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

    There is no other story to tell here … actions have consequences not rewrites and editing.

    If there’s no customs border enforcement within Ireland then there’s no Brexit. It’s very simple.

  • John Devane

    It’s ‘we’ now is it? Spoken like a true Europhile living in the UK. You’re just a Remoaner. You have nothing. You lost remember

  • Kevin Breslin

    If you say you are a monkey … do you become a monkey?

    Highlighting politicians have the ability to speak doesn’t impress me.

  • Kevin Breslin

    No I prefer direct democracy being used in a manner that the public not the politicians have a means of triggering it. Politicians get to ask the question, frame the question and determine the possible outcomes … it may be the socialist in me but if something is put to direct democracy it shouldn’t simply be at the mercy at Parliament but rather a democratic limit the people place upon Parliament.

    But then everything in the United Kingdom is at the mercy of Parliament and the monarch between elections for the former, and for the regal lifetime of the latter.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Brexit is simply a withdrawal by democratic means from the EU Nothing more nothing less … YES

    Trade deals is all the UK wants … NOPE, that’s even goes against this governments promise of a deep special relationship with the EU.

    The UK wants to interfere in the European Union as a non member or as an associate.

    So I will enlighten you John.

    You are not The United Kingdom,
    You are not its Government,
    You do not decide if the British government wants more from the EU than trade deals,
    You do not decide if the British government does not want federalist or quasi-federalist measures with the European Union.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I constitute a member in the set of The Rest of the World outside of the Brexiteers.

    You tell me what you think the rest of the world outside of the Brexiteers actually owes the Brexiteers if you want to argue with my point?

    Thankfully I don’t rely on Brexiteers myself.

  • John Devane

    But you’re in denial where you live. I’d like to see a united Ireland too but I don’t see it happening via Brexit Andi personally do not believe a united Ireland as a subservient province within the EU is much of a prize

  • John Devane

    You are only convincing yourself that a UK EU special deal means more than trade. The UK doesn’t want a bar of the EU political union garbage

  • John Devane

    On this point I agree the Referendum option was begrudgingly given. The UK electorate deserved to leave the EU sooner

  • John Devane

    Then why believe a hard border is inevitable?

  • John Devane

    Really? You’re privvy to on going negotiations?

  • John Devane

    No one owes Remainers or Brexit anything. It is just a decision to leave the EU. That decision has now been made so it’s best to work out how best to deal with this new reality. We’re all leaving the EU now

    On a more optimistic note for yourself even a Remainer Reading shines a light on Irish unity. I suspect he views Brexit as an opportunity

  • Kevin Breslin

    The only optimism I have is that the United Kingdom learns some humility out of this, leaving the European Union in the belief it was better, special or unique will be met with a severe culture shock.

    There really is no point being optimistic about Brexit, it’s like being optimistic about cancer. You just have to prepare for the worst things that come ahead of you. That effectively a bunch of people were deluded into thinking they would get better laws, better migration rules, better industry, better healthcare, better trade simply because they felt the European Union was despicable and nothing else.

    Irish Unity won’t come as a result of Brexit, it only changes the game, not the players in the game … ever hear of the Principle of Consent?

    I’d rather not be part of the Brexit push game, but show compassion to the people of Ireland who are the ones who are getting pushed around by the Brexiteers.

    You go ahead and be optimistic about Brexit, it’s going to hurt so badly when the anti-climax sets in.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Actions have consequences … You speak of a new reality, I hate to break it to you Brexit doesn’t stop causality, and words don’t stop the world from spinning.

    Without Irish border customs enforcement, the United Kingdom hasn’t left the European Customs Union, without leaving the Customs Union it hasn’t left the European Union in the view of this British Government.

    Effectively even Turkey that has Customs Union membership and is outside the European Union has to impose customs checks for goods in agriculture.

    It’s a logical fallacy to say that Brexit comes with a soft border … there never was one before.

    English people scared of immigration have effectively put a border in a land that has at best a net 2000 people coming in a year.

