The unprecedented change facing Northern Ireland

The virtually unmarked Irish-UK border near the Northern Irish town of Newry, UK

The virtually unmarked Irish-UK border near the Northern Irish town of Newry, UK - Credit: DPA/PA Images

Northern Ireland will mark 100 years of its existence on May 3, 2021. In the meantime the government of the Republic has launched a radical new policy calling for “A Shared Island”. This new emphasis on sharing points to a United Ireland as an aspiration rather than a policy. In parallel, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union in pursuit of a “Global Britain”.

This is a heady cocktail of potential change in these islands. For Northern Ireland, in particular, it heralds a changing relationship within the UK even though its citizens are in many cases completely unaware of the changing circumstances.

For 100 years Northern Ireland has endured an internal governance which was never recognised by outsiders as satisfactory. Violence, bigotry, discrimination, gerrymandering and sectarian conflict have been the hallmarks of too many of those years. It has seldom been able to govern itself responsibly, relying frequently on direct rule from Westminster or in more recent times, having to relinquish major responsibilities to the governments of Ireland and Britain acting together.

Internal politics continue to reflect irreconcilable party political philosophies in the main political groupings despite valiant efforts to eradicate these extreme positions from a growing but still less than overwhelming centre ground. Sinn Fein continues the pursuit of rapid Irish unity. The DUP espouses loyalty to the Queen and adheres to 17th century memories of religious battles in order to secure the voting power it needs to maintain its leading position at the ballot box.

At grass roots levels, social polarisation remains alive and well with around 100 ‘peace walls’ still standing in Belfast and in some other places such as Derry/Londonderry, Lurgan and Portadown, to separate Catholics and Protestants from violating each other’s territory. The paramilitary activity has largely come to an end but the days when the radio and television news announced “another day, another clean up operation” following yet more bombings in urban centres, are not so far away.

In the countryside the role of the Hibernian Hall and the Orange Hall retain their social significance as dividers of society and the schools remain in large part the symbol they always were of religious segregation although this is in a slow process of change.

Remarkably, it is still the case that some older Protestants still refer to the Republic as “the Free State” and seldom if ever go across the border. The two Communities, Protestant and Catholic, the two “traditions” as they are euphemistically termed, live side by side, seldom intermingling in local communities and wary of each other’s movements. Of course this does not apply to anything like the same extent among the professional and middle classes but even there social divisions are all too evident.

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There is also a feeling of helplessness. The absence of a devolved government reflects the reality that the elected leaders are still failing to learn to live with each other, this after 100 years of failure of being able to do so. There are very few outside influences and voters feel that they have few opportunities to effect change. A substantial minority would be happy with permanent direct rule from London and eschew the world of politics.

The awareness of outside events is limited by a fairly restricted coverage of current affairs. Among the Protestant population there is a fixation with the prospect of a United Ireland without much discussion on the pros and cons. It is simply seen as a threat. It is a form of paranoia engendered in the bad old days of the de Valera presidency and his Catholic hegemony. It was later underpinned by the Irish constitutional claim to the north, never forgotten by loyalists to this day in spite of the Revocation of the Constitutional Clauses 2 and 3 in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement.

Britain is seen in Northern Ireland to be a symbol, loved and hated respectively across the sectarian divide. There is little interest in the current affairs of England, Wales or Scotland but attention is always paid to events in London and Dublin. Relations with the south have certainly changed for the better. The Good Friday Agreement has given Ireland a right to remain in the forefront of political evolution in the north. The peace process is protected by the EU and the Americans and is generally regarded internationally as a major stepping stone into the future, even though locally in Northern Ireland it is treated with a degree of cynicism.

There is an awareness of the European Union with the public divided in the Brexit vote but nevertheless a majority for Remain. The United States is a friend for both communities. Both Protestants and Catholics can relate to American leaders past and present. The first American consulate in the world was located in Belfast to help Presbyterians to emigrate in the mid to late 1800s. The Commonwealth is talked about but little understood and wrongly believed to be a British asset of some kind and which some people think the Republic might rejoin.

Relations at the level of Northern Ireland governance remain strained largely as a result of the irreconcilable philosophies already mentioned. That is unlikely to change even though the centre ground as represented by Alliance, the SDLP and elements of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Greens try hard. Republican and Loyalist mutual loathing is not far below the surface and to vote to keep an opponent out is often the preferred option. A vote against Republicanism is a vote in favour of the DUP. A vote against Loyalism is a vote for Sinn Fein. There are very few policies to discuss and these them or us attitudes greatly limit the influence of moderate parties.

