Brexit and the Northern Irish Border in the Mind – The Return of the Lost Border
Brexit referendums impact the shared Irish border. However, Brexit’s backstop discussion should not have come to the surprise of the European Union.
Call for sovereignty
In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. A large part of the campaign and vote for Brexit were motivated by a desire not only to regain financial control, but also to regain sovereignty over British migration policies. Interestingly enough, one border was nearly completely left out of this migration debate: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Over the past three years, there was little to no attention for the border issue on the Irish island, even though it was one of the three topics to be discussed in the Phase 1 negotiations. It proved to be a difficult topic, which negotiators appeared to move past as soon as possible in order to start on to the ‘real’ important issues such as trade.
Finalizing phase 1 cleared the way for further negotiations, but a real solution for the shared border had yet to be drawn up. Negotiators seemed to agree that, ideally, the border would be kept open. However, a more definite solution depends on the outcome of future negotiations regarding the trade and customs relations between the UK and EU. This put the process of solving the border issue back on hold. The British Brexit negotiator, David Davis, did not improve this ambiguity when he said that the phase 1 results were a mere ‘statement of intent’. Though he later retracted the comment, it did show the negotiators true colors: the border had been discussed, something had been put in writing and now all parties in Brussels could quickly move to phase 2.
A troubled past
Whereas the negotiators were able to put off the border issue, this was not an option for the people on the Irish island. The direness of the Irish reality is the core of the current ‘backstop’ discussion. The Irish border has a long history of causing dispute and conflict, and ought to be looked at with the utmost seriousness. The Troubles, the civil conflict between British-oriented Protestants and Irish-oriented Catholics, came to a conclusion after decennia of civil unrest with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, the sentiments underlying the conflict remained in the backs of people’s minds and polarization remained visible in Northern Irish society. The Troubles remained part of Irish reality. With the help of, amongst others, EU funding, efforts were made since to reintegrate the two communities and to put the country on track for a sustainable peaceful future.
The Brexit referendum has shown how volatile this new-found peace and integration are. The integration between the Protestant and Catholic communities came to a standstill, best illustrated by the discontinuation of power sharing between the Republicans and Unionists in the Northern Irish parliament Stormont.
The return of the lost border
These negative developments following the Brexit referendum have already made a lasting impression: the border is back. Though not physically visible in the border region, it has come back to life for the region’s inhabitants. In people’s minds, the long gone distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has made a lasting return, and people are again aware of the differences between them. Brexit has shown itself to be a catalyst for these developments. Where the European focus was on the economic relations across the North Sea, all this time the true tension was to be found around the Irish sea.
Even though the tree of the Troubles has been cut, the roots were never dug out. Not the planned Brexit in 2019, but the referendum of 2016 was the nutrition needed for these roots to grow again. Presently, the roots have proven to be growing in another direction than might have been anticipated before: the border has become a symbol for much more. Security in the broadest sense of the word is at stake with the future of the border. It is not necessarily a return to violence that is feared locally, but a return to societal divide and capital flight from Northern Ireland. For some, instead of fighting for Northern Ireland, the only chances for the future might be left in the European, Irish republic.
“What will happen to the Northern Irish border?”
By now, Brexit has been postponed twice over this border issue. Brussels is finally experiencing a fragment of the Irish frustration. “What will happen to the Northern Irish border?” is a question that has caused frustration, conflict and death over the last hundred years of Irish independence. The British government has managed to put it off by a century, but Brexit has changed the playing field. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit, for Northern Ireland things are already in motion - though no one seems to know where they are going.