Despite the Brexit process, the north of Ireland could remain in the European Union pending a unity referendum, according to papers published this week by a European Parliament committee.
The details emerged in a week in which the British Prime Minister Theresa May initiated the process with a letter to formally bring her country out of the European Union.
Among many serious ramifications for Ireland, Brexit could result in an attempt to remilitarise the border between the north and south of the island as border posts return.
A planned visit by the British PM to Ireland before formally notifying the European Union of Britain’s plan to leave the bloc did not come about. Mrs May had been expected to visit all of the devolved assemblies under London rule before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In the end, she visited Scotland and Wales only.
Instead, May told the Westminster parliament her agenda is to defend the enforced union with both the north of Ireland and Scotland, and to pull both out of the EU along with England, Wales and Gibraltar.
She admitted her government was not neutral on the north of Ireland, as has been claimed in previous peace negotiations. May said her government “will never be neutral” on the north of Ireland as expectations a referendum on a united Ireland rise. She said she believes “fundamentally” in the “strength of our union”.
In the wake of Ms May’s comments, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn backed an immediate referendum on the unification of the island of Ireland “if the Northern Ireland Assembly wants to have one”. He backed calls by Irish politicians for a deal on the issue of the border to take into account the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“The Belfast Agreement is built in to the whole European Union arrangements so there is going to have to be and agreement on movement of people, on goods across the border, between the Republic and the Six Counties,” he said.
May’s failure to turn up at Stormont meant she dodged a demonstration involving communities from the border areas. Senior Sinn Fein figures joined around hundreds of anti-Brexit protesters who marched on the Belfast Assembly against any remilitarisation process. Campaigners set up a mock customs checkpoint to highlight concerns about Brexit and a hardening of the Irish border.
Declan Fearon, from Border Communities Against Brexit which organised the march, told the crowds the British PM was not interested in their concerns.
“It seems she simply doesn’t care, maybe doesn’t know what the full implications are for the people who live along the border,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill, who attended the protest, said Brexit would be a disaster for Ireland, “socially, politically and economically”.
“It is unacceptable that Tories, who have no mandate in Ireland, can impose Brexit and a border against our will. Clearly we need special status - we are building momentum and that argument is resonating across Europe.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who also participated in the demonstration, said triggering Article 50 when the Six Counties had no power-sharing executive in place was an act of “democratic savagery”.
“The British government’s Brexit juggernaut is about to smash through the fragile complexities of Irish politics,” he said.
There was hope this week, however, when the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee published research saying there was enough “constitutional flexibility” for the north of Ireland and Scotland to remain in the EU ahead of a referendum being held on unity and independence, respectively.
While Irish political parties did not comment on the development, the Scottish government said the findings pointed to a desire in Brussels for Scotland to remain in the EU.
The European Parliament committee-commissioned report also pointed out that Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man had separate arrangements with the EU. The territories, which are British dependencies, are not in the EU, but are within the Customs Union.
The draft plan of EU priorities for its exit negotiations with the UK, which European Council president Donald Tusk has also been published.
The report made headlines in the manner it conveyed the determination of the Spanish state in regards to Gibraltar. At the southern tip of Spain, the British colony is threatened with an extraction from the EU, despite having voted by an overwhelming majority to remain in last year’s referendum.
In the EU’s plan for negotiations, Spain was given a simple veto over any deal involving Gibraltar. The draft wrote: “After the UK leaves the union, no agreement between the EU and the UK may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without agreement between Spain and the UK.”
That contrasted with the more aspirational section on Ireland, couched in the recognisably ambiguous language favoured by Irish civil servants. It said only: “In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order.”
The 26 County Minister for Finance Michael Noonan added that the matter of borders would be one of the three or four primary issues to be discussed with Britain, adding that this “should be taken as code” for Dublin’s position.
STRONGER DEFENCE NEEDED
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said the 26 County government must “defend the democratic mandate of the people to remain within the EU and act in Ireland’s national interest”.
He said the government “must now commit to adopting the negotiating policy position of designated special status within the EU for the North”.
He said it was the only option that legislates for the intricacies of the problem.
“It is a solution which recognises the threat posed by Brexit to the island of Ireland as a whole. It will ensure the democratically expressed wishes of the people are respected.
“It will allow communities to continue to flourish, businesses to continue to trade freely, workers to cross the border and, crucially, the rights of Irish, and therefore EU citizens in the north, to be fully upheld.
“The Tory government cannot be allowed to drag the people of the north Ireland out of the EU against their will. There can be no hardening of the border in any way - not physically, fiscally or psychologically.”