By Christopher Thomas
Rabat – Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom’s enclave on the Irish island, is overwhelmingly disappointed by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
It, along with Scotland and London, largely voted Remain, while the other major regions all voted to Leave. The UK is currently reeling from the magnitude of the decision, with Prime Minister David Cameron declaring his impending resignation and the pound dropping to its lowest levels against the US dollar since 1985.
Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, has called for a border poll within his territory. The next steps for Northern Ireland are uncertain, but some officials have predicted a border wall between it and the Republic of Ireland, including passport control checks. Others contemplate a boundary around Great Britain itself, effectively isolating Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Three of the four major parties, Sinn Fein (of which McGuinness is a member), SDLP, and Alliance, have voted Remain, while the Democratic Unionist Party has chosen Leave. McGuinness’s comments seem to support a second Scottish referendum, in which they would decide whether to remain in or leave the United Kingdom. An independent Scotland would likely increase the chances of a non-UK Northern Ireland.
Declan Kearney, the Sinn Fein chairman, called for a referendum on unification with the Republic of Ireland. As an influential member of the largest Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland, his proposal carries heavy weight. McGuinness supported Kearney’s proposal, calling this referendum a “democratic imperative.” However, Arlene Foster, leader of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party, finds a vote to unify all of Ireland inconceivable.
Northern Ireland’s political situation and history are highly cohesive with the European Union. Since 1989 they have enjoyed financial support from the EU, which launched the PEACE I program in 1995 to “support peace and reconciliation and to promote economic and social progress in Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland,” according to the program’s website. PEACE I, II, and III together have totaled EUR 1.3 billion, and PEACE IV was expected to contribute another EUR 270 million. This money has funded efforts to “support victims and survivors [of the violence concerning Northern Ireland’s political future], young people, small business enterprises, infrastructure and urban regeneration projects, as well as projects in support of immigrants and of celebrating the ethnic diversity of society as a whole.”
The historical Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which resolved the violent period of Troubles and negotiated peace between Great Britain and Ireland, incorporated EU membership into the peace process. The EU had given these two sides a neutral platform upon which to work: the European Council. Given the EU’s own regulations on human rights, the Irish militants were more comfortable ceding Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Without binding European laws or statutes, many are concerned that tensions will flare between the two sides.
It is important to note that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) did not vanish when the Good Friday Agreement was struck. The New IRA has replaced the Real IRA, and they have launched 52 bomb attacks in the past year. The Police Federation for Northern Ireland has recently raised the terrorist threat to “severe,” its highest level. Theresa May, home secretary, has called this threat “substantial.” Given the importance of the European Union to the peace process which largely ended the Troubles, many Northern Irish are concerned about a resurgence in violence following Brexit.
Cameron himself expressed concern with a Leave vote, which would create a border in Ireland between a European Union nation and the United Kingdom. If Britain wants to reduce the flow of immigrants into its territory, this land border will become very significant. “Therefore you can only either have new border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, or, which I would regret hugely, you would have to have some sort of checks on people as they left Belfast or other parts of Northern Ireland to come to the rest of UK,” said the Prime Minister.
The former policy would risk damaging relations with the Republic of Ireland. The latter would isolate Northern Ireland from the other UK territories, effectively making its people second-class citizens with extra travel restrictions limiting access to what is technically their own nation. The political, economic, and perhaps insurgent consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland have yet to be fully realized, but have generated a wave of concern throughout the territory.