When I moved to Belfast for a three-year fellowship in September 2001, American news was covering a nasty episode in the capital of Northern Ireland. In a segregated neighborhood, a Protestant mob shouted abuse and threw bricks and blast bombs at Catholic schoolgirls whose parents—eventually joined by riot police—were escorting them to Holy Cross School. A week later, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Friends never again asked if I felt safe in Belfast, and the place disappeared from international headlines.
In recent months, Northern Ireland has dominated Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union, as the Irish border has come to symbolize the challenges of Brexit. When E.U. leaders met in Brussels on June 28-29 and assessed the status of divorce talks, the E.U.’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned “huge and serious divergences” remained over the unique problems posed by this divided island.
Despite years of American investment in the Northern Ireland peace process, this issue has received scant coverage in the U.S. press and minimal engagement by the Trump Administration. In May, I returned to Belfast, along with Dublin and London; I spoke with over 40 people from government, media, business, and civil society about the implications of Brexit for politics, prosperity, and peace in my former home. What I heard should worry Americans.
Life After the Troubles
In 1921, the island was divided: the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (U.K.), while the six northern counties comprising Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. The region’s constitutional status has remained contested, as the unionist and largely Protestant community wishes to remain part of the U.K. while the nationalist and predominantly Catholic community wants Irish unification. This dispute caused decades of political turmoil and violence, often known as the Troubles. More than 3,600 people were killed.
In April 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement—comprised of an international agreement between the British and Irish governments and a multi-party agreement in Northern Ireland—heralded a comprehensive approach to governance, civil rights, policing, and justice. Peace talks were shepherded by George Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader who served as Special Envoy for Northern Ireland.
The fact that both the U.K. and Ireland belong to the E.U. has made this tenuous peace more viable—eliminating physical, economic, and psychological barriers and facilitating cross-border ties. Along with the peace process, the E.U.’s single market (which means the bloc functions as one territory without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles to the free movement of goods and services) enabled the gradual dismantling of customs posts and military checkpoints along the border.
Northern Ireland slowly and quietly began moving in the right direction. Its new Assembly focused on routine issues of governance rather than contentious debates about identity. Invest Northern Ireland reports an influx of foreign investors focused on technology and financial services, with nearly 900 international companies employing around 100,000 people. I used to ride the bus to Dublin Airport for cheap Ryanair flights to the continent, unaware I had crossed an international border until I saw Gaelic street signs, kilometer speed limits, and euros. There are now dozens of direct flights across Europe. Belfast opened a museum about the Titanic (built at the local shipyard), served as the location for films and TV series (most notably “Game of Thrones”), revamped its city center with high-end shops and hipster cafes, and was named by Lonely Planet as the best travel destination in 2018.
Relations also improved between the U.K. and Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement created north-south and east-west institutions that enabled government officials to coordinate policies (such as agriculture and environment) across the island of Ireland. Queen Elizabeth made a state visit to Ireland in May 2011, the first trip by a British head of state since Irish independence. During a visit to Northern Ireland a year later, the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuiness, Deputy First Minister and former leader of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA). The conflict was personal for the Queen: her cousin, Louis Mountbatten, was killed in a 1979 IRA bombing. Her actions would have been unthinkable only years before.
And then Brexit happened.
Derailing the Brexit Process
In a June 2016 referendum, Britain voted to leave the E.U. by a narrow margin of 51.9 to 48.1 percent. London has now spent months entangled in messy negotiations with Brussels about the terms of separation, which will take effect on March 29, 2019. Northern Ireland, which was little discussed during the campaign, has proven the most complicated issue and could derail the process.
When leaders met at the European Council in December to assess progress on negotiations toward a withdrawal agreement, tensions quickly became apparent. The U.K. is currently part of the EU’s customs union and single market. After Brexit, it will leave both—raising the status of the Irish border to that of a customs border, with associated checks and controls. This does not just create practical and economic challenges; it is also politically and psychologically inconceivable for many who live there.
Although the U.K. committed to avoiding a hard border with Northern Ireland, it offered no formal proposals for doing so. Given uncertainty about the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU, Brussels insisted on a “backstop” provision to safeguard the status quo for Northern Ireland. If London is unable to devise alternative arrangements, the backstop says Northern Ireland will remain in the E.U. customs union and “full regulatory alignment” (at least for goods) with the single market. This effectively eradicates the need for checks and controls at the Irish land border, pushing them to sea and air entry points to the island of Ireland. In response to objections from unionists, London added a provision preventing “new regulatory barriers” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. These aims are mutually incompatible. The question is who blinks first.
Despite work in recent months, these differences were not resolved before leaders reconvened at the European Council on June 28-29. They expressed “concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution” and called for “intensified efforts” amid looming deadlines. Closer British ties with the E.U. would make it easier to manage the Irish border yet harder to achieve the autonomy that motivated Brexit.
