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The myriad ways Brexit has permanently shifted the course of Northern Ireland's future

Northern Ireland’s elected reps weren’t at the Brexit talks, where very detailed aspects of NI trade were regularly discussed.

Graffiti in Belfast, PA. Graffiti in Belfast, PA.

This article is part of The Good Information Project, a new initiative from The Journal to help create greater understanding of big issues we face. This month we are focusing on the question ‘What could a shared island look like?’

BEFORE THE BREXIT vote, Northern Ireland was on a more stable trajectory.

The Scotland independence referendum had been defeated, the power-sharing Stormont Executive was still operating, somewhat effectively, and any references to a united Ireland were relatively fleeting.

A ‘Northern Irish’ identity – as distinct from an Irish or British identity – was developing, and the political support of the Alliance Party was growing apace.

The demographics of Northern Ireland have been slowly shifting from a Protestant majority to a Catholic one. “Of course there was always going to be a focus on partition again when the balance of forces were altered,” political historian Dr Éamon Phoenix told The Journal.

But there is no doubt that the Brexit vote has accelerated that process, and there is now an economic angle to the Irish unity question: full European Union membership.

Though Northern Ireland has been at the centre of the Brexit debate for the past four years, during the campaigns ahead of the EU referendum on 23 June, discussions of how Brexit could affect Northern Ireland were non-existent, or periphery at best.

A portion of the blame for this can be leveled at the Irish government – it didn’t take the threat seriously enough to campaign for Northern Ireland to be a core part of the debate, which it quickly became only after the vote.

And that thrusting of Northern Ireland into the centre of the Brexit spotlight created another split: along with nationalists vs unionists, Catholics vs Protestants, there’s a new divide: those in favour of Brexit and those against it (along with all the different shades of what ‘Brexit’ could be).

SDLP MLA and Chair of the Executive Office Committee Colin McGrath said at an Oireachtas committee that “there is always a difficulty here in Northern Ireland that any issue that we take instantly comes green or orange, and it becomes one side of the community or the other”. Brexit was no different.

ulster-powersharing Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Michelle O'Neill walks past a portrait of former DUP leader Ian Paisley. Niall Carson / PA Niall Carson / PA / PA

Instead of it being a question of what logistically and financially works best for businesses, it often became a question of loyalties, unities, and political allegiances.

He said there needs to be a collective approach to this, as “the bottom line is the sale of a potato or a pencil”, and it doesn’t matter who it’s being sold to.

But there was some evidence of the traditional green-orange split blurring in the case of Brexit: staunchly unionist groups such as the Ulster Farmer’s Union have vocally opposed Brexit. A unionist farmer who was used in a video by the DUP to voice his support Brexit for Brexit, later said he regretted his decision.

Economics can be the driving factor in these issues, Dr Phoenix argues: “I spoke to a very senior policeman from a unionist background as Brexit was being debated, and he said to me ‘Certainly, we’re getting the best of both worlds’.”

At the Brexit negotiating table, meanwhile, elected representatives of Northern Ireland were left out, at a discussion that ended up dealing with very detailed aspects of how Northern Ireland trades and how and where its people travel.

The UK government, the authority that governs aspects of how Northern Ireland operates – such as finances and electoral law – decided that Brexit meant the UK would leave the Single Market and Customs Union.

This massive policy decision, which seemed to be created on a whim, would create problems for Northern Ireland no matter what side of it a border would end up, and would lead to the Protocol being required.

Those who were at the negotiation table did field concerns from ‘stakeholders’: the UK government listened to concerns from the DUP, its partners in government; and the EU listened to Ireland’s and nationalists’ concerns about a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was invented to solve the latter concern, and its in operation today as a result. But in an attempt to keep two sides happy, it is a confused, complicated pilot project that has lead to awkward blocks to trade of things like potted plants and pets going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The clunky ways in which it has been implemented – with the EU and Ireland admitting that the Protocol could work more smoothly – is proof of that.

But it is still just three months into the Brexit process, which is a short amount of time in business and trading terms.

“There have been phyto-sanitary checks around the island of Ireland since famine times,” Dr Phoenix said of the requirement for health certificate checks on live animals and animal- and plant-derived products going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland hasn’t yet crossed its last Brexit hurdle.

