Could Northern Ireland remain in or closer to the EU post-Brexit?

At Monday lunchtime in next week’s Belfast Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, I will be hosting a session: Could Northern Ireland be an independent member of the EU, or have “special status”.

I thought it was important to have a forum during the festival for people to discuss the EU. I’m not pushing any particular outcome, but I will present the case for taking this seriously—and what realistic options are available. I’m hoping that those in attendance will have plenty to say on the topic too!

What follows is a summary of my contribution to this debate.

People in Northern Ireland should take this seriously because Scotland may plausibly become independent, or at least get some kind of concession to keep it closer to the EU than England and Wales. What then for Northern Ireland?

Regardless of Scotland, Brexit may have a negative impact on Northern Ireland’s economy and it may threaten peace and stability. It may not, but it would be poor governance not to have contingency plans in place.

What does being in the EU really mean? Out of the various treaties and agreements, we could summarise this in six points:

  • Being inside the European Customs Union
  • Being inside the European Single Market
  • Holding EU Citizenship Rights
  • Participating in EU Programmes (e.g. CAP, Erasmus)
  • Common EU Security and Defence
  • The “European Project”

The last point represents the possibility of enhanced co-operation by EU member states on just about anything, and also the possibility of the creation over time of a quasi-federal European state.

Most countries in the world belong to a customs union, a trade bloc or both. Brexit is therefore all the more surprising as a move against the global trend. Although Brexit might be better understood as a pull away from the political union implied by the European Project.

At this point I make a claim, which is that the late-twentieth century trend towards greater co-operation between states has created international structures that support the existence of smaller states. So many of the world’s smaller independent states would be less viable without strong international structures to support their existence, such as NATO, various UN agencies and the EU.

Some EU member states are probably only viable because they are members of international organisations. I’m thinking of the importance of NATO to the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) as well as the importance of the EU to various small countries, for example Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia.

In this context, Northern Ireland on its own has a larger population than four full EU member states and is similar in size to two others, although Northern Ireland has a small landmass than all but two EU members.

So as a “naïve” starting point, Northern Ireland is not too small to be an independent EU member state—and it would enjoy the supports that comes from membership. These supports are less obvious to larger states that employ their own policy experts on everything from defence to climate change, although even they too usually benefit from pooling their resources, for example to share a single group of international trade negotiators.

At any rate, Options 1 and 2 for Northern Ireland would be to become a fully-fledged member of the EU. Why two options? Option 1 is what has been called “devolution max” by various commentators, including former PM Sir John Major. This is the idea of a United Kingdom very much centred on the monarchy and shared defence, with each of the nations being given sovereignty and opting-in to other UK federal functions. This would of course mean radical constitutional change for the UK, but it may be the best (or least worst) outcome for the Union given the SNP’s ambitions for Scotland.

As an aside, it would be interesting to see the British-Irish Council emerging as a stronger intergovernmental structure, including the Republic of Ireland, along the lines of the Nordic Council that also includes EU and non-EU members.

Option 2 would be for Northern Ireland to leave the UK in part or in whole, becoming a Crown Dependency (like the Isle of Man), British Overseas Territory (like Gibraltar), a Commonwealth Realm (like New Zealand) or even a republic (like Malta). For example, whatever happens to Gibraltar—where 96% voted Remain—may be of interest to Northern Ireland in terms of mimicking any deal to give Gibraltarians access to the EU.

Of course, Northern Ireland could stay in the EU by joining up with the Republic in some way, but that seems unlikely to happen at this point in time. Nonetheless, the Irish Government is seeking for any Brexit deal to have a clause guaranteeing Northern Ireland immediate membership in any future scenario of a united or federal Ireland.

Would Options 1 or 2 be a step towards a united Ireland? Not necessarily, but they would both represent steps away from the current UK, and are likely to be bitterly opposed by many people in Northern Ireland on that basis. Although if Scotland pulls away, Northern Ireland may have to face UK constitutional change regardless.

