In the 16 months since the Brexit referendum, the political landscape of the UK has changed profoundly. Nowhere has this change been more keenly felt than in Northern Ireland.
Whilst within the UK as a whole there are major differences, arguably even among the Cabinet, on what sort of Brexit there should be and a re-energising of identity politics, the question of how Brexit can best be mitigated for Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly polarised in terms of traditional green vs. orange identity politics. This is not only unfortunate, but dangerous.
Our region can only function through sharing and interdependence, yet Brexit entails new divisions and boundaries.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a landmark development in which hopes of a new, peaceful and stable future, in contrast to a defined by division and violence, could be invested.
Brexit has thrown the question of constitutional future, something that had largely been parked thanks to the Agreement, back into the centre of politics, and has contributed to the current political impasse.
In this context, any response to Brexit must respect the unique circumstances of this region – the only area of the UK that will share a land border with the EU. We must consider the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, the emergence of open and mixed identities, and the reality of the freedom to interact without meaningful obstacles on both a north-south and east-west axis.
Northern Ireland and Irish-related issues have become a key priority in the negotiations. Both the European Commission and the UK Government are committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and avoiding a border on the island of Ireland with physical infrastructure.
Yet despite these commitments in the event that either the UK as whole leaves the Customs Union or some form of special customs arrangement is put in place, then some form of physical border seems inevitable. Nothing in the UK Government’s proposals to date has provided any confidence that this can be avoided. Any such border would have major economic, political and security implications.
By contrast, there is a strong case for a unique deal or set of bespoke arrangements being put in place for Northern Ireland. There are aspects of the economy such as agri-food and energy that operate primarily on a north-south basis on the island. The profile of the Northern Ireland economy is different from the UK as a whole, especially in terms of the reliance on agri-food and more generally in terms of level of overall performance.
Furthermore, anyone born in Northern Ireland has an automatic right to become an Irish citizen and as such to be a European citizen. Finally, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that has the automatic right to rejoin the European Union, in the event that a majority wanted a united Ireland – which is not the case at present.
Many Unionists are viewing any concept of a special status or arrangement for Northern Ireland as constituting a political fracturing of the United Kingdom and a path to a united Ireland. Arguably, Sinn Fein and others have seized upon the Brexit vote to pursue their aim of unification and continue to conflate any special arrangements with the cause of a united Ireland, which in turn creates an unhelpful narrative for Unionists and others.
Brexit has challenged the narrative of a shared and interdependent Northern Ireland, and in much the same way that emotion was a significant driving factor in the leave vote, it is within this context that the emotional and psychological impact of Brexit and its consequences must be acknowledged, particularly in Northern Ireland.
Often, the concept of being European was a more anodyne and less fraught alternative of identity for some in Northern Ireland, and provided a shared framework around which people of different identities in Northern Ireland could coalesce. It implied belonging to a much larger European community for those who had European aspirations.
The Good Friday Agreement and subsequent commitment to de-militarisation of border installations and surrounding communities was significant, not only politically, but from a practical standpoint, membership of the same trading bloc as the rest of the island meant that while the border remained, it wasn’t a barrier to trade or movement of people.
In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Referendums are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.
Whilst remaining in the single market and customs union is the most logical conclusion to maintaining our integrated all Island economy and safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement, we must further explore the differing emotions around resistance to any unique arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Despite the increasingly polarised debate, it is possible to develop a way forward that is pragmatic in nature and capable of holding cross-community support.
Such an outcome could be based around continued full participation within the single market and associated adherence to the four freedoms, including that of movement. The Northern Ireland Assembly would need to have the capacity to maintain full compliance with acquis communautaire.
This could be regarded as a Devolution Max situation for Northern Ireland. This would not amount to a political fragmentation of the UK, nor would it make a united Ireland any more or less likely. And notably, it would be fully consistent with the current constitutional settlement and the Principle of Consent.
Despite the ongoing political impasse, the centrality of a functioning Assembly to the implementation of any special arrangement is fundamental. And the current EU Withdrawal Bill, which centralises powers back in Westminster, runs contrary to this.
Ultimately, the key challenge should not be in finding local agreement but achieving the support of the UK Government and EU institutions for this way forward, and with regard to the latter the door is at least open with encouraging talk of the need to find a unique solution for this region.
However, the greater challenge may lie in building a local consensus on what would constitute a unique deal. Any sense of common purpose must be reinforced by a shared identity. This reconceptualised identity both depends on a shared recognition of the importance of the EU and a shared sense of being European. This open and flexible approach to identity was an essential aspect of the Good Friday Agreement which has served Northern Ireland so well, and it is key that we continue to build on this foundation if Northern Ireland is to flourish.