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Ireland is already united – it’s just that a lot of people haven’t noticed.

2 Jan

The prospect of a united Ireland has moved up the political agenda in the midst of Brexit uncertainty, but Ireland already has been united – to all intents and purposes – for many years. This united Ireland is one forged in the everyday activities of millions of people on the island. It is a united Ireland of travel patterns, family relationships, businesses, sport and culture that work around (or more precisely – across) the border. It is a united Ireland that is embodied, enacted and lived.

This notion of a united Ireland is based on a sociological understanding of politics and society that sees politics (and most aspects of life) as a verb – something to be enacted through everyday living rather than a noun – something that is declared by constitutions and political leaders.* The actual behaviour of many people on the island of Ireland is one that traverses the political and economic border and renders it an anachronism. Examples of this abound: people working in Belfast but living in Dublin (less than two hours journey time in the car), over a million passengers per year from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport, the thousands of northerners who attend stadium concerts in Dublin every year, and the all-island sports of rugby, GAA and many others that see people cross the border every weekend. Added to this are the thousands of businesses that trade on both sides of the border, the huge number of northerners with second homes in Donegal (in the Republic of Ireland), and the countless shopping trips that criss-cross the border on a daily basis.

Those waiting for formal united Ireland – one enshrined by a constitution and recognised by the United Nations – may have some time to wait. Brexit uncertainty has made the prospect of a vote for a formal creation of a united Ireland more realistic, but it is hard to see a united Ireland coming about without opposition from Northern Ireland’s unionist population. And the Brexit-supporting English political elite would probably re-discover the value of the Union if it was really in jeopardy. The blue-prints of project fear, which worked so well during the Scottish independence referendum, would be dusted off and the massed ranks of the pro-Union media and the English Establishment (it really does exist) would be energised.

The beauty of the de facto united Ireland is that trenchant unionists can avoid it. They don’t have to travel south if they don’t want to. They can fashion lives that are British, unionist and have little to do with the Republic of Ireland. It is still possible (indeed all too easy) to lead lives that are segregated from political and religious others; 90 percent of children still attend either all Catholic or all Protestant schools. Social housing is still overwhelmingly segregated according to religion – as is the private sector. The cultural hegemony of a British unionist identity has taken a battering as Irish (or Catholic nationalist) identities have grown in confidence (and gained economic power). Yet, it is still possible to be proudly British and avoid the de facto united Ireland.

To some extent this united Ireland has been enabled macro-political developments – most importantly the removal of the hard security border in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And there have been some formal cross-border cooperation in the health and energy sectors. But, to a large extent, this united Ireland has occurred in spite of macro-political developments: people have just got on with their lives. People want to see Bruce Springsteen playing in Dublin so they cross the border; they want cheaper booze in Tesco in Newry so they cross the border; they want to spend their summer holidays in Donegal so they cross the border. This ‘getting on with it’ is the default activity of most people where circumstances allow. Despite the Troubles, people still had to hold down jobs, get the kids to school and engage in elder care. The border was a massive inconvenience during the dark days of the Troubles, but many people ignored it as best they could. The same is true today.

Brexit has simultaneously complicated and clarified things. The complication comes from the fact that no one – and certainly not the British government – can tell the impact of the withdrawal from the European Union on everyday lives. The clarification comes – if it were ever needed – in making it clear that the vast majority of people in England know nothing about, and care even less about, Northern Ireland, Ireland and border life. Indeed, British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments on food shortages in Ireland in the event of a crash out Brexit make clear the extent to which a couldn’t care less attitude sits comfortably at the apex of government. In the face of such attitudes, and in the face of similar attitudes over the decades, people have just got on with living an all-Ireland life as best they can. This has accelerated in recent years as people have become richer, safer, more mobile, and gotten used to free movement across Europe. This united Ireland is here to stay – and very probably will become more entrenched – regardless of the ‘un-care’ from Downing Street.

*This notion of everyday politics lies at the heart of the Everyday Peace Indicators research programme (everydaypeaceindicators.org)

Brexit and Borders

28 Nov

There is a lot of noise about Brexit and the UK-Irish land border. It is not helped by injudicious comments by grand-standing politicians. Pro-Brexit Labour MP’s Kate Hoey’s Trumpian remark that the Irish government would have to pay for any border wall was probably the most injudicious of all. But if we stand back and take a look at the situation then a few things become clear.

The first is that this will be a hard Brexit. By its very nature the EU is a members’ only club. Forms of associate membership are available but the key dividing line is whether you are a member or not. The act of leaving the club, and of leaving a club whose fundamental aim is the standardisation of rules (and values) across member states, ensures a hard Brexit.

The second point that is emerging from behind the political noise is that the technical negotiations are a long way off finding viable solutions for the border issue. The UK-Ireland land border – like all borders – is a political creation. Crossing the border is an everyday activity for many people who live along the border (they cross to fill the car up with diesel, go to college, go to work, go to see their relatives). Many people cross the border multiple times a day. In order for that to continue to happen a seamless system has to be in place. Such a system will probably rely on technology (perhaps a smart pass system like in toll roads or London’s congestion zone). But the technical details, let along the infrastructure of cameras and the crucial detail of who pays for and polices this) have yet to reach the feasibility study phase. Quite simply a smart pass border relies on smart politicians to mandate very smart technocrats to work on this. So far, the politicians are still grandstanding.

The third point is that Northern Ireland will be different in terms of both the UK and EU contexts. The point is important and matters a great deal to Northern Ireland’s unionists. For them, it is crucial that Northern Ireland remains within the UK and its people have the same protections as everyone else in the UK. This is a bit of a fiction. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement already awarded Northern Ireland special status on top of its place in the UK. Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to dual citizenship (British, Irish or both), and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is conditional on people actually wanting it to remain in the UK. The 1998 Agreement authorises a referendum on the constitutional issue.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Ireland-UK negotiations on the UK-Ireland land border it is clear that Northern Ireland will be different from other EU-non-EU land borders. We have never had a situation in which a member state leaves the EU – a member states that contains many citizens with everyday links across that border. That will require all sorts of deviations from the normal.

It is worth remembering that communities along the border have lived with political boundaries for generations. They have found ways to subvert political borders through everyday activities of trade, love, family and culture. Those ‘subversions’ will continue. At the height of the Troubles, the British military had a chain of watchtowers and checkpoints along the border. They also blew up many roads to make sure that people only crossed the border along designated routes. Communities made their own roads across the border in order to avoid the checkpoints and the hassle. It is a useful reminder that people can be ingenious in finding ways to subvert political boundaries.

A final point is that there are few countries that can match the UK-Irish inter-governmental relationship. Attempts to find a way out of the Troubles from the mid-1980s onwards have meant that generations of civil servants have developed close working relationships. These reached a zenith in the mid to late-1990s and early 2000s as the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and bedded down. Many of the key players have retired and a few have died. But there is still a good institutional memory in permanent government to allow imaginative solutions to be found. The political timetable (possible election in Ireland and a precarious UK government) and grandstanding politicians don’t seem to help matters.