Column / Brexit Briefing
The Union under threat
By Benjamin Fox
If a second Scottish referendum on independence was always one of the likely consequences of a Brexit vote, the prospect of Northern Ireland’s status in the UK coming under threat was largely ignored ahead of the referendum last June.
56 per cent of voters in Ulster voted to stay in the EU – putting the province alongside Scotland and London in having a Remain majority.
The vote broke down, in part, on sectarian lines.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has topped the poll in assembly elections since 2003, campaigned for Brexit, and Sinn Fein for a Remain vote, although DUP leader and first minister, Arlene Foster, has sounded like one of the few UK politicians with post-referendum buyers’ remorse.
In practical terms, the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland will be much more profound than for their Celtic cousins. It is the only part of the UK that has a border with an EU member state. It also has a greater reliance on EU funding and a much higher unemployment rate than the rest of the UK.
London will be expected to replace the £500 million a year in EU farming subsidies and funding for peace projects, which the region will lose after 2020.
However, Northern Irish exports – 60 percent of which go to the EU (mostly to Ireland) – could suffer if tariffs are imposed on products imported from the UK, as will happen if the UK has to fall back on WTO trading rules with the EU.
In contrast, most of Scotland’s trade is with England. It is, primarily, the imposition of EU withdrawal by England that rankles most with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party.
The May government’s White paper setting out its negotiating strategy, albeit in the broadest of terms, talks of a “seamless and frictionless” border between the North and South.
However, the government’s decision to leave the EU single market and customs union makes border controls of some kind inevitable, because Irish authorities will be obliged by the EU to enforce the European external customs border.
The potential imposition of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic has become a concern in Ireland, with many fearing it would inflame sectarian tensions.
As is the case with Scotland, May's government has ruled out any kind of special status for Northern Ireland. It also rejected amendments to the Brexit bill to support the maintenance of the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become collateral damage of Brexit,” warned Tim Boswell, who chairs the House of Lords EU committee.
Ensuring that will take concessions and tenderness from Brussels, London and Dublin.
The Lords committee has urged the EU to invite the UK to start work on a draft bilateral agreement with Ireland, focusing on the major challenges faced by Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in the wake of Brexit. Under the EU treaties, Ireland cannot enter an agreement with the UK on its own on customs and tariffs.
For his part, Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny has argued that the Brexit treaty between the EU and Britain should spell out that Northern Ireland would join the European Union again immediately if it chooses in a referendum to unite with Ireland under the provisions of the 1998 peace agreement.
Closer to direct rule
During the House of Lords’ debate on the Article 50 bill, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain warned that the peace process could "so easily unravel".
The death on Monday (20 March) of Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who swapped the gun for the ballot box, is a reminder of how fragile the peace process is.
After standing down in January, McGuinness was not replaced as deputy first minister by Sinn Fein, prompting elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, at which the Republican party came within a whisker of topping the poll.
A new government is still yet to be formed since the Stormont elections on 2 March, and if no post-election deal can be struck between Republicans and Unionists to establish a new administration, there will either be fresh elections or May's government will take over responsibility for governing the province itself: ‘direct rule’ – which has not existed since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The collapse of the EU has long been a dream scenario for a faction of Brexiteers.
Yet, while Brussels is certainly beleaguered, any schadenfreude would be misplaced: the Pandora's Box of leaving the European Union has left their own union in danger of unravelling.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.