On May 22nd 1998, a referendum determined that a majority of Northern Ireland’s population wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement between the governments of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom cemented a working relationship between the countries focused on bringing peace back to the island and maintaining trade between the three parties. On June 23rd 2016, 51.9% of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, threatening to undo much of the progress made in repairing the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
With the hopes of regaining the spirit of self-determination, the United Kingdom as a whole narrowly voted to leave the European Union. However, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the Union. International organizations such as the European Union help members maintain seamless borders, facilitate trade, and protect justice and democracy through discourse and legislation.
The presence of two countries, one in the EU and one out, on the same island, could lead to the implementation of several unwanted policies and threatens to unravel decades worth of democratic policy, institutions, and more. With Britain’s exit from the union comes complicated repercussions on trade. The need to check goods traveling from an EU member country to an independent could possibly mean the reimplementation of the hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, which most Irish citizens vehemently oppose. One needs to look no further than the borders and checkpoints established during The Troubles, and the resulting attacks and deaths, to see why open and seamless borders are essential to the sustained peace of the island.
Democracy in Northern Ireland faces a challenge. Will they accept the “backstop” proposal which will allow them a few more years in the EU while terms of the exit are agreed upon between the UK and EU negotiators? While this may allow the economy of Northern Ireland some breathing room, many politicians have not taken kindly to Theresa May’s hardline tactics in negotiations. Currently, May is barreling toward the deadline with no deal with majority support. Irish republicans in Sinn Fein warn that this could lead to a vote on Irish Unification: as stated in the Good Friday Agreement, the island of Ireland may still vote for NI to leave the UK and rejoin the Republic.
In his book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Juan Linz states that “legitimate political regimes” can rely on a “relatively high probability” that its citizens will be obedient and the repression of violent challenges from a disloyal opposition. But this may not be the case in Northern Ireland. In fact, Northern Ireland is home to one of the most complicated and violent political feuds in recent history. The end of Operation Banner and withdrawal of British troops from the island in 2007 should have signaled an end to The Troubles, but the violence has continued. Just in the last month dissident Republicans have detonated a car bomb outside of a Derry courthouse and have committed violent knee cappings against other citizens. Even during the Troubles, the Irish Republican Army and other nationalist Paramilitaries inflicted far more death and destruction, and could hardly be considered as repressed by the British Armed forces. So the chances of Northern Ireland’s citizens standing idly by while the British Parliament decides their fate would appear to be slim to none.
Linz also argues that breakdowns in democracy can occur when the parties in control cannot come to a compromise, and someone withdraws and attempts a solution with “disloyal opposition”. It already appears that Sinn Fein is starting to kick around the possibility of an Irish Unification referendum if a no deal Brexit goes through on March 29th, 2019. If Britain’s parliament is unable to agree to a deal before then, leaving Northern Ireland in economic limbo, we very well may see a rise in support for Irish unification, or at the very least, support for NI remaining in the EU.
We’ve also learned that economic factors contribute to political outcomes. Currently many Northern Irish banks are predicting that a No-Deal Brexit would hit the country the hardest out of any in Europe. With about 57% of NI’s exports going to EU countries, some analysts have estimated that a no deal situation could cause a hit of around $5b per year to the North’s economy. The country has made significant strides in reducing unemployment and poverty since the Good Friday Agreement made foreign investors feel more assured about injecting capital into the troubled economy, and this progress could be significantly drained by new regulations brought about by a no deal Brexit. Middle class workers will surely feel the effects of the massive loss of revenue, and this may very well lead to a decline in support for remaining within the United Kingdom.
The debates surrounding the deals and no deals of Brexit are highly politically charged. Great Britain’s democratic institutions are feeling the strain as their leaders become enveloped in polarizing stances while questionably seeking a strategy that works for the common good of the British people. But some of the unintended effects of their stunt may actually give way to the weakening of their institutions by way of secession. With the increasingly disillusioned Sinn Fein calling for a potential unification referendum, border communities calling for their vote to stay to be respected, and the jobs and livelihoods of the North’s citizen’s on the line, we could very well be living in a timeline where a British exit leads to a democratic backslide by way of a second exit, Northern Ireland’s from the United Kingdom.
Featured Image: Falls Road Sinn Fein by Dunphasizer – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic