Join us

Brexit and 'the Irish question'

What do we want to happen to the Irish border after Brexit? There isn't consensus among Christians

‘The Irish question’ has been used for several hundred years by British politicians to refer to a range of political challenges on the island. Today it seems that the whole of Europe is concerned with the Irish question; in this case what happens to the Irish border post-Brexit?

After March 2019, the invisible international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland becomes the land border between the EU and the UK. The issue cannot simply be resolved between the Irish and British governments – the border no longer divides one country from another, but one country from 27 seven others. 

The border winds its way for more than 300 miles, dividing farms and streams, fields and country roads. More than 30,000 people cross the border every day for work, and 6,000 lorries containing livestock and goods cross it too. Northern Ireland sells 60 per cent of its goods to the rest of the UK and about 15 per cent to the Republic of Ireland. The impact of any potential economic detriment because of a change in the border is going to be felt most immediately and strongly in Northern Ireland, where household disposable income already sits at £3,000 below the UK average.

In the last few days we have seen megaphone diplomacy with soundbites being volleyed back and forth between French politician Michel Barnier, European chief negotiator for the UK exiting the EU, and Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of the next crucial moment of truth’ summit in October. The idea of a customs border in the Irish Sea has been rejected by the Government as unacceptable”, and a technological solution in relation to trade will not solve many of the other the complicated political and legal issues of sovereignty.

In the last few days we have seen megaphone diplomacy with soundbites being volleyed back and forth.

Of course, the current Irish question only complicates existing issues around the border and the constitution. We are just three years out from the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the creation of the border. This year marks 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and the constitutional arrangement contained within it, whereby Northern Ireland remains part of the UK until the majority of people here decide otherwise. In the white paper the UK Government restated its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and its preference for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

In contrast, Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, has said that Brexit is making the reunification of Ireland a more imminent reality”. This question has not yet been put to the people here via a referendum, but the Secretary of State can call a referendum when it appears to them that there is a change in majority opinion.

Combining some statistics around public opinion in Northern Ireland on Brexit and the Irish border we see some interesting ground developing. The majority of people in Northern Ireland who voted in the EU referendum voted to remain (56 per cent), with 44 per cent voting to leave. Around 85 per cent of Catholics who voted in the referendum voted to remain compared to 40 per cent of Protestants. Similarly, 88 per cent Nationalists voted to remain compared to 34 per cent of Unionists.

In June this year, an opinion poll of 1,000 people, which featured in the Irish News, found that 71 per cent would prefer to remain in the EU if there were another referendum, and Protestant/​British people were least likely to endorse the EU if there were a second referendum. Interestingly, however, more than half (56 per cent) of respondents said that if a border poll was held they would want to remain as part of UK, while 21 per cent would vote for a United Ireland and 23 per cent were undecided.

So, we see that most people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU (56 per cent), but at the same time, most people (again 56 per cent) say they would vote to remain in the UK if a border poll was called. It seems that these two options are going to be practicably mutually exclusive and so the question becomes about which identity matters most. This is where Irish Republicans and Nationalists see new ground in appealing to the 40 per cent of Unionists who voted to remain in the EU.

Questions of national identity, constitutional sovereignty and borders are not new in Northern Ireland, but there will be a new aspect to the conversation post-Brexit. As Christians we will wrestle and differ from each other in our outlook as we navigate this space. We seek to do this well and take a moment to simply remind ourselves and each other that our identity is found in the sovereign Lord whose love and grace crosses all borders. 

About the author

David is our lead on public policy. He is a former solicitor and represents the Evangelical Alliance on a range of government, civic and charitable forums. He serves in the space where faith, law, politics and culture intersect.

See more from David Smyth

You are already subscribed to our mailing list.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

By signing up you agree to our Data Protection Statement