UK, EU Should Be Careful With Northern Ireland

By Sophie Boulter

A man walks past a mural supporting the Irish Republican Army in Belfast.
Image Credit: Cathal McNaughton/REUTERS

The highly acclaimed film Belfast tells the story of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a time of protracted conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the province. In a particularly meaningful exchange, the young protagonist Buddy receives ominous advice from his father. 

“Be good,” he says to Buddy,“and if you can’t be good, be careful.” 

This advice also rings true for the United Kingdom and the European Union in relation to Northern Ireland. The UK and EU should treat Northern Ireland — with its difficult history and sectarian divisions — with care. 

Nationalism, Unionism and the Protocol 

Recent events make the father’s advice in Belfast vitally important. Sinn Féin won more seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly than any other party for the first time in the history of the Assembly. The party is nationalist and advocates for a united Ireland. A united Ireland would most likely mean that Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the UK, becomes part of the Republic of Ireland instead. 

Sinn Féin’s rise coincides with a growing debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol is a set of special trade and border arrangements that was created by the UK for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

The Republic of Ireland is part of the EU. Northern Ireland, as a nation within the UK, is not part of the EU after Brexit. This would normally require a customs border between the two parts of the island of Ireland. 

However, borders in Ireland drag up memories of violent sectarian division known as “The Troubles” that lasted from 1968 to 1998. The conflict between Catholics (who tended to be nationalist) and Protestants (who tended to be unionist, or supportive of Northern Ireland’s continued membership in the UK) was supposedly settled by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

To avoid recreating a hard border on the island that could endanger the peace, the Special Protocol allows Northern Ireland to remain in the EU market by creating a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea instead. 

The largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is one of chief opponents of the Protocol. The DUP argues that the Protocol separates the province from the rest of the UK. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, supports the Protocol for its promise to keep Northern Ireland somewhat in the EU and connected to the Republic of Ireland.

The divide between unionists and nationalists on the Protocol is further complicated by lingering Brexit politics. The DUP campaigned for Brexit and Sinn Féin advocated against it. Taken together, the current debate between the pro-EU nationalists and anti-EU unionists seems like a proxy of the old Troubles conflict. 

Despite these tensions, it seems that the UK and EU have not given sufficient thought to Northern Ireland’s precarious peace. The UK is threatening to scrap parts of the Protocol negotiated with the EU, which would be a breach of international law. In retaliation, the EU is threatening a trade war with the UK. 

The dispute between London and Brussels ignores the people harmed most by this discord: the people of Northern Ireland. 

Give the People What They Want?

Various groups have purported to speak for the people of Northern Ireland, including parties in Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU. 

Sinn Féin, as the newly elected majority party of the Northern Ireland Assembly, claims that their mandate is one for the Protocol and even for a united Ireland. Meanwhile, the DUP refuses to work with Sinn Féin in the Assembly unless major changes are made to the Protocol — changes that would make Northern Ireland’s customs rules with the EU closer to those of the rest of the UK. 

Unionists fear that the Protocol will give further ground to nationalist communities in the province. The number of nationalists is increasing north and south of the border, while the number of unionists is decreasing. Unionist and nationalist communities both see their vision necessary for Northern Ireland’s future. 

Nonaligned groups refuse to identify as either unionist or nationalist. They blame the UK for using Northern Ireland as a pawn in its negotiations with the EU.

Led by the Alliance Party, non-aligned groups have avoided inflaming sectarian tensions between nationalists and unionists. They tend to focus on bread-and-butter issues like health care and education instead. Their strong election results indicate that their focus on a better life for ordinary Northern Irish people can unite all communities

The Alliance Party advocates for shifting focus from the political posturing of the UK and EU to the will of the Northern Irish people. The party points out that the Protocol, while necessary, has never been fully implemented by the UK and has been rife with delays. 

Alliance also argues that problems with the Protocol’s implementation are due to British “belligerence” towards the EU and EU inflexibility towards the UK during the Brexit process. The centrist party concludes that the Protocol is necessary but should be implemented with care. 

Rather than poking and prodding sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, Alliance sidesteps the question altogether and aims to “bring people together.” 

Opinion polls of the province indicate that this is necessary because opinions on the Protocol are strongly divided based on sect, but can be bridged by common beliefs. Most notably, polls indicate that a large majority of people believe that “particular arrangements for Northern Ireland are necessary to manage the effects of Brexit.”

However, a more narrow majority believes that the Protocol is “an appropriate means for managing the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland.” Despite the division on the Protocol, it is significant that two thirds of people think that Northern Ireland should be treated as “particular.”

To treat a place as “particular” is to consider its unique history, its conflicts and its potential for a better future. When the EU threatens trade wars and the UK disregards international agreements, it ignores Northern Ireland’s unique situation and treats it as just another bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiation process. The province deserves better.

“If You Can’t Be Good, Be Careful”

Most of all, to treat a place as “particular” is to treat it with care. As Buddy learns in the movie Belfast, Northern Ireland has had a fraught and violent history. However, no place is beholden to its history as long as people treat each other with care and are treated with care themselves. 

Buddy could teach the UK and EU a thing or two. If the UK and EU are unable to be “good” to Northern Ireland, they should at least be careful with the province. They should be careful not to treat Northern Ireland as just another part of the Brexit process and should instead give the province the time and respect it deserves.

Implementing the Protocol thoughtfully and flexibly, as the Alliance Party advocates, is an important first step to treating Northern Ireland with care. Otherwise, the consequences for peace could be disastrous. 

Sophie Boulter is an incoming graduate student at the University of Cambridge, studying Politics and International Studies. A regular contributor for the Realist Review, she graduated from Xavier University with degrees in Political Science and Philosophy.

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