In this article, Beth Chamberlain highlights the lack of attention paid to Ireland throughout the Brexit years, and how the issue will cause serious disruption and division in the North.
Despite dominating the public domain since the 2016 referendum, there remains a lot to be said about Brexit. What started out as a yes-or-no question (albeit infused with party political motives) swiftly became an amorphous concept: like a terrible symphony, the varying declarations of each campaign merged into a cacophony of empty promises and baseless predictions, with no clear conductor. Almost three years on, it’s time to ask ourselves – what has changed?
Well… Not a lot. As an Irish student, the relentless neglect of our country and its citizens – not to mention its political atmosphere – has been tangible: whilst Leave.EU promised its famous £350m a week to the NHS, and Vote Remain warned of another call for independence in Scotland, our isolated wedge of the United Kingdom sat with baited breath. Surely this time, they’ll have to pay attention to us? But no – despite our average income falling £6000 below that of the UK as a whole, despite our already-troubled political climate, despite the decades of effort, attention, diligence put into the Peace Process, we were forgotten. Aside from the occasional whispers of ‘hard border’ and ‘Good Friday Agreement’, our stake in Brexit was seemingly non-existent in the build-up to the vote.
And what about when, nine months later, our assembly collapsed, leaving us without a devolved government? Sure, May can conveniently blame the Br-extension on that now, but where was that acknowledgement two years ago? Where has it been at every step of the way since then? And why now, days before Brexit is scheduled to take place, is Northern Ireland being assigned enough relevance to act merely as an obstacle in our departure? Our assembly has been stagnant and non-functional since March 2017; to feign caring about our political crisis now, when it can be used to absorb the blame for May’s failures in delivering Brexit, is an insult.
Believe it or not, political functionality isn’t even the primary concern when tackling Brexit in Northern Ireland. Amongst other things, our already-fragile economy cannot afford to suffer another blow. With the UK’s highest unemployment rate, and 22% of the population in relative poverty (compared to the UK’s average of 16.8%), it’s undeniable that we’re not in the position to undergo economic turbulence. Since the Good Friday Agreement, the economic coalescence between the North and South of Ireland has increased significantly, with cross-border trade on a similar incline. Unlike England and Wales, whose international trade with the EU can be matched to their trade with the rest of the world, Northern Ireland has a heavy reliance on the EU, particularly – and unsurprisingly – the Republic of Ireland. The implications of Brexit, let alone a no-deal Brexit, on the Northern Irish economy would be immense.
Now, a brief disclaimer: I’m no PPE student. Economics is not my forte, and I was abysmal at Politics AS, so yes – maybe take the above with a pinch of salt. But being born and raised in Belfast, having witnessed how swiftly things can go from tranquility to abject mayhem, having followed the national press closely throughout the entire quasi-democratic nightmare that has been Brexit, I can confidently say that this spells bad news for the North. The proportion of people conflating the Good Friday Agreement with the end of conflict in Northern Ireland, that don’t know that bomb scares and bus hijackings are still relatively commonplace, and who can blissfully envisage a Brexit outcome that won’t seriously exacerbate the already-tangible tensions, is alarmingly high. Last July, when the police were warned that a paramilitary group would orchestrate “serious disorder” in Belfast, when two buses were hijacked, when petrol bombs were thrown across the peace wall in Derry, when Irish flags were burnt on bonfires, and civilians attacked firefighters – where was the coverage in the national media? Where was May’s concern for Northern Ireland then? However far we’ve come in the past thirty years, we cannot allow relativity to normalise this kind of climate: just because it has been worse, doesn’t mean it can’t get better. Just because British soldiers are no longer deployed to Northern Ireland, doesn’t mean the UK loses its accountability. We’ve fallen apart in the past over flags, and we will do it again for much, much less…
As the 12th April draws closer, and votes and negotiations continue, there are still a lot of unknown variables of Brexit, but one thing’s for certain: it’s not looking good for the North.