Northern Ireland and the Brexit Trilemma

Emilie GOMEZ © European Union 2017 – Source : EP

Since the beginning of last week, there have been violent clashes between rioters and the police in Northern Ireland. The riots, in which all kinds of objects, including masonry, fireworks and even petrol bombs were thrown at the police, seem to have started in the city of Londonderry. From there, they spread to other parts of Northern Ireland, including the capital of Belfast. According to local media, no less than 70 police officers have been injured within the span of just eleven days. 

The riots seem to be motivated by a mix of discontent with the Coronavirus measures and with the new ‘hard border’ in the Irish sea. As the BBC reports, the violence started in loyalist neighbourhoods, but soon escalated into sectarian fighting between loyalist and nationalist groups. Loyalist paramilitaries may even have had a hand in the riots, though there is no concrete evidence yet to support the claim that they orchestrated them. All this begs the question: what the hell is happening in Northern Ireland? 

Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of background needed to understand the full story.. However, in the interest of those who do not enjoy history as much as we do at Speaking of Europe, we will (try to) keep it brief. Northern Ireland, which is a ‘constituent country’ of the United Kingdom, has since its creation in 1921 shared a border with the then newly created Republic of Ireland. Since then, it has been divided between nationalists, who are predominantly Catholic and wish to become part of the Republic of Ireland, and loyalists, who are Protestant and want to remain part of the United Kingdom. 

These conflicting ideas about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland have since the 1960s been the source of unprecedented conflict, in which an estimated 3500 people have died. This conflict, known as ‘the Troubles’, only came to an end in 1998, when Ireland and the United Kingdom concluded the Good Friday Agreement. They agreed that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, but that, were its people to democratically decide otherwise, it was free to join the Republic of Ireland instead. They also agreed upon cross-border cooperation in the areas of security and justice, but also on economic, cultural, and social issues. 

The absence of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was instrumental for the agreement to function. The continued presence of such a border would have continued to cut off nationalists from Ireland and would have made cross-border cooperation much more difficult. Though the agreement did not explicitly mention it, this arrangement rested upon both parties being members of the European Union. This is because the EU, with its free movement of capital, services, goods, and people, facilitated the absence of a border between its member states. This way, there would only ever have to be a border between members and non-members. After all, no-one at the time had any reason to believe that either country would ever wish to leave the bloc, right?

But of course, this changed in 2016, when after a referendum campaign in which Northern Ireland barely featured, the United Kingdom did choose to leave. For the UK Government, this resulted in a ‘Brexit Trilemma’, that may best be explained by YouTuber CGP Grey. In short, if the UK wished to become completely sovereign and withdraw from the EU’s single market and customs union entirely, this would necessitate a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, thereby potentially violating the Good Friday Agreement. To solve this issue, the UK had only two options. The first was to stay in the EU’s single market and customs union, but this of course would not allow it to ‘take back control’ and was therefore unacceptable. The only solution left would be to move the border in between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

As we now know, the UK and EU agreed upon the latter option, which they laid down in the Northern Ireland Protocol. Even though it was the source of much controversy, particularly among Brexiteers, it was the only workable solution to the Brexit trilemma. It was seen as the only way to keep the peace in Northern Ireland and prevent the return of the Troubles. Or so we thought. 

This brings us back to last week’s riots. Even though the Coronavirus measures may be one cause of discontent, the main driving force behind the violence seems to be loyalists’ anger at the newly erected border with Great Britain. Loyalists, cut off from Great Britain, now seem to be in the same position that nationalists were in before 1998, when they were cut off from Ireland. We may hope that the violence does not escalate any further, but many fear that it forebodes the return of the Troubles. Were this to become reality, however, it would seem that the only way to keep the peace in Northern Ireland is for the UK to rejoin the EU’s single market and customs union. It may just be possible, then, that the Good Friday Agreement can only be preserved by not having any borders at all.