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21 July 2016

Northern Ireland, Brexit and the border

Northern Ireland, Brexit and the border

Since the moment a 'Leave' result was declared on the morning of 24 June, the landscape of politics in the UK and across Europe changed dramatically. New consequences and opportunities continue to emerge daily and there is no doubt that the practicalities of our new relationship with Europe, from outside the Union, will shape the public discourse for the foreseeable future.

In Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, questions of further referenda on leaving the United Kingdom were being raised within hours of the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU.

In Northern Ireland 56 per cent of those who voted chose to remain in the EU. Although sharing office together, the joint First Ministers reacted very differently to the result. The DUP was the only larger party at the Assembly which campaigned for a 'Leave' vote (the others were the Traditional Unionist Voice and People Before Profit). Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party hailed the result as the right decision, stating, 'we are now entering a new era of an even stronger United Kingdom.' Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin on the other hand saw the result here and across the UK as providing 'a democratic imperative' for a referendum on the re-unification of Ireland.

The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement provides the basis for the current constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the statutory basis for any change through a referendum. Essentially Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of the population here wish it to do so - the principle of consent. The call as to whether a referendum is initiated is made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He/She can call a referendum when they have clear evidence of a shift of public opinion which would support a change in the current constitutional position. The argument being put forward since the day of the referendum, and reignited this week by comments by the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, is that the EU result in Northern Ireland could be read as such a significant democratic disconnect as to trigger a referendum on the border.

In polling conducted by the BBC and RTE and released in November last year just 13 per cent of people here wanted a United Ireland in the short to medium term. This rises to 30 per cent who would like to see Irish unity in the course of their lifetime. In the South of Ireland the numbers rise to 36 per cent in the short to medium term and 66 per cent in the course of their lifetime. No doubt new polling will be carried out post the referendum result but at this stage it's difficult to know whether those who wished to remain with the EU would vote to reunify Ireland primarily be part of the EU again. National and cultural identity here are certainly not that straightforward.

This border conversation matters for a number of very practical policy reasons which could have huge ramifications for the rest of the U.K:

1.Firstly, as noted already, the decision to leave the EU has actually raised the potential again for at least of two of the four constituent nations leaving the UK. Political relationships are not just strained between the UK and Europe but within the nations of the UK. The irony is that many who voted for the UK to leave on the grounds of greater sovereignty may find that the result threatens, rather than strengthens, the constitutional position within the United Kingdom.

2. Secondly the border in Northern Ireland now represents not just the boundary between two sovereign countries but the only land border between the UK and Europe. The new Secretary of State, James Brokenshire has been quick to state that he is very keen that a common travel area continues to exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic. However it is not inconceivable that even if the UK and ROI are keen to continue the current soft-border arrangements, the EU could insist on a more formal process around security and the movement of people into their Union. There has been much debate around the border, security and immigration but as yet no cast iron guarantees about what changes, if any, will come into force. As the conversation unfolds there is no doubt that the border which separates this island will be a major focus of UK/EU immigration policy.

3. Just a few years ago, the Irish and British Prime Ministers said that relations between the countries 'had never been better'. Trade, cultural and family links are sure to remain strong but there is no doubt that the border conversation around the EU result marks a new era of relationship with fresh challenges. It may be that a new agreement is required between the British and Irish Governments, together with the Executive here, about the practicalities of policy relating to Northern Ireland until and following the exit from Europe.

4. Within the internal policy and politics of Northern Ireland the constitutional issue is never far away. A consultation on the new Programme for Government for the next five years of the Northern Ireland Executive ends tomorrow, 22 July. The consultation document sets out a very broad and ambitious vision, much of which we welcome. However there is no mention whatsoever of the U.K. exiting Europe. The Republic of Ireland is Northern Ireland's biggest trade partner with 34 per cent of exports going there and 26 per cent of imports coming from there. Any economic vision must take the potential of new trade agreements, yet to be negotiated, into account. Aside from very practical issues like business and travel, the re-ignition of the constitutional debate is always met with caution when a small number of paramilitary groups on both sides of the debate still exist who see violence as sometimes necessary to achieve political ends. To date though, it has been positive to see the constitutional issue raised in Northern Ireland political debate not simply in terms of unionism and nationalism but with wider identities and perspectives engaged.

5. Finally and more specifically to Christians, many churches and Christian Charities here operate on an all-island basis. There will no doubt be additional bureaucracy and difficulty in running a single institution across an island where part of it is subject to EU regulations and the other part is not. This will not deter the most important Christ-kingdom mission of these organisations and churches, but is no doubt of practical concern at an administrative level.

This short piece is just scratching the surface of some of the issues raised around the border and the UK's exit from the EU. There will no doubt be many opportunities and practical challenges for Christians here as we continue to seek the best for this place through the love, life and message of Jesus Christ.


   Photo used under CC license- MajorCalloway