The consent mechanism

brexit PA Images PA Images

In four years’ time, Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly will have to vote on whether to stay in the EU’s Single Market and keep the current Brexit regulatory checks in place, or to opt out. 

There’s a possibility that the ‘opt out’ option will be more detailed by December 2024, but as of now it’s a one-option question. As was the criticism of the EU referendum poll, this may be too complicated an issue to pose as a yes-or-no question. 

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the Northern Ireland’s MLAs will be asked, every four or eight years, to consent to the trading arrangements in articles 5-10 of the Protocol for as long as they are in place.

The vote in December 2024 will be on whether Northern Ireland wants to remain in the EU’s Single Market, remembering that Great Britain has already left it.

While the industries of Britain, Ireland, and the rest of the European Union will quietly adjust to the new Brexit rules, Northern Ireland will be facing yet another Brexit debate, as part of a greater one about what direction it wants its economy to go in.

Other articles of the Protocol, like guarantees to rights and equality; the Common Travel Area and North-South co-operation, will remain without the need for a consent vote.

And if the Assembly does vote against the current Brexit arrangements, it could see discussions return about a regulatory border on the island of Ireland. That could mean hard infrastructure.

Controversy over the vote would work

Consent can be given if a simple majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly vote in favour. This is unlike usual practice in the Assembly, where decisions are normally subject to a mechanism called the ‘petition of concern’.

The Petition of Concern is a notice signed by at least 30 MLAs and presented to the Speaker. It usually expresses concern about a motion before the Assembly. If the Speaker rules that the petition of concern should apply to a motion, the vote will require cross-community support.

This type of majority could be either of two things: parallel consent, requiring over 50% support from designated unionists and nationalists; or a weighted majority, meaning at least 40% unionists and nationalists, and 60% overall.

The petition of concern mechanism was used by the DUP on an upcoming vote for same-sex marriage, which the party opposed.

boris-johnson-visits-northern-ireland Prime Minister Boris Johnson is greeted by First Minister Arlene Foster during a visit to Enniskillen this month. PA Images PA Images

The UK government has argued that as the Brexit consent mechanism vote is on a matter which is usually in the competence of the UK government (ie, not a devolved matter),  normal Assembly procedures will not apply, and so the petition of concern does not apply.

During Brexit talks, Ireland and the EU expressed concern at the idea of giving Northern Ireland a vote that could be effectively vetoed by a minority of MLAs through the petition of concern.

“I think at the end of the day, several things will be in the balance,” Dr Phoenix says of the vote in over three years’ time.

“What will the impact of Brexit have been? How will the economists view Brexit next year, the year after that, as it impacts on Ireland and Britain in particular?

Secondly, what is the demographic shift going to deliver in terms of an Assembly over the next three years? I think we’re going to see the assembly actually changing, and next year’s Assembly elections will be highly contested.

winter-weather-jan-24th-2021 People enjoying the snowy weather on the Stormont estate. 24 January 2021. PA PA

“Many young people are inclined, like idealistic young people everywhere, to vote for radical, ‘green’ parties, and parties like Alliance, which transcends the sectarian divide.

“That sort of middle ground of the Alliance, Greens, People Before Profit, they have been attracting the votes of younger people.

“Their votes will be reflected in the Assembly going forward, and that opens up several possibilities. One is that the emphasis on North-South cooperation is going to increase because there’ll be less opposition to it within the Assembly.

“Alliance is a pro-European party, the SDLP is a pro-European party, Sinn Féin have transformed themselves into a pro-European party.

“I think at the end of the day, if you could look forward 10 years, we would see an Assembly that will be transformed. And by that stage we will know the true impact of Brexit,” he said.

The Scottish Parliament elections are to be held on 6 May this year, where the performance of the Scottish National Party will be closely watched to gauge interest in a second Scottish independence referendum.

“I would see a generation growing up in the shadow of power-sharing arrangements, and possibly in the shadow of a Brexit – which is not going badly for the UK, but a deal that has benefited the North because of access to the EU,” Dr Phoenix said.

“A united Ireland, if it’s ever achieved, is going to be achieved by economic means – it’s going to be a situation where people buy into it.”


This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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