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Trade, religion, nationalism: What happens to Northern Ireland after Brexit?

Luca Pixner '20

Managing Editor


For the United Kingdom and Ireland, this February has proven highly significant on political grounds. First, as of Jan. 31, the UK has officially begun the full withdrawal process from the European Union, which is set to be completed by Dec. 31, 2020.


Second, on Feb. 8, Ireland held general elections that signaled changes in the country’s political landscape. By popular vote, Sinn Féin—a center-left, Irish republican party under the lead of Mary Lou McDonald—came out just slightly ahead of Ireland’s historic rival parties: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Some have raised concerns over Sinn Féin having alleged connections to the IRA (Irish Republican Army) that fought for the unification of Ireland and Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Contemporary geographical map of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Photo Courtesy of Geology.com

In a post-Brexit UK and Europe, the question of Northern Ireland’s status is particularly complex and reflects the region’s contentious history. Ireland succeeded from the UK in 1922, at the end of the Irish War of Independence, thus ending centuries of British colonial rule over the Irish isle. At the same time, however, under the AngloIrish Treaty of the same year, a conglomeration of six northeastern counties remained within the UK. This part of the Irish isle is today known as Northern Ireland (NI). The majority of Northern Ireland’s population is Protestant, at roughly 48%, while 45% identify as Catholic.


This almost equality in numerical terms of Northern Irish Christian groups hints at an overarching problem. While Ireland is predominantly and historically Catholic, the rest of the UK is traditionally Protestant. Therefore, religious identity reflects, to a certain extent, ethnic and nationalist affiliation and origin as well. Culminating in the height of Irish and UK tension, Northern Ireland was the main site of “The Troubles”—a period from roughly 1969 to 1998 that was marked by widespread political unrest and military intervention.


In this “Northern Ireland conflict,” Irish paramilitaries with strong nationalist ideologies fought against the British Armed forces and “Ulster loyalists,” also known as (mostly) Protestant proUK citizens of Northern Ireland. The Troubles witnessed “low-level war” (which some experts, however, say inaccurately describes the scale of the conflict) as well as mass protests and a high number of terrorist attacks, especially bombings. As a result of the decade-long conflict, a total of approximately 3,500 people were killed; more than half were civilians. In light of the 47,000 or so additionally injured people, the number of casualties exceeded 50,000—data vary among sources, making it hard to determine exactly the number of people who were affected.


The Troubles came to an end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, also referred to as the Belfast Agreement. Two referendums had been held prior: one in the Irish Republic, asking whether the country would approve of the resolution—that is to say, if Northern Ireland decided to stay with the UK. Another one was held in Northern Ireland, asking its population whether they would accept the agreement that was set forth by a joint UK-Irish effort to end violence. All but one Northern Irish political party favored the agreement, which resulted finally in the end of The Troubles after almost 30 years.


Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK, but its citizens were free to choose their cultural and religious identity. In addition, given that both Ireland and the UK had, by the late 1990s, both been part of the EU, free movement across national borders was granted to all people. In light of Brexit, then, the question (again) arises of what the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will look like after Jan. 31, 2020.


Both EU and UK (and Ireland) agreed that there should be no “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the isle. In technical, trade terms, this means that Northern Ireland will continue following EU customs code and certain trade rules regarding agriculture and manufacturing. The rest of the UK, however, will no longer enforce these regulations after December 2020. There might be a number of check points for products entering the UK through Northern Ireland, but parties on both sides of the Irish sea are interested in minimizing bureaucratic damage to trade and travel.


What the issue of the Irish border between UK/ Northern Ireland and Ireland will eventually boil down to is what kind of Brexit deal will be negotiated as the year progresses and the transition/implementation period comes to an end. With clear guidelines and formulations, a “dealexit” that is agreed on by both the UK and EU would allow Northern Ireland and its people to interact almost freely with the UK and, importantly, Ireland.


Still, some worry that if such a deal is not reached, Northern Ireland might find itself in a tricky economic position, with trade and customs, among others, undecided. Despite this mostly economic uncertainty, people and politicians and institutions on both islands are invested in preventing a resurgence of divisive sentiments and policies that resulted in the violence and military escalations of last century’s series of conflicts and sociopolitical anxieties.

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