Brexit: The spark that ignites the Northern Irish powder keg?

Steven Agnew, who has just stepped down as leader of the NI Green Party, citing anger over the leading parties’ continued failure to resolve the collapse of the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement, discusses the additional instability being wrought by Brexit uncertainty in Northern Ireland and its potential ramifications for the hard-won yet fragile peace established by the Good Friday Agreement.

Border Communities Against Brexit sign
Border Communities Against Brexit sign

Eric Jones cc-by-sa/2.0

Border road closure warning at the Ferryhill Road crossing

Steven Agnew

‘Take back control’. ‘Brexit means Brexit’. ‘No hard border’. The passing of time has emphasised the hollowness of each utterance from the UK Government and Brexiteers.

We all went into the EU referendum in a state of ignorance. No one knew what leaving the EU would mean. While those of us who voted ‘remain’ may have known what we were voting for, we could have no idea what exactly we were voting against. The reverse is true for those who voted to leave.

Momentum is growing across the UK for a People’s Vote on the exact terms of the final Brexit deal, and it is ironic that while the majority within Northern Ireland voted to remain, the Irish border issue is proving to be the stickiest of sticking points between the UK and the EU27.

The complexities of the Irish border may have been likened to congestion charges between London boroughs by the former UK Foreign Secretary, but it’s a vexed issue for the people whose economic, political and social future will be jeopardised by a hard border and a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

I asked the First Minister for Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, what “no hard border” meant in practice – all she could tell me was that while I may not want to trust her assurance, I should trust the shared assurances of the UK Prime Minster, the Irish Taoiseach and the EU who all agreed that there should be no hard border.

It’s been 767 days since the EU referendum and there is still no agreement as to what no hard border really means, despite the fact that this was set out as the first issue to be resolved before discussion could even begin on other matters.

In fact, what looked like an agreement around regulatory alignment has now been reneged upon by the UK Government. It would appear the only thing that we can be certain of is uncertainty.

‘Arguing between the frying pan and the fire’

In Northern Ireland, there is no debate that our traditional parties will not view through a sectarian lens.

Nationalists will argue that the impact of a hard border in Ireland would devastate the all-island economy and this is the worst possible scenario. Unionists will argue that a border down the Irish Sea will impact on our trade with the wider British market and that this is the worst possible scenario.

As Greens, we can see that arguing which border would have the worse impact is like arguing between the frying pan and the fire. Either way we harm our economy to an extent that we can ill afford. There should be common cause in Northern Ireland to ensure that we have no hard border anywhere by remaining in a customs union – and indeed that we have a final say on any deal through a People’s Vote.

We continue to stumble on without functioning devolved institutions and no analysis would be complete without including the impact that an impending Brexit is having on the instability in Northern Ireland.

A key element of the Good Friday Agreement was to give equal recognition to both British and Irish identities within Northern Ireland. The North/South bodies meant greater co-operation on the island while East/West relations had never been better. With Northern Ireland no longer being a source of conflict it became the place where the two islands meet.

However, the conflict in Ireland dates back over 600 years, and it would be naïve to think that a relative peace of two decades is secure. It is utterly irresponsible of the UK government to insist on leaving the customs union in the full knowledge that a hard border will be a necessary consequence, putting the progress of the last 20 years at risk.

Brexiteers often query who is threatening violence over a hard border, the assumption being that politically everyone is committed to peace. It is an assumption that ignores the reality: that we have a relative peace in Northern Ireland but we still have violent dissident republicans. They may be small in number and limited in capabilities but they remain dangerous.

Loyalist gangs continue to terrorise their own communities. While they may have switched to more conventional criminality, the networks remain as does the capacity for violence.

I have no doubt that any physical border infrastructure increases the potential for violence and conflict. Northern Ireland is a powder keg and there is a genuine fear that Brexit could be the spark that lights it.