Since the Good Friday Agreement and until relatively recently, the situation was in reality one in which Northern Ireland continued to be unable to govern itself responsibly. The Northern Ireland Executive had ceased to function and thus the two governments of Great Britain and Ireland were in fact the ringmasters.

No matter that Northern Ireland was costing the British exchequer £11 billion per year, a sum equivalent to the British contribution to the EU but seldom mentioned in the media or parliament. Or that the Irish aspiration of unity was so conveniently long term as not to be an immediate problem in the internal politics of the Republic.

It has frequently been claimed somewhat sarcastically by northern Unionists that the Republic simply couldn’t afford the admittedly high costs necessary to replace the British annual subvention and that per capita extrapolation of £11 million per annum from a UK population of around 67 million to an Irish one of fewer than 5 million would be unsustainable. Southern commentators swept away these assertions, claiming that the Europeans and Americans would help in the end.

Little thought was given however, north or south, as to how the northern population would react to having their pensions propped up by continental taxpayers or the American dollar or that as the NHS has no equivalence in the south northern medication would suddenly have be paid for.

Talk of border referenda and in parallel, obvious British lack of interest, combine to underline a sense of helplessness among ordinary people whose interest in politics has been worn away by fruitless attempts to reconcile. In general Northern Ireland is now in relative peace, economically well supported by Britain and in no hurry to disturb relative personal comforts, pensions and a good health service, while enjoying the peace which has been negotiated principally by British and Irish ministers. During that British/Irish led process, the Northern Ireland party participants, initially reluctantly but then gradually, began to see the strategic objective.

The DUP objected right to the end but after a few years came fully on board, their leaders and Sinn Fein accepting the positions of First and Deputy First Minister, designations of political equality. Central to this peace has been the Good Friday Agreement, registered as a treaty by the United Nations, the EU and the US administration. It was and is, internationally acclaimed as an act of successful diplomacy.

Now the consequences of Brexit are destroying that quiet idyll. The prospects for a United Ireland are being replaced by the hopes for a Shared Island. The kaleidoscope has changed the pattern. Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and customs union in a unique and so far unfinished negotiation.
There will be a border in the Irish Sea somewhere. Ireland has much to lose. Scotland is unhappy. Wales is beginning to rumble discontent. London is concerned. But England appears relatively unperturbed so far. England is turning inwards with the new phalanx of Red Wall constituencies dominating inter party debate. The well established north/south divide, in which the south east is seen to be the ever-winning and centralising force, remains so far intact. These internal pressures are having the effect of taking political and governmental focus in Westminster further away from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The pandemic has also tended to take precedence over the economic and political future within much of Northern Ireland. Opportunities of an island-wide economic reawakening have yet to emerge. There will be inevitable consequences of an isolated Britain on the prospects of much of Northern Ireland business whose main market has been Great Britain. And at Westminster the new arrangements for Northern Ireland are being given scant attention only by hard line sovereignty ideologues and the DUP who have little interest in the relative economic advantage Northern Ireland might gain in the new all island EU arrangement. These hardliners rely on the constitutional and sovereignty based arguments to protect the Brexit objectives of complete independence from any external collaborations which might sully sovereign rights.
Momentous changes are in train, the potential scale of which for Northern Ireland will be unprecedented in the 100 year history of the country.

More deep seated change is on the way elsewhere. This time from the south. Almost unreported in the British media, the manifesto of the Irish coalition partners Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens, contained within it a pledge to establish mechanisms to begin a process leading to what was termed “A shared Island”. At the time the phrase was felt to mean some change of emphasis away from the time honoured “United Ireland” mantra towards a softer concept of a “Shared Ireland”. The policy was clear. The target was indeed “A shared Island”. It means that the traditional concept of unity has been replaced, at least for the time being, by the idea of sharing a space.

It implies that the island will be shared by more than a single philosophy. While it is true that many outside observers look forward to a United Ireland, the necessary steps required to achieve it are more complex than is popularly understood. For example, in a pre-Brexit opinion poll, only 27% of Catholics in Northern Ireland were in favour of a United Ireland. No such figures are available in the Republic. Unity requires, as a prerequisite, that referenda are held north and south on the same day for the process to begin. So the “shared island” policy has taken precedence.

