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Northern Ireland faces multiple risks from Brexit

by Sebastian Mallaby | 09.06.2016

Northern Ireland is still recovering from sectarian conflict. After 3,500 violent deaths, the equivalent of 125,000 in Great Britain, thousands of families live not only with bereavement but in daily co-existence with their loved ones’ killers. The bloodshed ended on terms that left no side fully satisfied, no future excluded, and most practitioners of violence amnestied. It would be amazing if such a settlement was perfectly stable. For reasons both political and economic, Brexit could undermine it.

Northern Ireland is divided into two electoral camps, roughly equal in size. There are mostly Catholic citizens who hope, eventually, for Irish unity: this group wants overwhelmingly to remain in Europe. Then there are mostly Protestant pro-British voters: a majority in this group feels minded, amid some confusion, to leave. That gives a natural majority of at least 60% for staying in. Brexit would make a lot of people angry.

The anger would be especially toxic because of the accompanying hit to living standards. About 80% of Northern Ireland’s farm income comes from the EU, and European subventions account for 1.2% of the region’s GDP. Protestant political leaders claim that an “independent” Britain would replace EU subsidies with equally generous support. Given that Brexit would probably drive the UK economy into recession and put pressure on the budget, this seems naively optimistic.

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    Moreover, EU membership matters beyond subsidies. One of the brightest developments in Northern Ireland is the softening of the inter-Irish border, which has been facilitated by shared participation in Europe’s single market. Northern Irish start-ups in fields like software or medical technology require open borders, across Ireland and Europe, to hire talent and sell services. The Northern Ireland Science Park, a small-business incubator, happily straddles both sides of the border. Problems of crime are managed in a calm way thanks to EU processes such as the European Arrest Warrant, which prevent sensitive cases from being caught up in historical north-south animosities.

    With Brexit, the inter-Irish border would become an external EU border. That doesn’t mean it would instantly be re-militarized – the Irish republic would still want close relations with the whole UK. But if Brexiteers are serious about reasserting control over UK borders, as they maintain, then they will have to impose checks on the inter-Irish border – even though they currently deny it. Otherwise, Ireland will become a back door through which any EU citizen can enter Britain. Customs checks may have to be imposed, too, since Britain might find itself outside the single market. The European Arrest Warrant might no longer be available.

    Ireland, still wobbling between hope and regression, might struggle to maintain the calm that it achieved with so much difficulty.

    This article draws heavily on this previous InFacts column as well as other of our articles. The figure for EU subventions as a proportion of Northern Irish GDP was corrected shortly after publication to 1.2%.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon