Northern Ireland’s complexity is its strength

Katy Hayward is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Queens University, Belfast

The difficulty of allowing for the maintenance of the United Kingdom whilst also catering for the varied circumstances of its various parts is an acutely difficult one. Anyone trying to square this circle in the Brexit process must accept that modes of governance and policy will have to change in any transition out of the EU. But let us take comfort here from recognising the messiness of the situation we already live with.

Current boundaries across these islands are neither completely open nor utterly frictionless; there are stark legal, social, political and economic differences (and similarities) among these regions and nations. Indeed, while it may be ironic that the prospect of the closer ties between the DUP and the Conservative Party highlights the differences within the UK, the same thing would surely happen on the island of Ireland with the prospect of Irish unification. Whether these existing differences are seen as problems, barriers, frictions etc. is largely shaped by cultural perspective and political choice.

At the heart of the Brexit debate are two different conceptions of sovereignty. If the EU is about the growth of sovereignty by sharing it, Brexit is, in essence, a move to deepen sovereignty by restricting it to the territory of the UK. This is discordant, to say the least, with the reality of post-Agreement Northern Ireland. The whole premise of the 1998 Agreement has been that single state solutions are inadequate. This, too, is the premise of European integration.

With this in mind, proper critical analysis of the management of Brexit in Northern Ireland needs to eschew the dangerous trend of repoliticising the border and cross-border links which tends to be a reductionist, over-simplifying interpretation of political will and economic need. Even aside from the failures of this nationalistic approach in the past, attempting to drag Northern Ireland as a whole in one of two opposing directions will only cause harm and risks undoing a great deal of hard-won good. What space is there within this current point of limbo to find a means of balancing these trends of rising nationalism and counter-nationalism?

The EU is a body of great internal variation; its call for imaginative and flexible solutions on the post-Brexit Irish border is not a disingenuous one. The EU’s history of dealing with issues of contested territory and complex citizenship claims (in the wake of the collapse of colonial empires, the USSR and the former Yugoslavia, for example) demonstrates that it can be quite flexible. But this flexibility has always been in the context of trying to accommodate the specificity of the territories of its Member States. What happens when a Member-State withdraws, however, is a great unknown. (The case of Greenland is not that useful here given Denmark’s continued EU membership). It is at this point that Ireland’s unique involvement in NI, especially through citizenship, is of critical importance and offers a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland to navigate this tricky path. Putting this in different terms: the UK and Ireland will be on opposite sides of the Brexit negotiating table but they are also currently seated around the talks table in Stormont.

To illustrate this, we already have state institutions and agencies that function across state borders in these islands, North South East and West. The accountability lines of the North South Ministerial Council and implementation bodies (e.g. InterTrade Ireland, Food Safety Promotions Board, Waterways Ireland) go both to Dublin and London. Could there be space for new cross-border bodies to secure shared interests in the new context, e.g. electricity, environment, telecommunications, higher education research? Or – in a more ambitious move that could help facilitate trade across the Irish border – could there be potential for such bodies to ensure continued compliance with EU regulations and standards in certain key areas (e.g. agri-food)?

Such innovations could be something requested by the UK government at an early stage, and could be grounds for allowing time to formulate a transitional deal with the EU on the knotty border problem. The border issue cannot be resolved in a simple or straightforward matter, but the principal point of recognising it as a point of overlap between Britain and Ireland (and thus not exclusively to be affected by whatever ‘pull’ there is from the UK side) would be a vital one.

Thus, instead of giving up on the 1998 Agreement at a time of internal and exogenous crisis, the request could be for an ‘Agreement plus’ arrangement, centring on a willingness to accommodate complexity, requiring change in the UK, Ireland and the EU that allows for the creation of new East-West bodies and bilateral arrangements. If such bodies could cover fresh or enhanced areas of competence (or divergence) between Great Britain and Ireland as well as north and south on the island (e.g. customs, immigration, manufacturing standards), it could help meet the challenges of the fact that Northern Ireland will hold the status of being both post-membership and (potentially) pre-accession. Such arrangements will require flexibility and imagination (and no small amount of courage) from all players and parties, not just the EU.

But all this requires a properly functioning Assembly and Executive. The mandate to govern has been given and the preference for the clear majority of people is still currently that of devolution within the UK. At the very least, we need to present proper analysis of what repatriation of powers from the EU to Northern Ireland (e.g. agriculture, environment, employment) will require in terms of budgetary scope and in terms of cross-border (North/South, East/West) coordination. It is quite clear that the worst possible approach to the Brexit negotiations would be to centralise decision-making in the UK, paying little heed to regional concerns/divergence, and then only afterwards repatriating powers to the devolveds to, effectively, deal with the fallout.

The interests of Northern Ireland are, in absolute terms, peripheral to the primary interests of both London and Dublin. But looked at in a different way, borders can be seen not as dividing lines but as meeting points between states. Northern Ireland is in a unique position of being internationally recognised as an historical, economic, cultural and political meeting point (if not melting pot) between Britain and Ireland. If this connection is to be a positive rather than destructive one, common ground for the new post-Brexit era needs to be found. Northern Ireland is now a testbed for both the EU’s flexibility and the durability of the UK. This will require change on all sides. Let us shun oversimplification; Northern Ireland’s complexity and messiness is its greatest asset.

A version of this paper was delivered at the Politics workshop of the Ulster University Brexit Symposium, Belfast, 14 June 2017.


  • Kevin Breslin

    You still believe Brexit will be conservative of the benefits of the status quo at the very least … I can only say if you don’t expect a lot of disappointment, you will be very angry when the change hits you like a tonne of bricks.

  • John Devane

    Your pessimism regarding Brexit is well documented.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I like networks, I don’t like isolationist cliques like Brexit.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m actually optimistic that for me personally I can survive it, stupid border controls included.

    I honestly think the British establishment is taking their own nation for a ride here with their Brexit process.

  • John Devane

    Yes I understand the implications of Brexit in Ireland and I sincerely hope that it can be resolved without a hard border

  • Kevin Breslin

    It will probably involve a hard border, but who cares if paranoid English people can leave their houses without paranoias they read in the Daily Mail about illegal alien invasions are gone.

    Brexit seems to be gambling on the rest of the world becoming British like the days of Empire, I genuinely think Ireland and the rest of the world won’t build their world around a narrow cowardly xenophobic incompetent British establishment and their pathetic cultural insecurities.