As I write, the Brexit rhetoric intensifies. With Boris Johnson comfortably installed inside Downing Street, the best the prime minister has been able to do since taking office is offer up another serving of blind faith, asserting that the UK ‘can do it’.
Well intentioned it may be, but this casual ‘do or die’ approach is a fitting metaphor for Northern Ireland’s exclusion from public discourse. Throughout the Brexit saga, there has been no mention of whether Northern Ireland could indeed ‘do it’ with its unique stake in the withdrawal process. Nor has there been any proposal to address the heavily contested Irish border- well, not a logical one anyway. For many, it is an inconvenient truth.
The border between the Republic of Ireland and Nortern Ireland comprises of a total of 275 border checkpoints, which, before the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, served as the frontier of The Troubles.
Narrow mindedness of hard-Brexiteers
The lack of any acknowledgement of the potential political crisis that could consume Northern Ireland in the case of a no-deal is a sad reflection of the extreme centralisation of the Brexit debate, and the narrow mindedness of hard-Brexiteers, especially Boris Johnson. Indeed, you need not look further than the term itself- ‘Brexit’- it’s not just Britain leaving the EU, but rather the United Kingdom as a whole.
But should we suprised? Northern Ireland is seldom considered in UK-wide debates. But now, the region is to be imbued with a new constitutional significance. Compared with Britain, it voted to Remain in the EU. And while this may be dismissed by Brexit voters as detracting from the ‘will of the people’, this does not lessen the fact that Northern Ireland’s voice has become suppressed, sidelined by Britain’s deafening superpower nostalgia.
Within the narrative that the UK was being enslaved to a federalist Europe, Brexiteers had and continue to have very little to say on the status of Northern Ireland. This ultimately stems from the division between both British and Irish nationalism. Far from the perceived struggle of native ‘little Englanders’ against foreign invaders, Irish nationalism has a far more sectarian approaching, focusing on British identity within the unionist or Catholic community. Indeed, Northern Ireland is home to very few EU migrants- according to a 2014 study, net migration from the EU stood at a mere 2,237. Thus, in the context of the British-centric referendum campaign, the Leave campaign had little to focus its attentions on.
A trojan horse for disaffected unionists
Ultimately, the Brexit debate within Northern Ireland took on a far more combative approach- simply used as a trojan horse for disaffected unionists or nationalists to contest the region’s constitutional settlement. The debate over Brexit was divided to sectarian lines which resulted in a wider Brexit debate unable to take into account the actual significance of Northern Ireland in the event of a vote to leave.
Even so, while the complexity of the region may well have complicated the debate, this does little to excuse the fact campaigners were well aware of Northern Ireland’s stake in the Brexit process- it is, after all, the only part of the UK to share a physical land border with the EU.
The complex status of Northern Ireland was teleported into the same ubiquitous realm of nationalist rhetoric, with no semblance of fact. Indeed, the rallying cry of Leave campaigners – and the now prime minister – was the statement the view the UK should take control of its borders- a purely metaphorical assertion to inflate ideas of security. Only once the referendum had been won, did Leave campaigners realise that in-fact the UK had a very real with the EU.
The time for ambiguity is over
For Boris Johnson, the time for ambiguity is over. He may well have won over voters with the convenient simplicity of his can-do approach to Brexit, but now he must focus his attention on developing concrete policy that will prevent a return to the region’s violent past.
Even now, the idea of what a future border may look like is contested. But, one thing must remain at the forefront of the prime minister’s thinking: that to toy with the idea of a hard border is to legitimise renewed conflict and the undoing a historic peace accord of which Northern Ireland so heavily relies.