Northern Ireland has other options when it comes to Brexit

Posted By: November 18, 2016

Martin Mansergh. Letters to Editor, Irish News (Belfast). Friday, November 18, 2016

Instead of continuing stale and unproductive debates about the constitutional core of the peace settlement contained in the Good Friday Agreement, it would be better to focus more on the options that the people of Northern Ireland have under its terms, as they face the unwelcome prospect of Brexit. The recent visit of the President of the Republic of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades to Dublin helped to confirm and clarify two points. In his speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs, he expressed a cautious optimism that unity negotiations might soon reach a positive conclusion. In discussion afterwards, it was confirmed that any agreement reached would be put to the people of the two parts of Cyprus, in other words by the self-same concurrent self-determination provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, and that, if passed, a united Cyprus would become part of the European Union from day one, just as a united Germany did in 1990. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has already referred to the German precedent, and clearly the EU could not refuse to Ireland, either now or in the future, what it would have allowed to Germany and Cyprus.

What follows from this is that, independent of the UK’s intentions, Northern Ireland has options, guaranteed by both the British and Irish governments, even if it is clear that a majority at present would not exercise them. Staying in the EU as part of an all-island economy, with the planned reduction of corporation tax, could lead to a surge in inward investment, seeking spare capacity in Northern Ireland. Farmers would continue to enjoy the benefits of the common agricultural policy. Many concerns vital to the unionist identity are accommodated by the guarantee of a continuing right to British citizenship, the continued and entrenched political existence of Northern Ireland within Ireland, the British-Irish Council, and membership of Nato’s Partnership for Peace. No doubt unionists would seek the island’s re-entry into the Commonwealth which does not appear to be a huge issue for nationalists. Leaving aside the major political, financial, and social considerations, NI voters would hesitate to put themselves on the wrong side of any UK tariff barrier.

The political and constitutional arrangements for this island created 100 years ago were not originally sought by anyone, and proved less than ideal from many points of view, but Northern Ireland and particularly the Republic have greatly benefited from shared EU membership for over 40 years. The present situation, which sets the two jurisdictions in Ireland once more on divergent paths, should nevertheless be looked at again, before final decisions are agreed to. The point is that Northern Ireland, uniquely in the United Kingdom, can opt out of Brexit, before or after it happens, by joining with the Republic. The Republic contains many people of unionist and even Ulster unionist stock, including this correspondent. The Secretary of State James Brokenshire should be reminded by those who want the best deal for Northern Ireland that, when he claims that the UK as a whole will leave the EU, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland does have other options.

Martin Mansergh

Tipperary, Co Tipperary