The decision by a majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland (440,707 votes or 55.8%) to opt for the UK to remain in the EU was never really in doubt. Such certainty over the outcome of the vote, however, has given way to considerable uncertainty given the overall UK vote to leave. Many questions urgently need to be raised about the economic and political implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland, its capacity to identify its priorities and its ability, if any, to shape the UK’s negotiating position.
Theresa May’s opaque claim that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ underestimates how leaving the EU will play out differently across the UK and especially in Northern Ireland over the status of the border between this part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Concerns about any hardening of the border feed into questions of identities, still the bedrock of Northern Irish politics. The EU referendum result reflects the ‘green’ and ‘orange’ prisms that typifies a wider political polarity that resonates across all aspects of government in Northern Ireland. Whereas ’nationalist’ voters voted overwhelmingly for remain to maintain close links with the Republic of Ireland, the majority of non-professional unionist voters opted for ‘leave’ believing that this outcome strengthened links with the UK.
The issue of the EU referendum divided the two largest parties in the new power-sharing Northern Ireland executive formed in May 2016 between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which was more heavily drawn towards ‘leave’, and Sinn Fein (SF) which favoured ‘remain’. In reality neither party ever displayed much real interest in the European dimension of devolution. As the two largest parties the DUP and Sinn Fein are compelled to work together in a government where mistrust and uncertainty often abounds. Political progress and public policy developments are normally the product of carefully crafted party accommodations as neither party wants to be viewed as being driven by the other’s agenda. Both parties have operated their own fiefdoms in government, relied on internal advice and support and have always been more cautious of other external sources of expertise and advice.
The Northern Ireland Executive had not expressed any view on the EU referendum. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein more or less went underground to avoid any pro-active involvement in the EU referendum campaign. The response of both parties to the referendum result underscored clear differences on Brexit. While Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP and First Minister, enthusiastically welcomed the outcome, the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness voiced concern and raised the issue of a border poll on Irish unification if Northern Ireland were pulled out of the European Union by an English vote. The idea of a border poll was quickly dismissed by the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in May’s government, James Brokenshire, on the grounds that there was no overwhelming demand for such a poll. With a border poll placed on the back burner, the immediate challenge for the Executive was to agree a common approach to the upcoming discussions in London about the UK’s departure from the EU and its impact for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s majority vote to remain in the EU should be expected to factor in the UK wide negotiations. As in the rest of the UK, papers were lodged before the High Court in Belfast in August 2016 seeking a judicial review of the Brexit process to require the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly before Article 50 can be triggered, arguing that Brexit undermines the commitments given under the Good Friday Agreement. In the context of Northern Ireland Brexit means a change in approach to government and necessitates an agreed position within the Executive which should reflect the views from wider society. However, not only had the Executive shown no leadership on the EU or failed to address the possible implications of a Brexit prior to the June poll, it had also failed to develop any contingency plans.
It is important that the interests of Northern Ireland are defined and articulated ahead of invoking Article 50. Formal responsibility lies with the Northern Ireland (NI) Executive and the challenges facing it are considerable. Does it have firm views on customs unions versus free trade agreements and vice versa? Are there sufficiently EU focused staff in Belfast to assist the process? Seeking to engage in the negotiations with Whitehall is one thing, securing objectives is quite another.
The challenges ahead are considerable and with this region being the smallest part of the UK (with some 1.8 million people) there should be concerns that many of Northern Ireland’s core priorities – such as agriculture and fishing – may be less important issues for the UK negotiating position as a whole. The Executive needs to advance its priorities and it will be imperative for it to develop meaningful dialogue with David Davis’ Department for Exiting the European Union. Other fora to pursue Northern Irish interests will be the British-Irish Council, the Joint Ministerial Committee and direct talks with the Irish government.
By August the power sharing executive (in the form of an agreement between the two parties) had found space for some accommodation and in a two page letter to Theresa May outlined five priority concerns; the border, foreign direct investment and maintaining competitiveness; energy; EU funds and the agri-food sector (including fisheries). As the reality of life outside the EU becomes clearer, so concerns are growing about identifying Northern Ireland’s interests and the urgency grows to secure some form of recognised ‘special status’ for this region of the UK.
Brexit compels the parties of the executive to work much more closely than before to persuade the May government that its unique needs require accommodation. The Northern Ireland Executive can avoid the abyss by building a Northern Ireland network of interests by listening to the views of the three main ‘opposition’ parties (the Alliance Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party), taking on board the views of the business and third sector communities and respecting the decision to remain made by the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive needs the imagination to secure a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland.
Dr Lee McGowan is senior lecturer in European Studies at Queen’s University Belfast