The fallout of the United Kingdom’s decision in June to leave the European Union is still being acutely felt across the 28-member state bloc. Nowhere is this more true than in Ireland.
As well as being Britain’s nearest neighbor, Ireland is the only country to share a land border with the United Kingdom, which comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Add to that the fact that the land border in question is the one dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland, and the picture becomes even muddier.
Concerns have been expressed that the vote would undermine the hard-won peace process between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But others are optimistic that, perhaps paradoxically, the decision could bring the reunification of Ireland closer.
Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union, but England’s bigger population meant that the “Leave” vote in both England and Wales canceled out the Northern Irish and Scottish desire to continue being part of the union.
There was a clear divide: Support for the European Union was clearly higher among Catholics in Northern Ireland. A Millward Brown poll found that 70% of Catholics in the North voted to stay in the EU, compared to 41% of Protestants.
Post-referendum, there is a palpable sense of apprehension about the future among many people in Northern Ireland. Most Catholics, who make up 45.1% of the population, identify as Irish and hold citizenship of the Irish Republic while living, working and paying taxes under the British-administered Northern Ireland. Most Protestants, who hold a narrow majority, with 48.4% residents identifying with a Protestant denomination, consider themselves to be British and holding British citizenship. But “Brexit” may be changing all of that.
Paisley on Passports
In a remarkable development after the votes were counted, one of the leading “Leave” campaigners in Northern Ireland was encouraging British citizens in the region — who are legally entitled to Irish passports — to immediately apply to the Dublin government to ensure their free travel to the European Union after the United Kingdom leaves.
Ian Paisley, who campaigned with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for a “Leave” result, told his constituents: “My advice is if you are entitled to a second passport, then take one.”
On the day after the results were announced, Belfast’s Central Post Office ran out of application forms for Irish passports because of heavy demand.
In the past decade, more than 90,000 people born in Britain have received Irish passports. And more than 150,000 people born in Northern Ireland received Irish passports in the same period.
Those numbers were expected to skyrocket, as more and more people move to ensure that they will still be entitled to free movement across Europe. This is leading some campaigners to believe that Britain’s vote to leave Europe may well lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom and bring about a unified Ireland, with Northern Ireland voting to join with the Irish Republic to form a single member state within the European Union.
Just hours after the vote was clear, and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had announced his resignation, Sinn Féin deputy leader Martin McGuinness was calling for a so-called “border poll” to allow citizens to have their say on whether Northern Ireland should leave the United Kingdom.
The 1998 “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought an end to almost 30 years of bloody sectarian conflict, allows the secretary of state to call a border poll when there’s clear indication that public opinion has swung towards a united Ireland.
Currently, there’s no such indication — the people of Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU, which is markedly different from voting to leave the U.K.
In broad terms, the Catholic Church has always been enthusiastic about the process of European integration. At the same time, Catholic leaders haven’t been shy about criticizing what they see as defects.
St. John Paul II was highly critical of the EU when it decided to omit references to the continent’s Christian roots. However, the Polish Pope in 2004 also encouraged Catholic countries like Croatia to seek membership in the union, despite its economic and social failings, just having come out of a war with Serbia.
Bishop Brendan Leahy believes that the future success of the European Union in the wake of the Brexit vote is dependent on the extent to which its “spiritual roots” are kept alive.
“Europe is about more than simply economics or social policies,” the bishop of Limerick told The Irish Catholic newspaper.
“The European project was about peace, and we need to keep the spiritual roots at the heart of Europe alive if we really want to project to go forward,” he said.
Ireland’s hierarchy is also concerned that the withdrawal of Britain from the EU could undermine the peace process in the North.
“The reintroduction of border controls, for example, would not only have profound implications for trade and the economy, but also for the wider civil society, notably through the disruptive impact on the day-to-day life of those who live in border areas or cross the border frequently,” they warned, continuing, “The valuable work carried out to date to build new relationships across these islands must not be undermined.”
Shifting Political Landscape?
No one expects violence to break out in Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. But no one is being complacent either. One of the most palpable benefits of the peace process has been the demilitarization of the region and the consequent end of border checkpoints. Many people from Northern Ireland now work in the Irish Republic and commute across the border on a daily basis, and vice versa. People across the island, regardless of their political allegiance, have gotten used to acting as if both jurisdictions form a single unit.
Political commentator Emer O’Toole thinks that the ground may well be shifting in Northern Ireland. Writing in a recent blog, she pointed out that Northern Ireland’s “substantial economic growth since the Good Friday Agreement is heavily indebted to EU funding and initiatives: There will be economic fallout, many will feel betrayed by the U.K., and that could seismically shift the political landscape of the North.”
But she is cautionary about the idea of a border poll. “Now is not the moment for nationalists to pursue measures that might destabilize the peace process. Rather, it’s time to redouble efforts to create cross-community understanding, stability and a strong Northern Irish identity. As the shock waves of Brexit dissipate, Northern Ireland will soon find which side of the border its bread is buttered.”
Michael Kelly is the editor of The Irish Catholic. He writes from Dublin.