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Brexit and Northern Ireland

On 13 June 2017 at Glover Cottages, Dr Diarmuid Maguire of the University of Sydney addressed AIIA NSW on the political impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

He noted the importance of the European Union Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, which had in 1996 set explicit political and economic goals to reinforce progress towards a stable and peaceful society. The process developed by the EU had established extensive systems of local district partnerships: each of the 26 local government council areas had a board bringing together local government and community representatives including trade unions. The programme provided funding in areas of social inclusion and industrial innovation. A condition of this process was that the DUP and Sinn Fein had to come up with cross party agreement on development proposals; if there was hostility there would be no funding, meaning that the parties had started to cooperate and talk to each other.

The EU process had implemented institutional architecture for the advancement of Northern Ireland. It offered a means by which cultural nationalism could be realised in the short term. British-funded local community groups adopted equality. In policing, force was replaced with service: the police force could work and link with the local community. The EU provided a mechanism to reinforce local identity and establish cross funding and institutional development. Peace had been supported by such factors as economic transformation after the end of the Cold War, and the increasing autonomy of Europe. Northern Ireland’s relationship with London had become less important with the growing importance of Brussels.

The British Conservative Party went through a crisis under Cameron over the choice to have Britain exit the EU and no real thought was given to Northern Ireland. Brexit had led to new doubts about citizenship: DUP leader Ian Paisely Jr had called on all Northern Irelanders to take out Irish citizenship. Northern Ireland’s exit (as part of the UK) from the EU created the need for the DUP and Sinn Fein now to cooperate in Northern Ireland’s best interests. Following the UK general election, the Conservatives were seeking parliamentary support from a DUP which will need to develop a clear position on a soft Brexit. While the DUP had a history of bigotry, it had largely avoided being identified with loyalist paramilitary activities. For 10 years the DUP and Sinn Fein had acted jointly in government under the peace process, but the DUP remained divided between rational economics and protestant fundamentalism.

Report by Farah Almajed

Published June 23, 2017