If neither Options 1 nor 2 are politically viable, what remains is to consider what EU “special status” might look like for Northern Ireland.

What we perceive as the monolithic EU is actually a series of overlapping treaties and agreements, some of which can be accessed separately.

Option 3 would be for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Customs Union. For example, Turkey is a member without otherwise being in the EU. On the other hand, Norway is not a member, despite being in the Single Market.

This would mean no tariffs between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU, including the Republic. For example, it would make it much simpler to keep the existing agricultural arrangements, such as the movement of cattle across the border for slaughter, movement of milk for dairy processing, etc. If significant tariffs are brought in on agricultural produce, it would disrupt these supply lines or render North-South agri-food co-operation uncompetitive.

However, being inside the Customs Union would mean tariffs between Northern Ireland and GB. And the EU would handle Northern Ireland’s trade deals not the UK government. This could have major pros and cons on what sectors of the economy would prosper in Northern Ireland compared to GB.

Option 4 would be for Northern Ireland to remain in the Single Market, for example by becoming a signatory to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement, along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein. That would mean that the four freedoms of movement (capital, goods, services and people) would apply to Northern Ireland, but not the rest of the UK. This could be good for attracting US foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland, as the Americans have long favoured English-speaking countries as their base of operations for engaging with the EU single market. However, it could mean other barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and GB (or England and Wales, if Scotland also remains in the Single Market).

Option 5 would involve opting-in—and paying-in—for a number of EU programmes, to retain their benefits. The UK may well want to stay in some of these too—like the Erasmus education programme—but Northern Ireland could plausibly opt-in to extra ones, not least CAP (the Common Agricultural Policy) upon which farmers are so reliant. The Republic is already pushing for continued EU support post-Brexit for programmes that benefit Northern Ireland, like the PEACE funding.

A full list of EU programmes is here.

Finally, Option 6 for Northern Ireland is already secured. Regardless of what happens, people in Northern Ireland have the right—under the Good Friday Belfast Agreement—to retain EU citizenship by taking up an Irish passport. On a personal basis, this guarantees access to anywhere in the EU to work, reside, study, travel and retire.

So far, so rosy; but how likely is Northern Ireland to remain closer to the EU than the rest of the UK?

Northern Ireland is much more divided on the EU than Scotland. Although both nations voted Remain, every single constituency in Scotland had a Remain majority, whereas seven Northern Irish constituencies—all to the northeast—voted Leave by a majority vote ranging from 50.6 to 62.2%. The fact that the DUP—still by far the largest unionist party—campaigned for Leave emphasises political divisions over the EU that do not exist in Scotland.

Also, just as some people are arguing that there is no such thing as a European polity, one could debate whether Northern Ireland is a polity—that is, a people who see themselves as belonging to Northern Ireland as a separate political entity. The relatively high turnout to the assembly elections has been interpreted as public support for the institutions of self-government. Yet, politics remains divided by the constitutional question.

On the other hand, the 2015 Life and Times Survey found that 40% of people see themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. More than half of younger people (18-34) identified as “neither”. And the British Social Attitudes survey finds that 29% of people identify as “Northern Irish” when forced to prioritise one identity, as opposed to 48% “British” and 28% “Irish”. This suggests that a Northern Irish polity is plausible, especially as people can of course retain multiple, overlapping identities.

However, there are other barriers to Northern Ireland remaining in the EU. Legal experts suggest that Scotland would have to re-apply, although it would be fast-tracked in again in just a few years. But years are a very long time in politics and economics!

It is plausible that Northern Ireland might get a “free pass” to immediate EU membership as an independent state, if pressure from the Irish Government—and EU commitment to the peace process—was to be evoked, but it would be hard to do it for Northern Ireland and not for Scotland or Gibraltar.

Spain might also oppose membership for breakaway nations, although the most recent statements by their Prime Minister suggest a softening of attitudes and a claim that Scotland’s case is totally different from Catalonia.

