By Ryan Ennis
The author requested it be stated that he is a Northern Irish law student from a Protestant background.
A country, a nation, a region or a province, depending on your political alignment and historical viewpoint. Referred to by nationalists as the ‘north of Ireland’ to emphasise its ‘Irishness’ and ‘Ulster’ (the name of an ancient Kingdom and province in the north of the Irish landmass) by unionists to emphasise its ‘non-Irishness’. So controversial is the very name of where I grew up that Northern Irish people when hearing another Northern Irish accent abroad will often exclaim to their friends and family ‘listen they’re from ‘HERE’: the neutral name to refer to the 6 Irish counties that remain in the UK.
Identity permeates through most parts of Northern Irish life. Although we have thankfully left the violence of the 70s, 80s and 90s behind us, the controversy surrounding our identity and future remains a hot topic. Are we British or are we Irish? Should we stay in the UK or should we reunite with the Republic of Ireland. Every aspect of our politics is tied into these two questions. Every political stance is claimed by one side or the other so to speak.
The issue of identity can be complicated. Looking at it purely on an official basis the answer to my previous question is: both. Although the Republic gave up its claim to the land of Northern Ireland in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement, it still maintains at a constitutional level that every person born on the island of Ireland is an Irish citizen and still expresses a firm desire to unite the island. Anyone born in Northern Ireland has the right to a British or Irish passport and can engage fully in the politics and life of whatever nation they feel most connected with. So, whilst the landmass is officially and at governmental level undisputedly British, the culture, people and future of Northern Ireland find themselves in a political and cultural ‘both man’s land’.
This peaceful existence and ability to interact with both Britain and The Republic could soon be shattered for the 1.9M inhabitants of Northern Ireland. On the 23rd of June 2016 Europe gasped, Sterling plummeted and Ireland faced an unexpected political shift. 51.9% of those who voted in the UK wide Brexit Referendum decided that they were better outside the EU.
Northern Ireland voted with 56% to stay in the EU despite the best efforts of the country’s largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). After the result, Brexit voters told us the vote was UK wide and that the specifics of each country’s vote were irrelevant: A bitter pill to swallow for those who respect in any way the delegated nature of UK politics.
The simple fact is that, if the UK leaves the customs union, there will need to be a border between the European Union and the UK. In recent months two possibilities have been discussed: a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or a customs border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.
We in Northern Ireland trade extensively with the European Union. It makes up approximately 55% of our exports. Over 30% of our total exports go to (no points for guessing): The Republic of Ireland. The rest is split between the UK, the USA and other nations. The DUP having realised the error of their sponsorship of Brexit and its possible move towards greater Irish economic integration will be quick to inform you that Britain is still the country where most Northern Irish exports go to and imports come from, and so we need to work to protect our trade with them. Whilst this is true, we cannot forget that the collective economic power of the EU vastly outweighs a healthy British economy let alone one facing political upheaval and a dropping currency.
Economics aside, the practicality of maintaining a land border is simply too difficult. The 499 Km border runs through mountains, rivers, streams, farmlands and even gardens. It is open, as are all EU borders, but takes this openness further by often not even containing a sign to indicate the leaving of one jurisdiction and arrival into another. Compare this with the Irish Sea, a natural border where most travellers by air or sea bring a passport with them anyway. The only difference would be customs checks on boats: a slight cost burden but less affecting of the daily lives of any travellers. Moreover, the danger of paramilitary activity is too great for soldiers and customs officials to have to work along the border. Requiring that people show a passport to leave Derry and head to Letterkenny for the day would no doubt drag us back in time, to the violence of the 70s.
Whilst the Tories seem to believe that they will within the next few years have invented a new technology to carry out customs checks without stopping traffic, I will remain sceptical on this and emphatically suggest that an Irish Sea border be the most practical solution.
My emphatic stance comes not only from the desire to avoid violence and avoid economic regression but rather to promote and gain something for the people of Ireland both North and South. In my opinion if we can keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and the UK we will create a recipe for economic success.
The EU collectively is the world’s second largest economy by GDP and the UK is the world’s 6th largest economy. If Northern Ireland could remain in both markets not only could we ourselves trade with them both but could become facilitators for EU/UK trade. London, Edinburgh and Manchester companies could set up offices in Belfast and Derry to keep a link with the Customs Union. Paris, Frankfurt and Rome firms could avail of Belfast to gain valuable British commodities and talented, educated workers.
I see a Northern Ireland where the Pound and Euro float freely around the streets as do the Frank and Euro in Geneva.
I see a Northern Ireland that straddles two of the world’s largest economies, that binds the UK to the EU, that gives an out to big British firms who didn’t want to leave the EU and to British citizens who want to keep some European connection.
The simple fact is that, if the UK leaves the customs union, there will need to be a border between the European Union and the UK.
I see a Northern Ireland at the centre of European innovation and finance. This economic success would of course create endless jobs for us and our southern neighbours and allow us to maintain our course towards all-island trade and harmony. We cannot pretend that Northern Ireland and The Republic can simply be severed with a hard border and no ill will befall us.
My vision is that we transform Northern Ireland from a country that requires yearly subsidies from London just to survive into an economic haven benefiting not only us but all Europeans and all Brits.
“Pride in being British, pride in maintaining totally free movement within the UK, pride in having voted out of the EU.”
A goal worth achieving. Yet with goals come hurdles. The major hurdle we could encounter along the way is in my opinion, pride.
Pride in being British, pride in maintaining totally free movement within the UK, pride in having voted out of the EU. For years in the argument around Irish v British connections, Unionists have held the economic argument tightly and proudly with Nationalists arguing along cultural and historical lines for why we should integrate and work more closely with the Republic. Now the tide has turned and it appears that integration with the Republic makes the most economic sense. Hugely ironic since Sinn Fein were strongly REMAIN and The DUP were strongly LEAVE.
I hope that for once we can set pride aside, keep it on the shelf, admire it occasionally but focus on what really matters: the development of not only Ireland but Europe. Please, I pray, we will both Nationalists and Unionists, Brits and Europeans not stumble over our need to express an identity or choose sides but we will unite and think with our heads, not with our flags.
Brexit can be amazing for Ireland, if we want it to be.
Originally published 1.12.17 in Vol. 1 No. 1.