May is running out of time in this high stakes face-off, as the U.K. could crash out of the E.U. with no deal. European Council President Donald Tusk cited a “great deal of work ahead” if the sides are to reach a deal by October. He warned May’s Cabinet, which meets next week to take major decisions on Brexit, that “This is the last call to lay the cards on the table.”
The E.U. has thus far backed Ireland, a small member state with existential policy concerns. Just last week European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker visited Dublin and warned the U.K. there would be no Brexit deal without agreement on the border. Yet Dublin fears Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Gaelic for prime minister), will be forced to make concessions when leaders next meet in October. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described this nightmare scenario as “a Halloween party,” with Varadkar’s arm twisted at 2 a.m. to conclude the withdrawal agreement.
Dynamics in London, Dublin, and Belfast make the situation even more complicated. Theresa May became the U.K.’s prime minister in June 2016 after David Cameron resigned following the Brexit defeat. In an effort to strengthen her negotiating legitimacy, she held snap elections a year later. She had a disastrous result, falling 8 seats short of a parliamentary majority less than two weeks before EU talks began. In a dramatic twist, May became reliant on 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for a “confidence and supply” agreement (it supports the government on budget and confidence motions but is not bound by a policy platform).
In Ireland, Leo Varadkar—the young, gay, son of an Indian immigrant—has served as leader since winning a party leadership contest last June. All parties support the government’s stance in Brexit negotiations: an orderly U.K. exit that protects Ireland’s fundamental interests, including trade and a strong bilateral relationship. The challenge, an Irish official told me, “is how to achieve the first without damaging the second.”
In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement created an Assembly with a power-sharing executive to ensure representation of unionist and nationalist communities in policy-making. And although Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and the DUP are on opposite sides of the Brexit debate, they sent a joint letter to May with shared concerns about its impact on Northern Ireland. Yet the region’s voice has been absent in these discussions since January 2017, when the executive collapsed amid a domestic political controversy; the polarized nature of politics amid Brexit have hindered efforts to revive the Assembly.
But May has now boxed herself in politically with a “trilemma” of three incompatible goals: an exit from the E.U. single market and customs union, no hard border with Ireland, and an all-U.K. approach to Brexit. If she reneges on the first, she will lose the backing of “Brexiteers” who would argue this undermines the point of the referendum. If she waivers on the second, Ireland (and the EU) would almost certainly reject the deal and the U.K. could crash out of the EU. If she caves on the third, the DUP could bring down her government. In recent months, British officials have explored various options, involving the creative collection of customs tariffs and advanced technology to monitor border crossings. To date, they have failed to find a workable alternative to the backstop. Brexit fatigue is palpable in London, with many arguing May simply needs to make a choice.
Despite significant American investment in the Northern Ireland peace process across several administrations, Washington has been largely absent from these discussions. Former President Barack Obama visited London two months before the referendum and expressed support for “a strong U.K. in a strong E.U.”
In contrast, President Donald Trump is skeptical of the EU and called Brexit a “great thing.” He wants a free trade agreement with the U.K., which he described last summer as “a very powerful deal, great for both countries” that will get done “very, very quickly.” In reality, it seems unlikely a deal will be either quick (as most take 10 years to negotiate) or great for Britain. According to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the U.K. must choose between E.U. and U.S. regulatory models. American standards on agricultural products are controversial in the UK (particularly chlorinated chicken), while any divergence would hinder the U.K.’s ability to trade with the E.U. My Brookings colleague Tom Wright has described the Trump Administration’s approach as “a predatory policy, designed to take immediate economic advantage of the dislocations and vulnerabilities created for the U.K. by the Brexit process.”
American diplomats have quietly encouraged progress in negotiations, but the U.S. has mostly remained silent on what it views as a domestic matter. The Administration has not yet nominated an ambassador for Ireland nor has it decided whether to appoint an envoy for Northern Ireland. Although the unique nature of the current Administration elicited caution in all three capitals about greater U.S. involvement (with someone in Belfast telling me “we don’t want Trump tweeting about Northern Ireland”), there was agreement that American appeals to protect the Good Friday Agreement would resonate with those who ignore Brexit’s impact. While Trump reportedly mentioned Northern Ireland in a phone call with May earlier this month, his visit to London in July seems to be a good opportunity to convey this message more strongly.
Brexit has soured Dublin’s relations with London. A member of Irish civil society told me “Brexit triggered a historical muscle memory switch,” with tensions previously confined to the rugby pitch spilling out in daily life. My Irish interlocutors sounded like aggrieved younger siblings, as they lamented British television hosts who mispronounce “Taoiseach,” engage in “paddywhackery,” and caricature Irish politics.
Despite decades of IRA bombings in England, memories of the Troubles have faded there. Three English MPs caused outrage by suggesting the Good Friday Agreement “had outlived its usefulness” and was “not sustainable in the long term.” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has repeatedly downplayed the threat, saying recently it is “beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog.”