EU membership of course comes with a membership fee (the UK paid £161m net/week; HM Treasury). Northern Ireland would not get to keep the UK’s rebate, but as a full member state would almost certainly be a net beneficiary at first. The Republic paid €1.6bn to the EU in 2015 and received c.€2bn. However, if Northern Ireland opts in to partial-EU access, this would probably have a net cost from the outset.

More critically for Northern Ireland is the potential loss of the £9.2bn subvention from the UK. The EU might bridge some of this funding loss in the short-term, but Northern Ireland would need to restructure its economy to be more productive and to generate a larger tax base. In part-compensation for the lost subvention, Northern Ireland might take on a reduced proportion of the UK’s national debt, which would allow some borrowing for infrastructural investment. But the economic shock if the subvention was withdrawn quickly would be palpable, and many public sector jobs could be lost.

On an institutional basis, Northern Ireland lacks much of the expertise that would be needed to run itself as an independent EU member state. However, many other countries have gotten over this in a short time, and there is plenty of scope to recruit experts from GB and elsewhere. Northern Ireland could quickly become entirely self-governing and ready to engage fully with EU legislation and to transact with EU members and institutions.

The biggest sticking point remains the constitutional division looming over the political system. Although many people in Northern Ireland say they are neither unionist nor nationalist, the vote at the last Assembly election says otherwise (although the smaller cross-community parties’ vote share did rise). While there was significant cross-community support for Northern Ireland’s Remain vote, there was a strongly unionist/loyalist dimension to its Leave vote. Holding a referendum on Northern Ireland remaining in the EU could be deeply divisive.

And there would be no option of Direct Rule if the parties couldn’t work together, which means that the mandatory coalition envisaged by the Agreement might not be viable if Northern Ireland was to be independent within the EU.

In conclusion, while Options 1 and 2 still seem fanciful, Brexit seemed implausible and Scottish independence used to seem unlikely. Options 3, 4 and 5 are largely down to economic calculations of what would be in the best interest of Northern Ireland. However, is anyone doing these calculations?

Option 6—personal access to the EU—is already in the bag for anyone who wants it, and even DUP politicians have expressed sanguinity about their constituents taking up an EU document with an Irish harp on the front.

As a final thought, based on the age profile of the UK’s voters—73% of those aged 18-29 voted Remain and 60% aged 65+ voted Leave—it may be a case of Northern Ireland (and/or Scotland) keeping the UK’s seat warm in the EU for twenty years.

The ironic result of Brexit might be for the UK’s nations to give up a seat in the EU only to have four of them in future.


PS Colm Tóibín has an article in The Irish Times (15 March) which I only saw today, which is more forthright about this idea: ‘The North must become an independent EU state’

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  • MainlandUlsterman

    Of course anyone can be the victim of a crime in that sense – if Fred West gets burgled he’s a victim of that. I think the issue comes though when, as Eames-Bradley did, you lump anyone who’s been a victim of a crime together and accord them a certain moral status and certain rights (e.g. the right to a payment from the state in recognition of their victimhood). That is obviously completely absurd in the case of terrorists. I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge that some terrorists died as the result of crimes by others without having to include them in the same category as peaceful law-abiding people.

    We lose our humanity if we attempt to pretend these moral differences don’t exist, don’t matter or aren’t noticed by a supposedly dumb public who will buy anything. You can’t take the public for fools. There are obvious reasons many nationalists let the IRA off the hook rather lightly, but don’t forget those are not shared elsewhere. Twisted Republican Movement amorality over terrorism cannot be allowed into the public square, to upset further the survivors and families of the people it murdered. Please, enough.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I really don’t recognise this ‘sense of entitlement’ unionists are supposed to have. The DUP’s behaviour to me looks defensive and insecure.

