I’m convinced the Irish have never met a hedge they didn’t like. The entire way from Dublin to Derry – hedge. Driving the route is akin to being stuck in some kind of green tunnel. I last made that drive in 2016, just months after the Brexit referendum. There was a tension in the air, old insecurities that lay dormant since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 were beginning to stir. Although the issue of the Irish border was not front page during the lead-up to the referendum, it is now as the UK struggles to find an agreement with the EU ahead of the March 29 deadline. Maybe they can just plant a 310 mile hedge?
Since the establishment of the Northern Ireland peace process, crossing the border had become a non-issue – easing the conflict of identity that had helped fuel The Troubles. Only a few small signs remained such as kilometres become miles, and every so often you’ll spot a Union Jack or Tri-Colour flying halfway up a lamp post. These little indicators have been how you know you’re in Northern Ireland and not the Republic. Brexit threatens this seamless border, and in doing so, threatens peace.
The hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is loath to accept an agreement that would create any kind of separation, either real or symbolic, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. They fear any movement that places them closer to Dublin than Westminster would be a win for Irish Nationalists, and spell the eventual reunification of the island. They have good reason for such anxiety. For Nationalist Sinn Fein, a soft border and customs union is just another step in what the party views as the inevitable march toward Irish re-unification.
During that trip in 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting then Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness. McGuiness would be dead within months, but on that day in late 2016 he knew the decision of English voters to leave the UK represented the greatest threat to his life’s work – the peace process. I say ‘English’ voters because the population of Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted by a margin of 56 per cent to remain in the EU. Brexit is, above all, an ‘England First’ movement. It was a slap in the face for both the Irish, and the Scots. With this in mind, no one should question the future viability of the UK as a state.
There’s good reason why Brexit may not only mean the redefinition of the UK/EU relationship, but a redefining of the UK as a state. In April, Bill Clinton delivered a speech in Dublin during the 20th anniversary celebrations of the 1998 Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Accord). In it, he explained why Unionist parties signed on to a document that laid out the roadmap for possible Irish unification. In the end, the decision was a stark choice between signing then, while a Unionist majority still held sway, or signing at some point in a future where Irish Nationalists held the demographic advantage. Even the life-long ardent Unionist, Ian Paisley, could see that the days of a, ‘Protestant government for a Protestant people’ were numbered.
A lot will depend on the shape of negotiations in the coming months. Currently, Theresa May’s Brexit deal suggests an Irish ‘backstop’ that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU if there is no deal and the rest of the UK leaves. At the party’s conference, the DUP threatened to withdraw it’s support for May’s government, arguing instead that May, “Bin the backstop”. For the DUP, the issue is remaining as close as possible to the rest of the UK – economic and political consequences be damned.
Even if Brexit places unification one step closer, there are still real challenges to overcome. To start, Northern Ireland would have to end it’s dependence on what is called the, ‘Block Grant’. In a Canadian context, think of the Block Grant as something akin to a Federal transfer payment. Just as Ottawa doles out a set amount to provinces, so too does Westminster to Stormount. Where the similarity ends is that unlike the Ottawa/provincial relationship, the Northern Irish Assembly does not have control over taxes –that power still resides in London. Imagine if BC, Alberta, Quebec or Ontario were told they could not levy taxes? The Federation would quickly crumble. The reason being simple, control of taxes allows for control of the overall economy. That is something the DUP, and Westminster, have worked hard to prevent in Northern Ireland – essentially holding on to the purse strings.
Control of the economy is exactly what Stormount needs. Being able to raise or lower corporate and personal taxes is key to economic growth planning. Northern Ireland will have to build a strong economic case in order to push for reunification with Dublin. The Republic of Ireland has longed viewed Northern Ireland as the sick man. Over the last 20 years, EU grants and funding have done a lot to bridge the economic gaps. Everywhere you go in the North you can find a sign with gold stars on a blue backdrop letting you know that EU funding was used to build this bridge, or road, or whatever. With the UK’s departure from the union, Northern Ireland may lose access to such funding – again making control over taxes essential to maintaining economic viability.
Finally, the most contentious issue that will have to be dealt with will be addressing Northern Ireland’s sectarianism. The DUP is willing to sacrifice the standard of living for everyone in Northern Ireland in order to ensure a hard Brexit and a continuation of the status quo Union. South of the divide, the Republic of Ireland is less inclined to welcome their Northern cousins knowing that reunification could bring a significant number of angry Unionists into the fold. However, there are ways to manage the transition without violence.
First, Nationalists will have to make the economic case for reunification to their Unionist brothers and sisters. There are clear advantages to remaining in the EU. Access to a larger market, continued funding for key infrastructure, and human rights protections tied to EU courts. If Unionists can put aside their own biases, bigotry and fear, they could in 10 years wonder why they ever opposed the move.
Second, it would be wise to continue to use Stormount as a regional assembly. The power-sharing agreement that began in 1998 has paid real peace dividends. Moving forward, it will be important that Unionists feel their identity and rights are safeguarded. It must be made clear that a United Ireland does not mean a less fair, or less just society for those who maintain cultural ties to England.
To say that the road ahead is treacherous would be an understatement. An entire generation of Irish have grown up without knowing the realities of, ‘The Troubles’. There are still factions in Northern Ireland that feel they, ‘missed out’ on the war, and not knowing the hardship, glorify ‘the cause’. Those were different times. The conflict spanned 30 years partly because it was backed by the communities. The violence was meant to bring about peaceful means to achieve the goal of a united Ireland – despite however much you may loath the IRA, it brought the British government to the table, and secured those peaceful means. Sinn Fein MLA’s such as former IRA volunteer and H-Block escapee, Gerry Kelly, can now be found advocating on behalf of the local Orange Lodge. Who’d have thought?
For the Irish (and perhaps the Scots), Brexit has brought with it opportunities thought out of reach just a few short years ago. What is no doubt a dire situation for the English (who voted themselves into this mess), may prove to be a new lifeline to a brighter, integrated and reunified future for those who have longed to be made whole again. Let us hope that the better angles on all sides prevail come what may.