Borderline: Northern Ireland in the midst of Brexit

Nathanael Williams

When Northern Ireland woke up on 23 June, it found itself leaving the EU and with its hard-won pre-referendum constitutional settlement in danger. CommonSpace spoke to the communities, politicians and campaigners about their hopes and fears for post-brexit Northern Ireland

THE laughter of children, the sound of quiet conversations, debates over culture and community development being held in front rooms, churches and halls.

These are the memories of Father John McVeigh, a clergyman and one of the lead spokesmen for the community group called Border Communities Against Brexit (BCAB). Memories of struggle but also the fight for prosperity and peace. McVeigh remembers the past well and the significance of the brexit result in the light of history and the progress that’s been made in Northern Ireland.  

Until recently he was a participant in the reconciliation group, the Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP), which laboured hard at bringing communities of different faiths and backgrounds together. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. which brought new compromise and peace to Northern Ireland, it was groups such as these that built on the atmosphere of determined goodwill and much-needed trust. But this project was heavily funded by the EU and after the referendum, the loss of the funding is dawning on all who have seen attempts to build on peace, including McVeigh.

“We’re talking about the whole of Ireland here,” McVeigh says as we talk about his concerns for the future.

“You see, it’s all about the bigger picture. Membership of the EU was crucial for Northern Ireland but not just for, you know, the economy – we’re talking about human rights, discrimination, sectarianism – the peace process.”

He makes the point that the ICPP could only get a full time employed staffer because of money from the EU. It was scaled down in 2015 but many other projects which depend on EU funding hang in the balance, as the issues around free trade and jobs are thrashed out. The north voted by 56 per cent to stay in the EU compared to the 52 per cent UK-wide leave vote. McVeigh is highly sceptical about the promises of prosperity and investment from the UK Government, which is backed by the unionist DUP first minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster.

He says: “In truth we’re depending on the Irish Government now to stand up for the democratic voice of the people of Northern Ireland.”

“You see there are a lot of people who are using the peace process as a way of hiding behind their own self interest.” Lee Reynolds

People who are pro-EU have an abundance of political choice in the six counties. Their views are shared by Sinn Fein, the nationalist force in favour of a united Ireland, the Alliance party that self describes as “liberal and centrist” and seeks to bridge the divide between communities, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). However, many have felt the current debate distant and monopolised by political wrestling, with a tendency to forget the real people whose lives will be seriously altered by the vote to leave the EU.

“This is why we formed BCAB,” McVeigh adds. 

“We’re a grassroots body that wants to make governments aware of the strong feeling of people living along the border. We don’t want to go back to the past. We don’t want to return to a hard border with all the disasters associated. We had that baggage 30, 40 years ago and we are determined to make sure it doesn’t come back.”

Even before the EU vote in June, but since then especially, the spectre of ‘the Troubles’ has been a constant presence in the back of people’s minds. The sectarian conflict between Irish nationalist and protestant loyalist communities which began in the late 1960s, only ending with the GFA in 1998, took the lives of over 3,500 people, with 50,000 casualties in total.

BCAB came together in response to the tone of the debate in the EU referendum, and in the words of its organisers, to ensure that politicians and institutions “respected the remain”. The group which has close ties to Sinn Fein (though this is disputed by some organisers) has tens of chapters in towns up and down the border between Northern Ireland and the republic, and claims to have a mix of members from different faith, community and socioeconomic backgrounds.

They emphasise the idea of building on the hope for future trust and prosperity that has been growing in recent years. Their hashtag #RespectTheRemain has been taking social media by storm in Northern Ireland with hundreds of people becoming engaged in their message and aims. The first week of October saw them come to the attention of UK media when they held several protests along the border to show their displeasure with the “sound bites” of the UK Government’s post-Brexit proposals for the country.

