The United Kingdom has brought down the proverbial curtain upon its 47- year old relationship with the European Union. Despite the incessant expression of commiserations, the UK-EU journey has been one strewn with difficulty, squabbling and general unease. Successive Conservative Prime Ministers have seen their careers tarnished by the eternal strife stemming from the ‘European question’ – not least Theresa May. Boris Johnson, seemingly, has escaped unscathed and has produced ‘the goods’ which will see the UK complete its withdrawal from the EU – however tenuous. The Prime Minister’s postulating that the UK’s departure from the EU will bring forth a spirit of “national renewal” will see its ultimate success at the end of the transition period, ending on 31st December this year.
During the almost four year-long Brexit process, the UK attempted to let loose from the clutches of the EU. It was that period from the result of the EU Referendum in June 2016 which finally defined the entire relationship between the two entities. The Withdrawal Agreement is now ratified by both UK and European Parliaments, legally effective, signed, sealed and delivered.
Contrary to the cynicism that the UK will be a subordinate party amidst the dominance of the EU 27 in future trading negotiations, the UK will now be in the position of an independent, sovereign and – crucially – non-EU country. The EU will now have to give at least a semblance of regard for this fact, however stark it may be.
Nowhere more than Northern Ireland has the ‘B’ word exuded such vociferous debate and eventual exhaustion. The Brexit process in the region has been characterised by political combat and posturing between all shades of opinion and eventual concession and compromise on the fundamental point that Brexit is a reality. The anxieties surrounding cross-border trade have largely subsided. The focus now is the future of east-west treading relationships, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The adjoining ‘and’ has been the key point of contention over the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement for unionists who fear that both Northern Ireland ‘and’ Britain will on separate trading platforms.
Speaking at Queen’s University last week, Michel Barnier, one of the primary faces of the EU in the Brexit process, was, as ever, true to his credentials of eternal optimism, voicing his assessment that regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Britain were an inevitability. Now that we will see less of him on our TV screens, it is fundamental that Northern Ireland grabs the best of both world scenario that the current Withdrawal Agreement offers and resists the attempted hijackings of disgruntled EU figures during the post-Brexit period.
The ranks within the newly restored NI Executive remain on adverse planes on the discussion of the UK’s EU departure. Both First and Deputy First Ministers demonstrated these internal divisions when writing in the Belfast Telegraph. Arlene Foster’s pre-occupation was unsurprisingly focused on the ambiguities surrounding the east-west trade dimension of the Agreement.
Michelle O’Neill also passively noted potential difficulties in accessing the UK Single Market. However, her analysis was predominated by her invocation of the ‘Irish Unity’ question and its progressive potential as a panacea for the ills of Ireland.
Such a position to take at such a crucial stage of Northern Ireland’s history is by no means a helpful one to adopt. Not only is it inherently divisive, the protracted Brexit process was likewise. It is a matter of taking heed of past experiences and coming to the realisation that if the Brexit process resulted in such division, the spike in communal tensions in Northern Ireland would be frankly concerning if a referendum on Irish unification was convened. It is political expediency at its finest. Northern Ireland’s very existence was borne out of mammoth constitutional developments 100 years ago as the Government of Ireland Bill which partitioned Ireland into two jurisdictions worked its way through the Parliamentary stages at Westminster. Brexit is yet another reminder that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is indeed fluid.
The Good Friday Agreement, the bedrock on which Northern Ireland’s constitutional and political position rests, sets out the legitimacy of both pro-UK and pro-United Ireland aspirations. Brexit has brought the issue of consent to the forefront yet again and that is a key pillar to the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland must show it can function first and foremost, post-Brexit. In the words of the late Seamus Mallon, “a union of hearts” will be the only vehicle by which progress – social, political and constitutional – can be advanced in Northern Ireland.
It need not be a concern that Northern Ireland will be forgotten in the future trading negotiations between the EU and the UK. The Brexit experience should be a gauge reminder that Northern Ireland and its affairs will never be far removed from the minds of both parties. The consent mechanism contained within the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 makes sure that Northern Ireland remains front and centre of the transitional period arrangement. The NI Assembly has upon it conferred the means by which to consent to a continuation of Northern Ireland’s unique alignment with EU law and exercises. EU rules will continue to apply in Northern Ireland through a myriad of issues including VAT, goods and customs.
Theresa May tried and failed to deliver a Brexit solution amenable to all sects within the Brexit gulf. She triggered Article 50 in March 2017 and on reflection probably had no idea of the chaos which would result.
As Brexit is now complete, Northern Ireland’s political sects persist in their failure to fill the void on their respective Brexit positions. It is not further divergence with the EU which is concerning; it is further internal divergence between the key political actors in Northern Ireland.
Almost four years subsequent to the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the UK has now officially tendered their resignation from the EU project.
Perhaps the words of wisdom uttered by the great statesman, former Prime Minster W.E. Gladstone, should set the tone for balanced minds for future EU-UK relations:
“Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.”
The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.
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