    What do you think Brexiteer Britain is going to do to solve this problem … Invade the Republic of Ireland?

    Sledgehammer to crack a nut stuff.

  • John Devane

    Like I said you’re privvy to nothing

  • Kevin Breslin

    Platitudes don’t solve any problems. Based on the Leave side’s debate they cause more problems than they solve.

    Why do you think a politician stringing a sentence together has any tangible practical impact on international law or trading infrastructure.

    Magic doesn’t exist you know, you don’t live in the Harry Potter Universe.

  • John Devane

    Principle of consent…..your condescending attitude yet again…….50%+1 is enough to trigger the terms of the GFA

  • Kevin Breslin

    Reality hasn’t changed, The laws of physics haven’t changed, the attitudes of people haven’t changed other than there is much more ill-will around.

    I don’t give a hoot about political commentators, I’d rather worry about ordinary people in the North of Ireland this decision will have the biggest impact upon.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well good, YOU have heard of the Principle of Consent … though 50%+1 only applies to Irish unity. When it comes to other majority decisions in the North of Ireland it just seems the Tories and the DUP will ignore them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You really think I need to be more privy to Brexiteer rambling? It’s just rambling. There is no reason to have any trust in a bunch of liars like British politicians many of whom don’t understand what customs are supposed to do.

    Northern Ireland is a big liability to Brexit, but then again so is leaving customs union to the trade of Britain.

    Even Daniel Hannan, a man who lives in a Brexit delusional state cannot avoid worrying about what Brexit does to Ireland.

    Even in his biased misinformed (believing the UK could get a trade deal similar to Jersey) and hopelessly optimistic state he knows the United Kingdom can get this badly wrong.

    It’s a start, but frankly the Brits aren’t the Swiss, they didn’t have 40 years to put in place customs facilitation which still would be a massive culture shock within Ireland.

    Brexiteers need to be open to the Brexit costs, the idea that the United Kingdom could enrich itself with lazy populist politics is ridiculous.

    The Know it all Nigels really know nothing.

  • John Devane

    Until the negotiations are over or abandoned everything is pure conjecture

  • John Devane

    Yes Irish unity is on the basis of a 50% +1

    The Referendum decision was a UK wide decision. No provision was made for regions of the UK. That’s totally impractical

  • John Devane

    Apart from your leave nonsense I agree.

    As repeated many times Brexit is not the vehicle for Irish unity IMHO. It smacks more of political opportunism. As you say consent is key for Irish unity if it’s ever to be realised

  • Kevin Breslin

    The only way the UK can hold onto sovereignty over customs and have no customs barriers with the European Union including the Republic of Ireland is to get the whole of Europe to surrender their customs authority to the powers that be in Westminster.

    Imagine Brexiteers saying, we oppose federalism, we prefer to imperially dictate European customs protocols by ourselves without your democratic involvement?

    Now does that sound in anyway likely to you?

    Once again you prove the hyp-hyp-hypocrisy of Brexiteers not wanting to be controlled by Europe, but certainly wanting to control Europe for the sake of its own convenience.

    You cannot blame every unpleasant thing in life on the European Union, if the United Kingdom wants to separate itself from the European Union’s open borders (including Ireland’s), it has to do what Farage says and control them … moreso for freight than for people.

  • John Devane

    Really? So no bilateral agreement between Ireland and the UK sanctioned by the EU?

  • Kevin Breslin

    And patrolling the Irish border and delivering the many Brexit promises are bordering (pun intended) on the infeasible.

    But this is the United Kingdom’s bed that they made, instead of lying about it, they are going to have to lie on it.

  • John Devane

    It’s well within the capacity of the UK and Ireland governments to reach a satisfactory arrangement. Hopefully the EU won’t be the obstreperous third party

  • Kevin Breslin

    Finally you’ve earned a like here despite the first sentence.

    We are the ones putting up with unmitigated nonsense coming from London, please go and read what the DUP have been saying to fill in the gaps.

