Petra Pakozdi

European Affairs Analyst

“It was like there was one rule for certain people and one rule for everyone else.”- Political turmoil in Northern Ireland

The consequences of Brexit pose threats to the unity of the European Union and to the United Kingdom itself. After holding a referendum about leaving the UK in Scotland, Northern Ireland is starting to feel the political and economic influences of Brexit as well. Historically, Northern Ireland’s population is divided between the mostly Protestant Unionists and the mostly Catholic Nationalists. The reason for this polarization is that many people would like to stay part of the United Kingdom (Unionists), while many of them would like to have political unity with the Republic of Ireland (Nationalists).

As the United Kingdom left the European Union on the 31st of December decisions on border questions with the customs union came into practice. During the Brexit negotiation, the UK’s government decided to recommend having a “sea border” between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to be able to check products coming out and going into the European Union’s customs union. This pact means that Northern Ireland remains in the single market of the EU for goods. The reason for this proposition is going back to 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Arrangement.

This settlement provided to end the largest political conflict of Northern Ireland, stop the violence of the Troubles. This ethno-nationalist struggle lasted for 30 years from the 1960s to the 1990s. As Northern Ireland’s community is severely polarized historically, the conflict evolved around the constitutional question of NI. The Good Friday Agreement includes agreements about the system of government and established institutions between the UK, the NI and the Republic of Ireland. Central questions also cover civil and cultural rights, demilitarization and policing activities. It also includes a convention by which there cannot be a physical boundary between the NI and the Republic of Northern Ireland.

By the “sea border”, the aftermath of Brexit avoids a hard land border. However, many people living in NI feel that by these new checks they are not equal to UK citizens living in Scotland, Wales and England, especially supporters of the Unionists. As this decision came into practice on the first of January, citizens started to feel the effects of the new policies implemented.

“There has been this brewing fear on the Unionist side that they are not as British as people in Birmingham,”- commented Feargal Cochrane.

However, this was just an underlying reason for the violence that started on the 29th of March, centred around Unionists areas of Belfast. Recently, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute 24 members of the nationalist party for breaking the COVID-19 regulations by attending the funeral of Bobby Storey- a member of the Irish Republican Army. Not surprisingly, the IRA played a dominant role in the violence of the Troubles before 1998. People started to feel as they deserve different treatment, not equal rules apply to them. During the violence, 90 officers have been hurt predominantly by loyalist youth and criminal gangs. Interestingly, the confusion started in the area of Londonderry with the lowest level of educational attainment in Europe.

After the fights, there is a fear that the Troubles’ period may start again and the region will get into an uncertain political and economic future. The repercussion of the UK leaving the customs union will be seen just in the future by the country’s economic performance. During that time people will be able to decide whether they have decided to Leave or Remain correctly. In Northern Ireland, the historical polarisation of the public will always affect their political decisions and probable conflicts.

Surprisingly, there is a potential to hold a referendum about the constitutional situation of NI as the Good Friday Agreement also included a possibility of uniting Ireland again. After the Brexit tensions, public opinion is shifting smoothly maybe towards a long way to unify NI and the Republic of Ireland. This question might be determined after the resignation of Northern Ireland’s first minister, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster. The announcement has been made after tensions over handling the Brexit, which also shows how the political balance of NI is affected by leaving the EU. 

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