By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
Britain’s formal withdrawal from the European Union (EU) began on Jan. 31. Upon completion, the United Kingdom – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – will no longer be a member of the 27-nation open, single market.
In 2016, British citizens voted in a referendum whether the nation should withdraw from the EU. By a narrow and contentious 52 percent vote, Britons chose to leave the EU (Brexit). In England, 53.4 percent voted to leave and in Wales, 52.5 percent voted to leave. But in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the majority opted to remain part of the EU, with only 38 percent and 44.2 percent, respectively, voting to leave the EU.
The UK and the EU now must work together throughout the rest of 2020 on the transition that will officially remove the UK from membership in the EU’s single-market and customs union.
Northern Ireland and UK Need a New Trade Agreement
Northern Ireland split its votes geographically. The counties closest to the Republic of Ireland, including Ulster, voted to remain part of the EU.
One of the issues that the governing bodies need to resolve is a new trade agreement. For a majority of the United Kingdom, the solution is straightforward; tariffs and other trade barriers will be placed on items entering the UK from the EU and, likewise, on those entering the EU from the UK.
At the heart of the dilemma is how Northern Ireland will trade with the UK and the rest of the EU after Brexit is completed. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are geographically separated from the rest of the UK. England and Wales are separated from Ireland by the Irish Sea. The narrow Northern Channel, only 13 miles wide at its narrowest point, separates them from Scotland.
There would be no problem if physical separation were the only issue. But Northern Ireland shares a 310-mile long border with the Republic of Ireland, which, as an independent country, remains part of the EU.
Unlike the remaining half of the UK, whose border checkpoints at airports and seaports will now include EU nations, checkpoints along the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is not a viable solution for either country. Neither wants a return to the fratricidal conflict known as “the Troubles.”
Catholics and Protestants Waged a 30-Year War Known as the ‘Troubles’
From 1968 to 1998, Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland waged a bitter civil war against their Protestant neighbors for the destiny of the UK province. The Roman Catholic nationalists, led by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the majority Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland. The largely Protestant unionists fought to remain part of the United Kingdom. They were led by a fire-brand Protestant minister, Ian Paisley.
During this conflict, more than 3,600 people were killed and thousands more were injured, the majority of them civilians. British army troops called in to quell the fighting were attacked, bombed, and killed by nationalist sympathizers led by a paramilitary arm of the Sinn Fein.
Good Friday Agreement Acknowledged Northern Ireland as Part of the UK
In 1998, the “Good Friday Agreement” acknowledged Northern Ireland as part of the UK. As a part of the agreement, the UK recognized the birthright of all people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish, British, or both as they chose. As a result, they had the right to hold British and Irish citizenship.
This deal eliminated the need for a hard-border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Currently, there are over 200 soft-border crossing points, but under Brexit, the status of these crossings is unknown.
A key part of the agreement might involve reorganizing Northern Ireland. Voters in the Republic and in Northern Ireland may end up deciding whether to remain part of the UK or become part of a united Ireland, however this vote cannot occur until 2025 due to UK electoral policies.
Options for the Future of Northern Ireland
There are several options available. The first option would bring back the hard-border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, that would isolate the Nationalists in Northern Ireland and violate the Good Friday Agreement. This option could also reignite the 30-plus years of fighting between the two factions.
The second option would erect a border around the UK mainland, leaving Northern Ireland in the EU Customs Union. But that option would betray the Unionists and also violate the Good Friday Agreement. This option could result in the Northern Irish feeling betrayed by the UK and push them toward favoring a united Ireland.
A third option, and the one under strong consideration by Prime Minster Boris Johnson, is the creation of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland. Some goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK that are deemed “at risk” of being exported to the EU would be subject to paying EU import taxes. If the goods in question remain in Northern Ireland, then import fees are refunded. But there is no refund if the goods are shipped to the Republic of Ireland.
The fourth option is a united Ireland. In the past, when both Ireland and Northern Ireland were part of the EU, the open borders and free trade provided little incentive for the two nations to reunite. Now, if the UK decides to go with hard-borders, the only way for Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU would be through reunification.
Northern Ireland Responses to the Options
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary stated on February 24, 2020, “We always said there will not be a border down the Irish Sea, there’ll be unfettered access for business.” Based on this comment.
Furthermore, Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister, recently stated in regards to the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK that “the agreement clearly says if there have to be checks anywhere, they would happen at the ports and airports in Northern Ireland rather than on the land border between north and south.”
Between the comments made by Lewis and Varadkar, the first three options seem to be off the table, leaving only option four.
Is Reunification Likely?
For the first time in history, Northern Ireland representatives in the British Parliament are not Unionist who want to stay in the UK; rather, they are Nationalists who favor joining the Republic of Ireland. This new alignment, coupled with the fact that a majority of Irish citizens voted to stay in the EU, is worrisome.
Adding to the likelihood of reunification was a court ruling that said while Northern Ireland citizens could identify as Irish and hold Irish passports, they are British first. The upcoming 2021 Northern Ireland census is likely to show that for the first time Catholics outnumber Protestants there. That could further shift the balance in favor of a poll on whether Northern Ireland wants to join Ireland as a single nation.
Former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern told Irish Central that he believes “it is inevitable that a border poll will happen this decade.” Although he does not believe the two entities are ready for reunification at this time, he said that the issue is “growing” because Brexit has brought it to center stage.
For many Northern Irish, their link to the UK is more with Scotland than England or Wales. So if Scotland votes successfully for independence, then the question of Northern Ireland remaining in the UK becomes even murkier.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.