    My main point is that Brexit is limitied by Feasibility, just like the European Union is.

  • John Devane

    Correct but as Ireland is not in Schengen, it’s an island and there is a long standing CTA I’m positive an outcome can be reached satisfactory to all

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nothing that is going to remove the need for customs controls … that’s just a bitter pill both sides are going to have to swollow.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Complexity over freight, shipping and haulage are enough to make Brexit plus partition a nasty cocktail that is not going to be fixed at Westminster and Leinster House.

    Don’t believe me, look at how these issues had to be tackled in the past.

    In terms of migration, Northern Ireland only has one migration problem … that problem is Emigration, not Immigration, borders to stop people visiting their relatives in Muff or Blacklion to deal with haulage or

    The Common Travel Area offers no solution to freight, or Brexiteers up in Antrim wanting the Ethnics out, when frankly they too have freedom to cross in and out of the border.

    The fact is the UK government would have to negotiate the CTA away to ensure the EU removes it in my opinion.

    The United Kingdom delegation could pretty much drop their trousers and use the chairs they are sitting on as toilets at the negotiating table and leave, and still come away with the Common Travel Area intact.

    It’s protected by 2 EU treaties the Republic of Ireland has opt outs upon. Schengen shows common migrant rules can exist between EU and non-EU nations. Schengen nations have shown in these treaties they have no problem with the Common Travel Area. Any reprisals for negative impacts UK migration controls have on continental Europe can be made in continental Europe.

    The main threats to the Common Travel Area are within the GB and from the right wing keep the foreigners out brigade.

    The free trade across the border, along with the freedom of movement in goods and services are the thing the Brexiteers are putting in jeopardy, not the freedom of movement of people.

  • John Devane

    OTOH the Proposal from Dublin to effectively carry out checks from the island of Ireland to GB would at a stroke remove the need for a hard border in Ireland would it not?

    I suspect the diehards within the DUP would object but perhaps a majority in NI would accept it. I don’t know. You have to be imaginative. The negative doom n gloom is par for the course in any negotiations. At first you set our your red lines, disagree openly then if there is a mutually advantageous position usually some agreement is made

  • John Devane

    Too negative IMHO

  • Kevin Breslin
  • Kevin Breslin

    The Republic of Ireland proposal is in my view idealistic.
    So is the United Kingdom’s proposal that some IT system is going to enforce frictionless free trade with minimal customs controls.

    There is going to have to be customs controls between the islands (North Channel and Irish Sea)
    There is going to have to be customs controls within the island between the border crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

    Given the practical difficulties to quite literally control our borders, we’re headed for a legal minefield.

    Both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are going to have to protect their internal markets somehow.

  • John Devane

    Ah those arrows. Never used them myself.

    Look no one is saying Brexit is the cure for all evils. The fact is for a long time there has been serious disillusionment with the EU. I realise that doesn’t always apply so much in Ireland for now, due in part to very different economic circumstances. But it will.

    Brexit imho was inevitable even as you say it’s not a magic bullet.

  • John Devane

    Neither is crystal ball gazing

  • John Devane

    Ok. You paint a very grim picture. I sincerely hope that is not how it pans out

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well Brexiteers have been good about Doommongering about the European Union and the Euro. That’s crystal ball gazing.

    How about looking at what we know is going to be a practical problem with as yet no feasible solution.

    That’s pretty much determinism.

  • Kevin Breslin

    My view is that things could be much grimmer than that, what I suggest is probably a tolerable inconvenience.

