The first week of the United Kingdom’s independent, “taking back control” status has been predictably underwhelming to say the least. Overshadowed by the devastating developments of the coronavirus pandemic, the early hiccups have been (understandably) largely passed over by the media in comparison with the more pressing health crisis. However, in Northern Ireland this new reality is being felt more acutely than in the other UK nations (Kent and Dover, feel free to disagree). The upset to daily life could push my homeland in a direction that would make many Brexit idealists in Westminster squirm in their seats as a post-Brexit reality faces the light of day.
From New Year’s Day, many British goods entering the smallest part of the union have required additional customs checks and paperwork, as Northern Ireland is the only UK nation remaining within the EU Single Market. Supermarket shelves in the six counties have been significantly emptier this week as producers navigate the new maze of rules and regulations. While we all have a chuckle at the distinctly first-world problem of Marks & Spencer’s being unable to import Percy Pigs to the outskirts of Belfast, this is just one small symptom of a much greater issue. This has been compounded by the fact that many living in the Republic of Ireland (who never had a say on the Brexit debacle) have also been finding their international orders delayed or cancelled altogether.
The Irish government has provided two silver linings in the midst of these challenging and fresh post-Brexit times: they have secured the continuation of the Erasmus scheme for students studying at Northern Irish universities, which the British government chose to pull. This decision comes in stark contrast with Westminster’s lack of consideration for the future of its young people, which perhaps stems from a fear that mixing with younger generations from EU countries will remind us of what we have truly lost.
Similarly, the Irish government has also committed to establishing a system whereby Northern Irish citizens can continue to make use of the EHIC scheme when abroad in Europe. The precise details of this remain unclear, bar a commitment that we will not have to pay for European healthcare.
Those of us of the Irish persuasion have looked gratefully upon the move to guarantee many of the privileges of being in the EU. In a spurt of nationalist sentiment, Mum has since declared she is going to take up Gaelic again (I’ll believe it when I see it), and Sinn Fein are chomping at the bit, as deputy leader Michelle O’Neill defines Brexit as a “gamechanger” for the future of the Emerald Isle. Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade, in an interview on BBC Radio 4 in which he was questioned on the possibility of a border poll, clarified that Dublin’s actions are “a very practical response to the fact that many people in Northern Ireland consider themselves as Irish as I do.” It would seem that the Irish government, in the face of media pressure, are holding their cards close to their chest.
But what of the Unionist reaction? Distinctly subdued to say the least, although Arlene Foster was sure to remind us all that Irish Unity will never happen: ‘It has never come because, at the heels of the hunt, people realise they are much better off in the United Kingdom than they are within the Republic of Ireland or within a European superstate.’ The truth of this remains to be seen, but the DUP, the longstanding flagbearer of unionism in Northern Ireland, may be starting to worry.
In its pursuit of Brexit, the party has ignored the wishes of the majority of the Northern Irish population (who voted 56:44 in favour of remaining in the EU) and has ironically facilitated a pathway to potential Irish unity. In the year which will mark the centenary of Irish partition, an historical reversal of roles is now palpable: while 100 years ago the majority Unionist population in the North looked to London to save them from the prospect of Irish Home Rule, today’s majority that voted against Brexit in 2016 now look to Dublin to preserve their EU affiliation and the rights that come with it.
In many ways the Irish government has been forced into its current stance of not only standing up for the rights of the citizens in the North but additionally committing to extra expenses to ensure the continuation of these benefits for Northern Ireland, a population that does not contribute to Dublin’s tax system.
The current developments have led me to question why Ireland has not before taken a more leading role in political affairs north of its border. Though far from ever taking a back seat, why has Dublin’s political influence in Northern Ireland not been more evenly shared between Irish and British political bodies, considering both are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement? The political and historical reasons are perhaps clearer than my question suggests: Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom until its people choose otherwise, and the Good Friday Agreement never required the type of collaboration in governance I am suggesting. However, given that Northern Ireland and its population are very much a British-Irish hybrid, why shouldn’t there be dual-custody of this problematic corner of the world?
EU membership had provided the citizens of Northern Ireland with the means to escape the confines of either ‘Irish’ or ‘British’, instead providing a shared identity that had been elusive for so long: ‘European’. Now, once again, we are faced with an identity dilemma, and more of my fellow citizens are choosing the ‘Irish’ option, given the evident benefits of living and working in the EU visa free. Many of us north of the border are fed up with referenda for the foreseeable future – but the current uncertainty imposed on us by a very English Brexit brings a decision on the Irish border closer to inevitability. Dublin’s hands are tied, but regardless of the future implications of Brexit for the island, the Irish government are stepping up to the plate to help citizens in the North retain that unifying sense of a European identity.