In the year when we mark 20 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, it is important to note that Northern Ireland has changed and in some ways, changed utterly. The shadow of political violence has substantially dissipated since the dark days of the Troubles.
In other ways however, progress has been slow. Relations between the two political blocs in Northern Ireland remain unstable. The collapse of the Stormont Assembly in early 2017 is testament to the continued absence of trust in Northern Ireland.
A so-called “negative peace” environment such as this is characterised by lingering disagreement and tensions that contribute to the ongoing polarisation of the two communities. It is a vulnerable point in any peace process and progress can be derailed by unexpected and unanticipated forces. Brexit has the potential to be one such force.
Before the Referendum
Northern Ireland's relationship with the EU prior to the 2016 referendum vote was generally benign in nature. In truth, it was a largely uncontested issue. The political parties certainly differed in terms of their attitudes to Europe, but not to the point where this prevented engagement with the EU, or even with each other on EU issues.
After 1998, the relationship was largely filtered through the devolved power-sharing institutions and North-South bodies. This permitted a functional and pragmatic engagement with the EU.
Where other constitutional questions, and social and economic policies exposed division between the two communities, the EU was not an area of intense political competition. EU issues were not politicised and rarely had a polarising effect.
After the Referendum
In 2016, the UK's EU referendum brought new issues and questions to the fore. These EU issues were more political, and less functional in character, and they exposed some very stark differences between Northern Ireland's political parties and two communities.
Northern Ireland’s “negative peace” environment was receptive to the kinds of forces which Brexit unleashed. Having been a largely uncontested issue, the referendum resulted in Brexit becoming an additional source of contestation in Northern Ireland. In other words, what was a previously unpolitical matter became political, and the evident politicisation of Brexit occurred as the two political blocs became polarised on the issue.
The Problems of Brexit
The political preferences of nationalists and unionists vis-à-vis Brexit are different. Their respective interpretations of what UK withdrawal from the EU means differ, as do their formulations about Northern Ireland's status outside the EU.
The resulting politicised debate around Brexit in Northern Ireland, and in particular the constitutional connotations associated with it, have fuelled mistrust and antagonised existing political differences between the two political blocs.
Despite differing political interpretations of Brexit, there is nevertheless a shared understanding that Brexit is economically problematic for Northern Ireland.
Numerous structural peculiarities, like an over-reliance on the public sector, an underdeveloped private sector, and the relative importance of cross-border economic activities, make Northern Ireland particularly vulnerable to Brexit-related economic risks. Moreover, it is the most deprived segments of society which are likely to be hardest hit by the potential economic detriment following Brexit. And it was this cohort of society, the most economically vulnerable, who were also the most prone to political violence during the Troubles.
The possible exacerbation of economic inequalities in Northern Ireland – in conjunction with growing polarisation on numerous political issues – constitutes a threat to the region’s ongoing peace process.
This is not to suggest a return to widespread violence rather a deterioration in relationships, a dissatisfaction with the political and institutional status quo achieved by the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and a threat to progress and stability.
There is a complex, even toxic interplay between the economic effects of Brexit, and their impact on stability in Northern Ireland.
Who Speaks for Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland has not been so intensely discussed since the days of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. However, for all the debate and discussions, what is glaringly absent from one of the most important and potentially transformative events in recent British history is a strong Northern Ireland voice. The bulk of the Brexit debate and the negotiating process is between the British government, with some input from its constituent regions, and the European Commission.
This is manifestly not an optimal arrangement for accommodating Northern Ireland’s varied interests.
The fact of little direct input from Northern Ireland poses problems because it severely limits any capacity for manoeuvre on the part of those negotiating.
There is also the possibility (if not likelihood) that the resulting Brexit deal is likely to offend one community or another. An imposed Brexit settlement such as this is undesirable because it may not command the necessary legitimacy for it to be broadly acceptable or workable. Moreover, opposition to its terms may propel Northern Ireland backwards by reinforcing tensions and divisions between the blocs.
Dealing with Brexit
If a soft UK exit is not on the cards, then some form of disruption is inevitable. The question is how can Northern Ireland manage the disruption? The answer is best found within.
The most obvious and available route to staving off instability exists in the form of the institutions created by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, the Assembly and cross-Border institutions in 2017 is singularly preventing Northern Ireland from shaping its future destiny post-Brexit. This lack of engagement with institutional spaces removes a forum wherein some form of dialogue and influence (if not agreement) could be achieved.
In the absence of political moves towards the return of devolved institutions, the withdrawal formula will bear the hallmarks of those who do not necessarily have to live with its consequences in Northern Ireland. At best, this reflects poorly on Northern Ireland’s political class. At worst, it is an abdication of responsibility at a time of political and economic risk.
Brexit has challenged the current status quo in Northern Ireland and interrupted the region's political and economic trajectory. It presents profound challenges which entail difficult choices.
If there is no appetite to meet those challenges and to confront those choices, the prospects for stability in Northern Ireland are undermined and the promise of earlier political achievements may be lost.
Brexit is the single most significant economic and political challenge to face Northern Ireland since 1998. If ever there was a time to harness the opportunities and potential offered by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, surely that time is now.
- Mary C Murphy is a lecturer in politics in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork. She recently published Europe and Northern Ireland's Future: Negotiating Brexit's Unique Case (Agenda Publishing 2018)