essential because its private sector is so small. By no means is all of this dependent on EU market access, but that has been a big selling point, and the search may now be more difficult.

It is hard to make the case that the peace settlement is directly dependent on EU membership. The European institutions played little part in the process of negotiation, and their main contribution to sustaining it has been funding from programmes like PEACE IV, which is in principle replaceable.

But indirectly, developments within the EU have been a critical part of the political backdrop. The physical border is now more or less invisible, in stark contrast to the position 30 years ago, in large part because of developments within the Union. Besides trade, many other sorts of North-South cultural and other relations have flourished. And the intensive cooperation of the British and Irish governments, which has been fortified by their partnership within the EU, has been the motor of political progress.

This may be a time when attitudes change rapidly. There appears from opinion poll data to be a large measure of acceptance among traditionally nationalist – that is Catholic-people in Northern Ireland – of the existence of a border. This has developed over the years since the Good Friday agreement, and its provisions for power-sharing and for parity of esteem between the British and Irish identities. Much doubt has been expressed that these attitudes would prevail through the fracture of Brexit, especially if a hard border started to reappear – with the alternative on offer of being part of the state within the EU (and recovering economically-though the economics of Irish unification are frightening).

Might a border poll, prescribed in the Good Friday Agreement and UK law, be on the cards? The Secretary of State must call one if it appears likely there would be a majority in favour of a united Ireland. She also has the discretion to call one at any time, subject to a minimum seven-year interval – though this sometimes appears to be forgotten. Sinn Féin have called for such a poll since the referendum; but the other nationalist party, the SDLP, and the Irish government, have spoken against. Theresa Villiers made clear that she was not minded to call one prior to her resignation as Secretary of State.

No one imagines that if a border poll were called now, there would be a majority for a united Ireland. But if there were a serious debate about the border as the Brexit process unfolded, then as with other such political campaigns, views might change precipitately. And there is no one well placed to make the case for the Union to the nationalist community.

Changes in the Scottish position might also impact, unpredictably, on a range of current attitudes. If Scotland were to embark on a course towards independence, Northern Ireland would be left on the map of the UK looking very isolated. Various groups might then feel impelled to push for change, others to resist, and tensions might grow. The last time Scottish independence was in the air, politics and the media in Northern Ireland never really rose to a discussion of the issue: how the outlook might develop is unexplored.

Short of these major shifts, what impact will there be on the working of the Executive? There may be very difficult decisions ahead. There are commitments to work together, but the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has alsowarned of a return to stand off in the Executive – it was persistently afflicted by such standoffs between 2012 and theFresh Start agreement in 2015 – if there is no ‘collective agreement’. There may be an element of tactics in this, and there may be a temptation to keep those going with a new Prime Minister in place. But the risk is plausible enough, over issues like the Executive’s position on border controls, or in the event of further budget reductions from London, a precipitating element in recent crises.

Of potentially great significance here is the performance of the Assembly. The three main opposition parties (the UUP and SDLP formally so constituted, Alliance falling just below the threshold) are all against Brexit, along with Sinn Féin. This will be the first big test of the extent to which they can work together coherently and constructively, rather than separately and destructively. If the former, they might oblige the Executive to focus; otherwise they might make compromise more difficult.

Getting any enabling legislation for Brexit through the Northern Ireland Assembly would appear extremely difficult: even if it could achieve a bare majority, which is not clear, the nationalist parties would probably invoke the petition of concern mechanism to turn it into a cross community vote, which they could then block.

Westminster might decide to pass over the devolved legislatures. But that itself (as perhaps also in Scotland) is liable to change the terms of the political debate. And the more so because the convention in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement has been that any significant change to institutions can only come about with cross community support.

All in all, there risks being a very serious distraction from acute problems of government in Northern Ireland, like the economy, public services and sectarianism. The system has found making difficult decisions in these fields problematic in the past, and we have at times descended into stasis. That may well be the case again. It is also less likely that it can develop any forward-looking agenda, any vision, in the face of such challenges: the process of fleshing out a new Programme for Government this autumn is liable to be overshadowed.

Will there be the return to violence some have foreseen? There is no sign of it. The height of the marching season has passed this week remarkably peacefully. But those who do still pursue violence of various kinds – the dissident republican paramilitaries, who a few months ago killed a prison officer, and the loyalists who still exercise significant control over some communities-tend to thrive on tensions, and there is a real risk of them building.

Where now?

The relative stability of recent years will not collapse overnight. But there is a risk of the unwinding, perhaps slow, perhaps at times precipitate, of political and social progress.

That progress is in part a product of the reduced significance of the border, the recognition of the need for consensus on constitutional change, and more broadly the acceptance of parity of esteem between the two communities. The sense that these developments are being reversed and that fundamental change is being imposed is liable to impact on attitudes significantly over time. There are liable in the short term be economic challenges, which may add to a sense of discontent, as may Executive deadlock on key issues.

Traditionally, there is the instinct that the British and Irish governments will help sort out dysfunction, and meet any policy or financial shortfall. But the UK Government’s time for Northern Ireland is liable to be distinctly limited in the near future, and its finances severely challenged. And, given that Brexit inevitably appears a unionist agenda, it will struggle even harder to establish itself with nationalism as an honest broker. The Irish Government will no doubt seek to contribute constructively, but it is not itself a party to the EU negotiation and faces political volatility at home.

If Northern Ireland could articulate at an early stage what it wanted, it might, with Scotland, have some impact on the overall structure of the deal. And within that, so far as there is flexibility, it might be well placed to gain special treatment – there is a recognition that its position is volatile, a UK government will not wish to run risks there, and Brussels has always liked to think of itself as a friend of the peace process.

It needs to do this for itself. The excellent EU Debate Northern Ireland is resuming its activities. But there is a need for people and institutions outside government to help bring coherence to the process of analysing Northern Ireland’s options.

It has long been clear that there is a serious lack of such policy development capacity in Northern Ireland outside government – there is nothing really identifiable as a think tank, particularly serious when the Executive is so often is stymied in policy-making by political division. The Constitution Unit is, with local partners, already looking at what can be done to improve the position.

Brexit means that, now more than ever, something of this sort is urgently needed, to give coherence to the discussion and point up the often difficult choices that may have to be made.

Northern Ireland adds its own extra dimension of uncertainty to the post-referendum scene. In the short term at least it is hard to see many positives in Brexit there and there may be serious risks. And not for the first time, there may be serious unintended consequences there of developments in British politics.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Constitution Unit blog and is re-posted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, where he is undertaking further work on Northern Ireland.

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