The brainstorming that took place between prominent academics and security experts regarding the implication of Brexit on the Irish border at the European Parliament on 28 November has posed some difficult questions concerning the peace process in this region. Whilst the discussions offered a number of concrete policy actions, which could help to soften the negative impact of the UK’s withdrawal, they revealed differences of opinion among the Irish and UK MEPs.
Following the results of the 2016 referendum over UK membership of the EU, a hardening of the approach to the Irish border became inevitable. The British decision to leave the EU customs union and single market not only threatens to affect movement on the island, but also represents a symbolic and psychological step backwards in the peace process. Moreover, the potential renewal of violence, which was a frequent occurrence before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, endangers the intrinsic internal stability of the EU.
“Until the referendum the process of cross-border cooperation and intervention on both sides of the border was on the same trajectory and had been depoliticized as a part of the Good Friday agreement, in which the UK and Ireland stated their relationship as partners in the EU. At present, however, we see the negative consequences of Brexit on the peace process, as the referendum, to some extent, forced the citizens of Northern Ireland to choose between being closer to the UK or closer to the Republic of Ireland,” said Dr. Katy Hayward, a Reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and Senior Research Fellow at the Senator G.J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.
In order to minimize any negative implications of Brexit on the peace process, Hayward suggests maintaining the context of the existing cooperation, which would include keeping the “soft” border, maintenance of a common legal and regulatory framework and continued access to EU funding and programmes. The proposed measures, for the most part, were supported by the politicians who participated in the discussions. Some MEPs, however, went further and suggested increasing the pressure on Theresa May’s government regarding future cooperation between the UK and Ireland.
Mairead McGuiness, an Irish MEP, called on her colleague Diane Dodds, an MEP from Northern Ireland, to use her “incredible influence on the UK government” and urge the government of Theresa May to come up with a solution that will take into account the “abilities and sensitivities of all sides”.
“Your farmers are like my farmers – they want certainty and security, they do not want disruption, fear and uncertainty. Unfortunately, the latter mood is prevailing on the ground,” McGuiness said.
“The EU is investing in smart borders technology in the Mediterranean, in the Balkans and in other areas where there are problems with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. So why do we have a situation where this technology and identification system, which could provide a resolution to the problem, is being ignored in one area and promoted in another? Prime-Minister May has stated categorically there would be no power borders erected by Britain, but any ‘hard’ border will be erected by the Irish state,” said Diane James, MEP representing the South East of the UK.