    Direct rule is contemplated by the GFA as the fall back when an Executive can’t be formed. I agree there is a duty on all sides to try and make the institutions work and that the DUP are sometimes rude to nationalists. But you may not notice how habitually rude to unionists SF are, perhaps because it just seems normal or even ‘right’. We are habitually depicted in terms of the worst of our number, as knuckle-dragging bigots – conveniently ignoring that most unionists simply aren’t like that. Civility and respect has to go both ways. Part of the reason the DUP behaves so badly is that it resents the almost constant denigration and ethnic scapegoating of unionist people by Irish Republicans and its politicians lack the guile to hide their aggression inside ‘progressive’ Trojan Horses as SF does.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Tell that to Dublin. I think they regard the UK market as indispensable to Irish success.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    See later post which corrected that, we are 2nd after US

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think there’s a chance Rep of Ireland might be given some special dispensation over trade / free movement with U.K. Not convinced EU will ignore the NI issue completely. But hands up, I haven’t read enough yet about all this to have a view on how. My view is just that it logically makes sense for all parties to do some deal over the Ireland situation, it’s in everyone’s interests, even EU.

    I don’t think going easy on U.K. generally is in EU interests or likely. But I do think with Ireland, the EU will listen to Dublin’s views pretty seriously.

  • the moviegoer

    The DUP was behaving the exact same way and worse since day one of its formation in 1971. Let’s not get into a chicken-and-egg scenario and agree both sides need to do better.

  • Roger

    I don’t see any chance for Ireland to be able to trade with a third country, British Kingdom, under rules not as favorable as those applied by the EU26.

    That’s my view. Ireland still in club.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Right so if a loyalist attacks a Provo or vice versa they should have no right to justice because they had carried out injustices themselves?

    I’m sorry, you speak about morality and humanity, but when you deny the definition of a victim to bad and the good alike then you justify vigilantism, eye for an eye justice and you undermine the rule of law.

    This isn’t about justice for THEM, this is about justice for our society … if we don’t seek justice in these circumstances then inevitably innocent people who die because of false allegations are denied the definition of being a victim because in the opinion of biased politicians of orange cloth or green they were Guilty until Proven innocent.

    I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge that some terrorists died as the result of crimes by others without having to include them in the same category as peaceful law-abiding people.

    The people of an attack would be victims whether they were law-abiding or not. If a bomber kills himself, I see no reason why not to add their name to the tally of victims of his actions to highlight another life he wasted.

    Why is it necessary to redefine victim to these victims? They may not be innocent victims, but they’re still victims. Their deaths have a right to be investigated don’t they?

    Nothing about the legal definition of a victim gives a person a moral status. Bad things happen to Bad people too.

    Nothing about the legal definition of a victim gives a person an entitlement to compensation either.

    Yet political unionists don’t even want to recognize that perpetrators could ever have been victims, that their families could be victims, that victimhood is not a badge of honour but a tragic circumstance

    From a purely legal sense someone who suffered bodily harm or family loss as a result of the Troubles is a victim whether they are Irish Republican, Loyalist, State, Security, Civilian or Politician …

    That’s no a license do do harm or retaliate … and in no civilized society does a victim ever have that. There’s no removal of culpability for a person’s actions.

    Being a victim doesn’t add honour which isn’t there or grace when it isn’t there, or even a conscience when it isn’t there.

    But are you seriously suggesting that if a child sees their parent getting killed by a terrorist group they are a victim only but if that person becomes a victim maker the past is somehow rewritten not to have happened by legal authority.

    There’s on the run terrorists who get off Scott Free because of a vendetta against the terrorist who shouldn’t have a right to justice because he took justice into his own hands.

    If you deny the definition of victim to victim makers who would be victims had they not taken justice into their own hands, you are not creating a hierarchy of victims, you are creating a rather false hierarchy of victim makers, where those victim makers who kill victim-makers are somehow better than other victim-makers

    I’m sorry but entering that territory is white-washing tit for tat violence that inevitably harms the innocent relatives of these terrorists, and eventually causes bodily or psychological harm to innocent people in the wrong place and the wrong time too.