A special office has been established to begin to explore how this can be implemented. It clearly represents an invitation to those in the northern part of the island of Ireland to express themselves as to their wishes. But so far there has been silence or at best scepticism. If this process is to get off the ground, an important role will be played by the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly by those relating to the North/South Ministerial Council.

An arrangement such as this could serve a useful purpose in discussing and coming to conclusions on policy issues affecting both parts of Ireland in the European context, with agriculture being among the most important and financially significant. Many questions will remain on the table for the Ministerial Council. Among them will be the nature of the representation from Northern Ireland when representations are made to the EU from Ireland as a whole. At present it is the government of the UK which is responsible for the external representation of Northern Ireland interests. In these new circumstances the Irish government as an EU member will require some new arrangement to be agreed which will allow Northern Ireland interests to be represented at both technical as well as ministerial and political levels.

In response to these unprecedented rearrangements, Ireland is expected to suffer severely from a UK no-deal Brexit or a weak free trade agreement. The Irish government has strengthened its consulate in Cardiff, opened a new one in Glasgow and in Liverpool too. Meetings have been taking place between Dublin and Edinburgh and are being contemplated between Dublin and Cardiff. Irish relations with the north are back on track now that the northern executive is again functioning. Meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council can resume, covering as they do a significant number of joint economic interests.

As the economic post-Brexit relations between Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are pointing towards closer cooperation, the signals coming from Whitehall and Westminster are very different. Sovereignty ideologues in the ranks of Brexit supporters argue in favour of a greater degree of centralised control from the centre. Such divergent pressures point towards a weakening rather than a strengthening of the internal United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland argue for greater devolution as do more of the English regions too. These entities are beginning to express a greater willingness to secure more cohesion with each other economically. There is also a greater degree of cultural solidarity between any one of the Celtic countries, including Ireland, than with Anglo Saxon England.

Once again, Northern Ireland is in the exceptional position of finding itself split almost evenly between those who believe themselves to be Irish and Celtic and those who staunchly defend their British identity, even if the identification on the British side is more with Scotland than with England. Scotland shows every sign of deep seated dissatisfaction with current constitutional arrangements and is arguing for more devolution out of London post-Brexit, in contrast to current government suggestions of strengthening the union of the UK by more centralisation rather than loosening it. Scotland, Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland are pulling against this English-led trend.

A new arrangement, possibly fostered from within the British/Irish Council could provide the possibilities for both parts of Ireland, Wales and Scotland to band together in quasi-confederal form as a 14 million strong economic segment of a reformed British/Irish economic council, larger by population than many current EU members. It would have close relations with Europe as Ireland and Northern Ireland would be part of the single market already. Scotland would decide where its best interests lie in a referendum and could conceivably use further devolution in the post-Brexit setting to forge closer economic ties with Europe without giving up its continuing constitutional position as part of the UK.

Wales is also divided on the question. The reduction in the value of the landbridge it provides to Ireland and Europe through the UK, as a direct consequence of Brexit, could be replaced by shared economic interests between Wales and Ireland as private sector investors move out of London to Dublin and other European capitals.

So Brexit itself and the changes in Northern Ireland which it is expected to bring, are likely to alter the nature of relationships within and between these islands. The United Kingdom is likely to become less united. Scotland seems clear on its ambition to move further down the path of devolution. It is already opening links with Ireland. Northern Ireland is not likely to be able to achieve self-government along Welsh or Scottish lines and its relations with Ireland will alter the direction of its future economic development within the European single market. Wales shows signs of discontent and its proximity to Ireland and the European Link may provide a stronger gravitational pull than will London.

A stronger governmental centralisation from London will precipitate a reaction from Wales and Scotland and the implementation of the Irish Protocol will alter the relations between Northern Ireland and both Great Britain and Ireland at the same time. The British/Irish Council seems to be the proper place to discuss these matters. But English concerns may move in a different direction. That would be a signal for discussions to begin at the invitation of Scotland or Wales in one of their countries and involve both parts of Ireland in the process. If that happens, the constitutional implications for the United Kingdom will be profound and unpredictable.

  • Geoff Martin was the inaugural head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland 1979 – 1984, and was later Head of the European Commission Representation in the UK, 1993 – 2002.
  • This article first appeared on The Federal Trust website

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