Irish diplomats are quick to reject suggestions Brexit may lead to “Irexit,” understanding that E.U. membership gave a small and peripheral island an enhanced role on the world stage. In contrast, many outside observers see Brexit as the cry of English nationalism and are skeptical about May’s call for a “Global Britain.” As I sat in the British Foreign Office listening to a diplomat explain the concept, I looked out the window and saw a gilded, horse-drawn carriage deliver an African dignitary to a Commonwealth meeting. It was a relic of an imperial era when Britain truly had global reach.
Brexit negotiations have already caused damage in Northern Ireland, as the very idea has destabilized politics, divided families and communities, and forced people to choose sides. The Good Friday Agreement, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary in April, did not fully resolve past tensions. There were no peace commissions or reconciliation efforts, nor has there been an enduring answer to the constitutional question. Less than seven percent of children attend integrated schools, with former First Minister Peter Robinson describing the segregated system as a “benign form of apartheid which is fundamentally damaging to our society.” Localized violence remains higher in Northern Ireland than outsiders realize, with punishment beatings by paramilitary organizations increasing 60 percent in the last four years.
During my recent visit I toured the peace walls—erected to prevent attacks on residents living along the lines between mainly unionist and mainly nationalist areas. It was a marker of how physically close yet psychologically far the two communities live from one another. Community groups have toned down the militaristic nature of several murals, while some gates are staying open longer. Yet there are more peace walls now than in 1998, with the International Fund for Ireland reporting nearly 70 percent of Troubles-related murders took place within 500 yards of these walls.
Despite these remaining challenges, the Agreement allowed people to take a break from ever-present identity questions. Nearly everyone I met in Belfast lamented how Brexit has forced the return of “orange and green,” a shorthand reference to the constitutional preferences of unionists and nationalists. Many unionists supported Brexit. DUP representatives are unconcerned by border debates given their primary loyalty to Britain and loath to see the region have a “special status” (preferring “special circumstances”). Yet the reality is Northern Ireland has always been treated differently from the rest of the U.K. It is heavily subsidized by the British state. It is the only part of the U.K. where gay marriage and abortion remain illegal; it is even isolated from Ireland, which recently voted to legalize both measures. At the same time, the island’s economy has become heavily integrated, particularly in the agri-food sector.
In contrast, the overwhelming majority of nationalists voted to remain in the E.U. They view a hardening border as a political defeat given recent progress on demilitarization, a single economic market, and free movement. Sinn Féin has renewed calls for a “border poll” to determine whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the U.K. or join Ireland. A recent survey found increasing support for the E.U. in Northern Ireland amid the complexities of divorce, with 69 percent now backing Remain (compared to 56 percent in the referendum two years ago). Brexit has increased Catholic support for Irish unification: while only 28 percent would vote for a united Ireland if the U.K. remained in the E.U., 53 percent would support unification if the U.K. left the customs union and single market.
What the Future Looks Like
Irrespective of political views, a hard Brexit will affect daily life in Northern Ireland in myriad ways. Business representatives worry about transport delays, supply chain disruption, and new bureaucracy. The agriculture sector will be particularly hard hit, as it comprises 35 percent of Northern Ireland’s exports with nearly a quarter shipping to Ireland. All-island healthcare has grown amid high costs and limited demand, with Brexit raising questions about future access; for example, the closure of children’s heart surgery services at a Belfast hospital led to the joint creation of a pediatric cardiology center in Dublin. Brexit could limit citizens’ rights. The most frequently cited example is a provision in the Good Friday Agreement that allows those born in Northern Ireland to hold British passports, Irish passports, or both; it is unclear how the rights of Irish (E.U.) citizens will be enforced. On the policing front, the U.K. will lose access to the European Arrest Warrant that facilitated information sharing and extradition with Irish law enforcement.
My interlocutors were careful not to overstate the risk of renewed violence and did not expect a return to the Troubles, especially as there is no appetite for conflict on either side. Yet everyone was equally clear that any infrastructure on the border would be attacked. The Chief Constable of the Northern Ireland Police Service, George Hamilton, warned customs posts would re-emphasize “the context and causes of the conflict,” be seen as “fair game” by dissident republicans, and require 24-hour police protection. Three former Irish Taoiseachs echoed this concern, with one (Bertie Ahern) explaining: “You wouldn’t have to wait for violence—the communities on both sides of the border, with their bare hands, would pull down anything that was put up.”
Northern Ireland remains a place of contradictions and challenges, of tentative steps forward and shuffles backward. In a world dotted with frozen conflicts, the Good Friday Agreement provided an imperfect but workable solution for a war-weary population. Brexit has re-opened old wounds.
An irresistible force is preparing to meet an immoveable object; the lack of a solution to the “trilemma” means something will surely break. This year will define Northern Ireland’s future. Whatever the shape of the final deal, the people will likely have to live with its consequences indefinitely. Given the fragility of the situation, Americans should help Europeans do everything possible to protect the gains of the Agreement.