    Saying that victim makers can’t be victims, is pretty much saying taking justice into your own hands against victim makers is completely tolerable.

    We deserve to give innocent victims more than a word that is clearly defined in law to mean anyone who is a victim to a crime.
    Guilty people don’t need to be innocent to be victims of other guilty people.

    Being a victim doesn’t remove their guilt one bit.

    Perhaps future generations needs to know the horrors of violence between terrorist groups and how it all ended in detail to protect themselves from these impulses controlling our streets again.

    We need the truth and justice for all victims

  • Skibo

    MU some of us would say there isn’t much difference in the DUP and the UUP.
    What is the statements that SF come out with that you find so rude?
    Isn’t it interesting how SF get accused of sectarianism when they talk of reunification and border polls yet when Unionism talk in defence of the Union that is not taken as sectarian.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Kevin I really don’t see how you got that from what I wrote.

  • MainlandUlsterman


  • Kevin Breslin

    No, I’m not trying to correct you. I simply want to highlight the dangers of denying the definition of victimhood to victim makers who were victims.

    It’s also dangerous for the likes of Tom Elliot to spin that because you recognise some victim makers as victims, that you somehow assert that all victim-makers are victims.

    You can recognise people suffering as victims while simultaneously saying victims had no right to take revenge. I think if that attitude was taken some progress would be made.

    Unfortunately I think trying to protect the word “victim” being applied to bad people is only preventing good people being compensated by holding up progress.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think my point was they can be regarded as a victim in a narrow sense, but any overall appraisal of how they should be regarded in a truth and justice process has to also take account of their violent actions too. We can’t just look at people’s victimhood alone when assessing what society now owes them, or doesn’t.

    Your example of Billy Wright was a good one. It would be grotesque and undermining of any truth and justice process for a serial killer like Wright, no matter how politically motivated, to be regarded as a victim in the same sense as the drinkers in Greysteel were.

    So you do need categories of victims, sorry.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I regard Billy Wright as a victim because the INLA carried out a grotesque act upon him. In that regard his victimhood is the same as the drinkers in Greysteel.

    Denying that Billy Wright is a victim means categorising the INLA killers as what exactly as victimless killers?

    What is Billy Wright in this circumstance?

    I believe Billy Wright fits the “legal definition of a victim” in this case, what we are seeing is a pointless attempt to moralise the term victim in a manner that will cause legal confusion and confusion that will cause harm.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Sorry I think you missed my point. I wasn’t saying he wasn’t a victim of that crime. I was saying it shows that for a truth and justice process, calling Wright a victim in that narrow sense of the word is fine as far as that goes and his killer is a murderer of course, but that that should not be the end of all comment on Wright. It is possible to be a victim and a perpetrator, and for that latter role to be way more significant. They reckon Wright personally killed over 20 people. And he’s guilty in part as a former UVF then LVF leader of hundreds of other murders by those organisations while he was a member and supporter of them. So I’m not having Wright declared simply a victim when it comes to remembering the past.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The narrow sense of the word is what matter in law. My instincts are that the act of Changing the legal semantics is very dangerous. I also don’t think it does justice to define the word victim in any way that would stop a debate, however the legal definition must have a legal purpose and that is primarily as the person impacted by a criminal and violent act.

    It’s not simple, we should of course recognise the full truth of any individual and not simply an event. We know Wright killed 20 people and that provoked INLA people to kill him even within a jail. It was a senseless act to raise tensions. It lets the terror lie on while the terrorist dies.

    We need to offer the victims who didn’t make the choices of retaliation to be offered something better than a word for their dignity and grace. We need them to have a say in the future.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I wasn’t talking about changing the law though, I was talking about the public processing of the Troubles legacy and how terrorists are regarded in that.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The public debate will be a matter for museums and history books not the criminal justice system. We need to have a living legacy for victims too, beyond the obvious horrors of the past.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well, I think we need a public process of some sorts to help N Ireland process the Troubles more healthily. But yes I wasn’t talking about the criminal justice system as such.