Brexit Troubles May Renew Border Violence
Although the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, it has not yet reached a consensus on the terms of its exit. In fact, the possibility of an agreement is in flux, as officials continue to debate multiple approaches, including “soft” and “hard” exits. Regardless of the manner in which the UK leaves the European Union, millions in the country and elsewhere will be impacted by the saga’s end. The fast-approaching deadline has drawn much attention to the island nation’s next steps.
If the UK does not reach a deal with the EU by March 29, the country will not experience a transition period, which is supposed to last until December of 2020. Businesses and public institutions will thus not have designated time to adjust to leaving the EU. Perhaps more pressing, however, is the role Brexit could play in the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and would therefore leave the EU, but the Republic of Ireland would remain a member. The two nations share a border — one with a violent history.
The Republic of Ireland became a separate, independent state from Northern Ireland after centuries of rule under the UK in 1949. For a few decades, relations were relatively peaceful between the two nations. However, as tensions increased and a hard border was established, violence began to break out in the 1960s. Clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland fueled the conflict, which brought on street fights, car bombs, and widespread arson. The UK responded by deploying soldiers to the border between the two nations and to major cities.
After three decades of violence, a period referred to as “The Troubles,” the leaders of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland reached a peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998. The agreement stated that those living in Northern Ireland would be a part of the UK but would be eligible for Irish citizenship in the future, and that Northern Ireland may vote to join the Republic of Ireland. Tensions along the border largely diminished as a result.
Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan of Northern Ireland’s Ulster University writes that Brexit poses a huge concern for the future of the Ireland-UK border, and the process may even engender “a potential return to crisis politics.” Brexit calls into question both the identity of the Northern Irish people and the legitimacy of the Good Friday Agreement reached two decades ago. If the UK votes to continue with Brexit, free movement across the Ireland-UK border will potentially be more difficult and the UK may reinstate stronger border security like what existed during “The Troubles,” which could once again provoke tension. If a Brexit deal is not reached by March 29, the likelihood of border violence returning increases. The future of British-Irish relations lies in the hands of the negotiators.