Brexit: A Catalyst for Irish Reunification?



As the UK parliament rejects Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a third time, the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is increasing. Although the House of Commons passed a bill last week to prevent a no-deal Brexit, the bill does not entirely rule out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit occurring in October.

The economic implications of a no-deal Brexit have been well documented. However, for those living along the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are more pressing concerns. In the 2016 referendum Northern Ireland voted 55.7% remain. In contrast to England, which voted 46.6% remain, and Wales which voted 47.5% remain, this cements Northern Ireland as one of the most pro-European parts of the United Kingdom (behind Scotland with 62% remain).

However, the Irish would see this as unsurprising, as aside from the practical and economic consequences, there are serious political and security consequences associated with leaving the European Union (EU). Of all the consequences, the most concerning is the potential for a hard border to reignite sectarian violence witnessed during "The Troubles". Concerns regarding this consequence have ultimately propelled the question of Irish reunification to the forefront of Irish politics.

The Irish backstop is effectively an insurance policy designed to ensure the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remains open. The backstop arrangement is one of the most significant issues hindering the withdrawal process. Ultimately, if the UK leave the EU’s customs union and single market, there is serious potential for a return to a hard border due to being part of different customs agreements with the Republic of Ireland.

Besides the delays created with an estimated 30,000 people crossing the border each day, concerns are focused on the destruction of what the border currently symbolises: a united vision between the north and south of leaving decades of sectarian violence in the past.

Last April marked 20 years since then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern signed The Good Friday Agreement. The agreement saw the creation of a power-sharing executive which ensured both the predominantly Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans were fairly represented in policymaking. Relations between Protestant and Catholic communities slowly improved and British military presence along the border disappeared after three decades of conflict which resulted in the deaths of 3,600 people.

However as those living along the border feared, the peace once guaranteed by the agreement has been compromised. While the 1998 agreement did not see the complete erasure of sectarian violence, there is renewed concerns regarding the causes behind more recent spates of violence. According to the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report (no. 5), it is not simply a question of whether violence will return, but at what scale and length of time would the violence play out?

As Brexit negotiations intensified earlier this year, a group calling itself the “New IRA” claimed responsibility for a car bomb which detonated in Derry this January. The events of January have reminded citizens in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland of what a potentially mishandled withdrawal process could mean for the future of relations between the north and south.

So, with current plans threatening to unravel progress made by the 1998 agreement, what are the alternatives along the border? One is the Irish sea border solution, but consideration of this alternative has been refused by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which currently holds the balance of power in Westminster.

An alternative which has sparked optimistic discussion among citizens of the Republic of Ireland is reunification between the north and south. Data released in November 2018 by Amárach Research reveals in a cross-border poll that 86% of Irish citizens would prefer a united Ireland over a hard border, while 62% of Northern Irish citizens believe that Brexit is increasing the prospect of reunification. Such figures are made more surprising by a recent UNESCO report revealing that more young people in Northern Ireland are living in segregated communities than ever before.

The process of reuniting Ireland would involve the announcement of a border poll as set out in the 1998 agreement, a responsibility held by Karen Bradley, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Bradley is expected to call a vote if it appears the public would vote in majority for a united Ireland.

While such figures are hopeful, there is concern that the announcement of a referendum for a united Ireland could itself spark violence led by marginalised youth vulnerable to recruitment by dissident loyalist and nationalist paramilitaries.

Ultimately, a referendum on reunification appears unlikely to occur anytime soon. The probability of a border poll announcement has also been cast into doubt by the collapse of the Northern Irish government two years ago after a domestic political scandal.

Despite an extension to the Brexit deadline, a no-deal Brexit is still possible. In the meantime, Border Communities Against Brexit are holding protests along the border in an attempt to draw public attention to the political and security chaos that will ensue between the north and south in the event of a poorly negotiated or no-deal Brexit.

Whilst the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a chance to prepare for the fallout, more time and attention must be given in order to avert violent consequences. Ultimately, it is time and attention which was not given to concerns raised by citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the 2016 EU referendum campaigns.

Grace Murphy is a Bachelor of Arts (Dean's Scholar) student at the University of Wollongong with a major in International Relations and minor in Journalism and Politics. Grace is in her final year and has an interest in the politics of the EU and Irish history.

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