Brexit and Northern Ireland: There’s a Stormont brewing

In her Commons statement on the triggering of Article 50, Theresa May once again trotted out woolly words on strengthening the Union and not returning to the borders of the past in Ireland. But in reality her actions, and those of her government, have only served to undermine the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This is not surprising, but it is also worryingly reflective of a Westminster non-interest in Irish politics and in the reality that the United Kingdom is supposedly a union of Great Britain AND Northern Ireland. And this is not just on the government front bench: it was telling that there was no representative from Northern Ireland on the BBC Question Time Brexit Special on Monday 27 March and no mention of Northern Ireland in the discussion that took place. You don’t have to be a genius to guess what kind of message this sends to the people of Northern Ireland.

Anyone who does pay attention to Northern Ireland will know that the current impasse there was utterly predictable. And yet the UK government is still totally at sea on what it should do about it. If anything, the Tories seem to be going out of their way to inflame the situation, or at least to add confusion.

On the one hand, David Davis’s leaked letter to Mark Durcan of the SDLP speculated on the eventuality of a Northern Irish vote to become part of a united Ireland and how this would have to be respected by the UK government under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, throwing in for good measure that such an eventuality would make it easy for Northern Ireland to remain part of the EU as it would then be part of a remaining EU country. One must wonder what the Tories’ DUP allies made of these musings by the cavalier Brexit minister.

On the other hand, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire left open the option of direct rule from Westminster if no agreement is reached by Easter on a new devolved administration. This was something flatly rejected by Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, who insisted that new elections were the only option if the talks fail. Add to this the view of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland, Charlie Flanagan, who told the Dáil (the Irish parliament) on Wednesday that there was no statutory provision for direct rule from Westminster, as it had been removed under the St Andrews Agreement of 2006.

Even if we can leave aside the antics of the UK government, the brokering of a deal for a new devolved administration before Easter will not change the fact that Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party are opposed to Brexit. Sinn Féin in particular, as a republican party with an increased number of seats in the Assembly, will continue to call for a referendum on a united Ireland on the basis that majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

Neither will the formation of a new administration distract from the reality that a hard border with the Republic of Ireland is something the majority of people in all parts of the island of Ireland desperately want to avoid. A hard Brexit would damage the economic prospects of the people of Ireland, especially Northern Ireland, with the inevitable impact on vital cross-border trade, production supply chains, the travelling to and from work, and the absence of EU subsidies and funding.

But as outlined here before, the hard brexiteers are people with little regard for the consequences for Ireland in their zealous pursuit of a Brexit at any cost.

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