  • John Devane

    We won’t know until negotiations have concluded

  • John Devane

    Deciding to leave the EU because it’s hell bent on ever closer political union is not crystal ball gazing; it’s fact

    From an Irish poster today Irish Times
    Ahearn and Blair destroyed their own countries with mass immigration from sub standard countries.The Common Market went from a trading block, to a German controlled antidemocratic and unaccountable oligarchy.One day the EU’s so-called Freedom of Movement will be seen for what it really is: a corporate capitalist, neo-liberal, legalised human trafficking scam on a gargantuan scale.Germany uses the weak Euro to bolster their exports while southern Europe suffers austerity. They wouldnt let Eastern Europeans into Germany to work for years after ireland / UK got swamped with them causing wages to compress and our welfare systems to be pilfered. Next she floods Europe with unwanted ‘refugees’ and ORDERS the rest of Europe to take them in.This is the reality of Europe today.National identity being destroyed by Globalisation.

  • John Devane

    I’m not sure now if the Dublin proposal was infact genuine insofar as it has been denied by the Irish government

    No matter. Until negotiations have concluded or have been abandoned no one really knows

  • John Devane

    No. Neither is second guessing

  • John Devane

    So now Brexit means the Irish border issues are not fixable? So the UK and Ireland and the EU might as well pack it in?

  • John Devane

    So negative

  • Kevin Breslin

    Realism John, when you live 4 minutes away from a customs border you do get negative … with all due respect you don’t live here.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Very limited flexibility when there’s conflicting points of view between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

    Very limited flexibility when there’s conflicting points of view between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

    By all means pack in dealing with the border and just leave Northern Ireland in a legal no man’s land when it comes to customs .

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s a safe guess to think ignorance won’t lead to excellence.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The one certainty we do know is that both nations will have different customs policies and having different customs policies will mean that they will feel the need to enforce them.

  • John Devane

    Let’s just say it may be as bad as you say but we really don’t know for sure

  • Kevin Breslin

    Have you ever met an MEP?
    Have you ever talked to a foreign politician?
    On what grounds do you even assume to know what they are thinking?

    I really do not take paranoid British politicians seriously myself.

  • John Devane

    There wouldn’t be a border if I was making the rules but that’s not very realistic. I just cannot believe it’s beyond the negotiations to sort it out

  • John Devane

    True. I never pretended otherwise

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nothing is going to be set in stone after the negotiations, the fact is:

    The Kingdom of Ireland had customs controls with Britain before the Act of Union 1800.

    Under the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland the customs controls for Ireland came from Westminster.

    Irish Free State had customs controls with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Irish Independence.

    The Republic of Ireland had customs controls with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after the declaration of the Republic of Ireland.

    The Republic of Ireland had diminishing customs controls with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland inside both the European Economic Community and the European Union until 1993 got rid of them.

    The Republic of Ireland will have customs controls with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland when the latter breaks the customs hegemony with the former.

    There are centuries of historical evidence for this, never mind decades!

  • Kevin Breslin

    Like a non-ideal golf shot, we have to play the ball where it lies.
    Look at the history of the place …

  • Kevin Breslin

    We’ve been there before is perhaps the best spin I can put on it.

  • John Devane

    I know you’re trying to make a point but I am very aware of the history

    After the UK leaves the customs union the potential customs barrier with the ROI will have to be confronted. All I am saying is if it’s just going to be pre 1993 arrangements then what’s the point of the EU UK and ROI saying that they intend it won’t be

  • John Devane

    As in to spite each other? I doubt it. It’s a difficult problem nonetheless

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think Newton Emerson’s description sums it up nicely:

  • Kevin Breslin

    You need to grasp how sensitive this matter is to both sides.

    The English Brexiteer Libertarian Bruges Group Tories in particular really really want to leave the common customs union between the islands and not so keen on what happens people in Border Communities inside the island of Ireland (or Britain’s coastal ports for that matter)

    The Irish … not so much keen on having customs barriers in Ireland and not so keen on what happens The English Brexiteer Libertarian Bruges Group Tories.

    Very much a dichotomy and a Wisdom of Solomon dilemma, cut the child in half until one parent is ready to give their baby away.

  • John Devane

    Yes Leo said the same. I am more inclined to agree with other tweets especially where it’s fairly pointed out its only the EU that wants it

  • John Devane

    I’m very aware of the sensitivities regarding the border in Ireland. I only hope common sense prevails