“The case for reunification must be advanced with care and consideration if it is to succeed. Only progressive nationalism can deliver it…not relying on a climate of fear and distrust.” Leah Rea

But figures like Lee Reynolds, leader of the DUP on Belfast city council, hold a drastically different view. Those who voted leave have their own vision of peace and prosperity and a quiet, confident air. There’s a distinct sense of frustration when we talk about the referendum and the aftermath.

“You can’t fall for the fear-mongering around the peace process. You see there are a lot of people who are using the peace process as a way of hiding behind their own self interest. Like when Tony Blair and John Major intervened and talked on the peace process, all doom and gloom – you actually saw a boost for Leave afterwards”, he says.

Reynolds was the regional coordinator of the Leave campaign for Northern Ireland and is confident of the prospects for communities in Northern Ireland as a whole and along the border. “Especially in the unionist community people are a bit sick of this scaremongering. People don’t want violence, people want peace and everyone can see that the peace process has been successful. We’ve been successful in terms of security – dealing with the dissident threat and building prosperity.”

In August this year, the country’s Chamber of Commerce published its quarterly economic survey. Despite the survey suggesting Northern Ireland’s economy was growing, almost 70 per cent of the 270 businesses who took part stated they either have revised, or plan to revise, their business plan due to the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Reynolds also dismisses the spectre of hard brexit as a “red herring”, stating that much of the discussion of a soft brexit/hard brexit is “a rear guard action by the remain campaign” desperate to turn back a vote it lost.

Advocates of the leave position say that the north could witness another industrial boom and cite the increase of exports that have already occurred. It is the view that peace can be built on prosperity, and prosperity built by facing international  markets as opposed to the EU and its single market trading block. The Centre for Policy Studies has conducted research, cited by leave voices, on so-called “free ports”. These would create areas inside the UK geographically, but legally outside of the UK customs territory. Goods would be imported, manufactured or re-exported inside the free trade zone without incurring domestic customs duties or taxes.

“The idea of being broadly social democratic, things like the NHS – these are all under threat” Claire Hanna

Claire Hanna is a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) and finance spokesperson for the SDLP. She talks about the “fundamental differences” that characterised the nature of the debate in NI and the UK, stating that economic factors were the overriding prism through which dialogue was maintained.

“Obviously it’s the economy,” she says. “We have an entirely different economy here when you consider the situation with exports. Thirty-five to 40 per cent of our exports go to the single market and with those investments and opportunities for our young people.”

On the topic of constitutional affairs, Hanna is a lot more circumspect about the future of a united Ireland resulting from brexit.

She adds: “We’re pragmatists here and from my perspective – it would be better to take an evolutionary approach to a future arrangement. We’re certainly aware of what can happen when you ask a snap question that covers so many complex issues.

“When you think about it over the long term, certainly it [brexit] has accelerated that conversation, even for a moderate nationalist such as myself. I think there has been until this point a view that we had to make this work, the political situation in NI – and – [pauses] that we could tolerate being part of the UK because there was an equal relationship inside NI and between the UK Government and Stormont.

“The idea of being broadly social democratic, things like the NHS – these are all under threat”, she says cautiously.

Leah Rea, convenor of the SDLP women’s group echoes as much, saying: “The case for reunification must be advanced with care and consideration if it is to succeed. Only progressive nationalism can deliver it, but outlining the positive case for north and south to become one and not relying on a climate of fear and distrust. Such a climate brought about Brexit, with its uncertainty and tension. The Scottish model of advancement for independence from 2014 could be emulated here.”

The climate in Northern Ireland is one of worry. The voices of those who are at the community, grassroots level or in politics can’t be surmised by the grand political agendas and camps that have so often forced themselves onto the country’s people. For certain, what unites all the people on the ground, as the political argument rages above them, is a desire for peace and prosperity. No one takes this for granted, young or old, unionist or republican, remain or leave. The next year will require politicians to keep the feelings and dreams of the people in their deliberations as they manoeuvre the landscape that is post-brexit Northern Ireland.

Picture courtesy of Matthew Murchinson, Henrikjon

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