From the Desk of Neil Cosgrove
Brexit and its consequence to the Northern Irish Peace Process
On June 23, 2016, the voters of the United Kingdom voted to remake the map of Europe and leave the European Union (EU). The motivation for this mandate can be simplified to two reasons: (1) a frustration with an alien and seemingly detached alien government (sound familiar?) based in Brussels enacting policies and decisions that were felt to impinge on British sovereignty and (2) the inability off the UK to control immigration, heightened by the middle east refugee crisis, given the EU’s “freedom of movement” provisions. Since the Brexit vote, the British government has made a conspicuous effort to downplay the ill effects of the “Leave” decision, particularly when it comes to Northern Ireland. However, the belief that Brexit is not a major impact to the peace process can only be viewed as a naive optimism or calculated misinformation.
Perhaps the most tangible impact of the Brexit decision would be the imposition of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as opposed to the free and unfettered passage of people and goods which currently exists. With Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has now been transformed into a border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Currently there are no EU borders with non-member states that do not have border controls. Advocates of Brexit, and post Brexit politicians in Ireland and the United Kingdom seeking to minimize its impact to a nervous constituency, have attempted to dismiss this fact by citing that the UK and Ireland have had a “common travel area” which long predates their EU membership. While the long existence of the “common travel area” is a fact, it is not relevant one in the current Brexit scenario. The “common travel area” was an agreement between a sovereign Ireland and a sovereign United Kingdom, not an independent Britain and EU member Ireland. Given a prime motivation for the Brexit vote was British frustration with EU immigration policy, the idea that Brexit Britain is going to leave an open door with an EU member Republic of Ireland can only be described as naive or disingenuous. Additionally, those who cite the “good old days” of the pre-EU “common travel area” also conveniently forget the significant British military presence which was an integral part of the British security policy during the “common travel area” era. The psychological effects of seeing what can only be described as a new partitioning of Ireland cannot be underestimated and threatens to undermine all the work to build trust between both communities. The imposition of a hard border would be an abrogation of key terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
The second implication of Brexit is economic. Former Northern Ireland Secretary and European Trade Commissioner Lord Mandelson has estimated that the economic fallout from Brexit could see the Northern Ireland economy shrink by 3% with 50,000 jobs at risk. History has shown whenever the British economy has experience a prolong downturn it shrinks inward toward London with Scotland and Northern Ireland bearing a disproportionate burden of job loss and economic impact. History also teaches us that in Northern Ireland when jobs are scarce sectarian based discrimination rises and is a precursor to a resumption of violence.
Finally, in a related vein, Brexit means the loss of an independent observer and advocate of the Irish peace process. The Good Friday agreement emphasizes Britain and Ireland’s joint membership in the EU as an area of common interest which can be built upon to lead to greater peace and understanding. The EU has backed up the peace process with considerable funding of initiatives that promote cross-border co-operation such as the PEACE IV initiative where the EU now picks up 85% of its €229 cost. Exit from the EU also raises question on human rights protections for Northern Ireland. Current Prime Minister Theresa May has been an ardent critic of the European Convention of Human Rights as “binding parliament’s hands”, only softening her tone when she launched her bid to become Prime Minister.
The Brexit vote takes the United Kingdom and the people of Ireland into unchartered waters in the fragile boat that is the Good Friday Agreement. While having voted by a much wider majority to stay in the EU than the broader population of the United Kingdom to leave, the long suffering people of Northern Ireland are being involuntarily swept along with the Brexit tide to an area of the map where it says “Here be Dragons“. In a sea off uncertainty and political instability there is reason to be legitimately concerned that the old Dragons of “Playing the Orange Card” and sectarianism which have been fitfully sleeping for nearly two decades may once again awaken with the violent consequences that impact the people of all communities of Northern Ireland.
Brexit and the severing of ties with the EU which has served as an independent guarantor to the Northern Irish Peace process has created a dangerous leadership vacuum. The Unites States has a significant investment in the Northern Irish peace process and if it does not wish to see the dividends of peace that the Good Friday Agreement delivered squandered it must again become an active advocate for peace and justice. History has sadly shown that progress for justice in the Anglo-Irish relationship only occurs when the United States, led by calls form Irish America, is actively involved. Unfortunately, in recent years peace and justice in Northern Ireland has erroneously fallen off the U.S. Government agenda in a mistaken belief of “mission accomplished”. It is up to us, Irish America, to educate them. We must immediately stop the erosion of the MacBride principles; now is the wrong time to signal that America is disengaging from the Northern Irish peace process. We must make justice in Northern Ireland a precondition to any trade agreement or treaty that Britain seeks with the U.S. if it seeks to develop U.S. markets to replace what it will lose as a result of its E.U. exit.
Peace is too precious to wait until it is lost and the violence begins. Shame on us if we do not take proactive action and it takes the sacrifice of another Terence MacSwiney or Bobby Sands to motivate us. It is time to make Northern Ireland a U.S. priority now before a Brexit iron curtain descends upon Ireland.
Neil F. Cosgrove
National Political Education Chair
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America