1. The Good Friday Agreement After Brexit
Bristol is the sixth largest city in South-West England and one of its eight ‘core’ cities. Bristol provides a particularly interesting example as a city which is relatively successful economically in the British context. However, there are pressures for growth in the city-region, linked particularly to sustainability and affordability, sitting alongside long-standing social problems and associated decline, which remain entrenched in parts of the city. Bristol as a post-industrial city continues to witness ambitious urban regeneration projects in the city centre and harbourside, continued expansion of its northern fringes, and ongoing policy interventions targeted at the most deprived areas of the city.
In Northern Ireland, a credible prospect of exit in the form of Irish reunification is provided for in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. This agreement, endorsed by the UK, Irish government, most political parties in Northern Ireland (excluding the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)), and backed by popular consent in referendums north and south, paved the way for an end to sectarian conflict. It led to the creation of a legislative assembly alongside new north–south and east–west institutional relations. It also recognised that it is ‘for the people of the island of Ireland alone . . . to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland’, placing a ‘binding obligation’ on both the UK and Irish government to respect and give effect to their decision.
Northern Ireland’s coherence on the exit option, however, is undermined by deep and enduring political divisions between unionists and nationalists, with the former supporting retention of the constitutional link between Northern Ireland and Britain, and the latter aspiring to a united Ireland. The power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive, which seeks to manage and moderate tensions between the two communities, includes both nationalist and unionist political parties. The divisions between the two political traditions were mirrored in Brexit debates.
This made Brexit a highly contested and constitutionally sensitive issue that militated against the articulation of a coherent Northern Ireland voice. This situation was further impaired by the absence of a functioning Executive during the critical phase of EU withdrawal negotiations. The credibility of the exit threat has also been hampered by the Irish government’s support for existing territorial arrangements enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and its, at best, lukewarm support for the Irish unity agenda.
- Representing Northern Ireland’s Position at the EU
The governance mechanisms contained within the Withdrawal Agreement include bodies that will oversee the implementation of the Protocol and will thus have a crucial part to play in the post-Brexit governance of NI, eg the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committees on NI/IRL, and the Joint Consultative Working Group (JCWG).
Northern Ireland’s direct input to these bodies will be quite limited. The North South Ministerial Council and the B/GFA Strand II Implementation Bodies will be able to feed into the Specialised Committee.
The UK government committed in NDNA to ‘ensure that representatives from the Northern Ireland Executive are invited to be part of the UK delegation’ in meetings of the Joint Committee and the Specialised Committee. It specifies that these invitations will happen only in instances where the Committee concerned is discussing Northern Ireland-specific matters which are ‘also attended by the Irish Government as part of the European Union’s delegation’.
Other, less formal means of influence, including relationships with EU agencies and participation in EU programmes are also important but less than likely for the UK post-transition. Even EEA states cannot have full membership of, nor directly influence, the decisions taken by EU agencies.
Lobbying EU institutions, using regional and national offices in Brussels and informal networking have proved invaluable during the Article 50 process and should be fully developed and further utilised after the end of the transition period.
Many organisations in Northern Ireland have plenty of experience in engaging with specific EU committees and some have long-standing links with other bodies centred on and active in Brussels. These relationships will need to be fostered and nurtured, rather than diminished, post Brexit.
- Northern Ireland’s Economy After Brexit
The protocol on Northern Ireland proved to be the trickiest element of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement to negotiate. The version that was finally agreed to by both sides sees the EU’s customs code and regulatory rules applying in Northern Ireland. In avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods on the island of Ireland, there are new frictions on the movement of goods within the United Kingdom (across the Irish Sea). Implementing the protocol is a complex practical as well as political challenge. What it means in practice is largely dependent on the nature of the UK-EU relations.
This will put Ireland in an economic dilemma and resurrect the debate on secession and injustice against Ireland. Critics of partition argue that it contributes to the perpetuation, rather than the amelioration, of territorial conflict. The island has been partitioned into two polities for a century. Opposition to the partition of Ireland has existed from the outset to contemporary Brexit. The argument is that while hostility to partition has experienced different forms, namely, political and violent with different degrees of intensity, there is a historical continuum of contestation against partition in Ireland. While the territorial issue was calmed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Brexit has reanimated the border question, providing political momentum for those who aim to challenge the territorial status quo.
The deep divisions in Northern Ireland on its constitutional status will remain a source of friction in the EU-UK relationship. While the TCA has set a new framework for EU-UK relations, the politically problematic nature of NI Protocol attached to the WA means that its implementation will go beyond the regulation of trade. Brexit broke the fragile political balance that was put in place by the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and while the Protocol preserves the integrity of the Agreement, the debate on Brexit and the process of TCA negotiations have both deepened and shifted political cleavages in Northern Ireland. Even if the Protocol can function smoothly and without disputes, the clock cannot be reset, and politically the island of Ireland is a different place in 2021 compared to 2016, prior to the Brexit referendum. Constitutional change and a possible referendum on Irish unity are now a significant political demand in a way they were not in 2015.
Irish unity also allows NI to automatically re-enter the EU. The UK government chose the option of the Irish Sea Border to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit, while prioritising leaving the single market and customs union, given the EU’s refusal to sign a deal that compromised the Belfast Good Friday Agreement by placing a land border on the island of Ireland.
The Brexit negotiations gave Unionists the opportunity to reassert the primacy of the link with the UK, and from this perspective their preference was for a land border on the island. As a result, they view the Protocol both as a defeat and a threat that Northern Ireland will inevitably slide towards a united Ireland, with political integration following economic integration.