Until Prime Minister Johnson suspended the UK Parliament, the Irish border posed the biggest question in the Brexit negotiations. The topic has become known as the ‘Irish Backstop’. Currently, citizens of both Irelands enjoy a seamless transition when driving between Northern Ireland (‘NI’) and the Republic, their change in location marked only when the road signs morph from ‘miles’ (NI) to ‘kilometres’ (Republic). This fluidity of movement, and the resultant erasure of fences, is a result of the Peace Process. But this hard-earned progress of the past twenty years is now under threat by possible Brexit policies.
When Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, exits the EU, it will share a border with an EU member state, necessitating what is known as Hard Border. Hard border would entail customs checks for citizens and goods moving between the Irelands, as well as the resurrection of fences. As hallmarks of the British rule in Northern Ireland, it is feared that fences would inflame tensions anew and cause the island of Ireland to return to the decades of fighting known as The Troubles. In the space of three decades, The Troubles brought 15,000 bombs, 3,800 fatalities and 36,000 shootings. There was an average of ten killings per month. No surprise then, that negotiators and diplomats have been thinking up every possible solution to avoid a hard border in Ireland. One suggestion is to scan lorries using technology, so that no physical customs checks need stand between the two Irelands. Another option is to scan the goods vehicles away from the border, but the remote scanning points may become targets for attacks instead.
While British politicians are desperately trying to resolve the Irish Backstop, something has been happening that could save them the task.
The Belfast Agreement, more commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement, was finally reached on April 10th, 1998. It permits those born in Northern Ireland to choose British citizenship, Irish citizenship or both. In 2017, the year following the Brexit referendum, over 80,000 Northern Irish residents applied for Irish passports, the highest annual figure on record. While the backstop has complicated the Brexit process, it may achieve what William Gladstone never could: the reunification of Ireland. Naturally and intrinsically, simply from people voting with their feet.
What do the Irish passport applications reveal?
To answer this, we must consider Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation: ‘an imagined political community’.
Their record applications for Irish citizenship shows how Northern Irish citizens see their homeland as unconfined to the six counties of Ulster. Rather, they identify and connect with a geographical space that transcends the Irish border, as well as the wider family of the European Union. While they used to say, ‘Ulster says ‘No’’, their line is now, ‘No border’ and the Irish
question of the 1990s has remodelled into a new Irish idea of progressivism, Freedom of Movement and –crucially- as part of the EU.
The Irish MEPs and diplomatic core in Brussels secured the Irish border as one of the three red line issues in the Brexit negotiations. This alone demonstrates Ireland’s eagerness to engage with the EU. Given that Northern Ireland voted 55.8% in favour of remaining in the EU, the two Irelands appear to be on the same page in matters of foreign policy.
So why is the above enough to reunite Ireland?
When debating whether or not Britain should join the Euro, people on both sides mentioned something called the Eurocreep. This was the argument that the Euro was already operating in the UK because big firms with UK bases already conducted their business in and –more importantly- thought in Euros. It is a similar situation with Ireland. By rejecting Hard Border and binding each other closer together by imagined –or rather, mental,- association, it’s easy to see how a reunited Ireland would form in the collective mind of the island’s inhabitants and return a positive result if NI held a referendum on reunification with the Republic. The Good Friday Agreement permits such a poll to take place if ‘it appears likely’ that most voters (in Northern Ireland) would want to ‘form part of a united Ireland’ and give up their part in the UK. As well as a shared mentality between its peoples, Strand Three of the Good Friday Agreement could do a lot to reunite Ireland.
The third Strand ‘established the British–Irish Council and the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference to encourage co-operation and develop good relations between Britain and Ireland. These are forums where the two Governments discuss Reserved Matters which are not the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly.’ In having a platform for the discussion of matters that exclusively affect the two Irelands, they have laid the foundations for operating together politically if they ever reunited. Since both are very pro-EU nations, taking their shared affairs to Brussels would be unlikely to cause any problems. They may benefit from the Union’s support for minority languages and allow Ulster-Scots to flourish alongside Irish Gaelic.
The new and shared progressive Irish idea can only have been helped by the recent gay marriage and abortion referendums in the Republic that saw the country turn its back on its traditional Catholic values, thus eroding the religious divide that once defined Irish division. It seems the island of Ireland is heading towards reunification and, like the current border arrangements, its transition will be seamless.