Britain is set to formally quit the European Union late Friday, closing the chapter on nearly half a century of integration with its European neighbours and leaving the north of Ireland in a limbo between two powerful economies.
After four years of nearly unprecedented political chaos triggered by the 2016 Brexit referendum, 11pm on January 31 marks a watershed moment for both Britain and Ireland.
“The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to tell the nation Friday evening, according to pre-released remarks. “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act.”
There are fears in Ireland that the act of Brexit could bring merely a new twist to the chaotic approach of the past three years, when a remilitarisation of the border through Ireland and the destruction of the peace process appeared on the cards. It was averted by a last minute change of heart by Johnson. Now leading the most right-wing Lodon government since the reign of Maggie Thatcher, the future direction of the EU, Ireland and Scotland remain subject to the whims of a resurgent English nationalism.
As of 11pm Irish time this Friday, Britain and the Six Counties will enter a transition period of at least 11 months. During that time, Britain will legally be outside the EU but nothing should be different. However, a new deadline for a deal looms, as Britain negotiates future relations with the EU, including Ireland.
It was a strange and awkward scene on Thursday as Britain’s arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage and his party waved small Union Jacks in celebration, only for his triumphalist remarks to be cut off by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness in her role as the vice-chair of the parliament. Later, in a moving scene, EU MEPs sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a Scots song of old friendship, in the expressed hope that Britain (or at least Scotland and the north of Ireland) would return in the future.
A protest was held on Friday at the border through Ireland earlier today to continue the campaign to ensure the best outcome for the Six Counties as Britain leaves the EU.
Unveiling a new campaign poster entitled “Brexit: The Fight Goes On”, Declan Fearon, spokesman for Border Communities Against Brexit, said it was not a day of celebration.
People along the Border were concerned that a no-deal Brexit was “certainly not off the table” given that talks on a trade deal between the EU and London still have to begin, and that Britain could still leave EU economic rules at the end of the transition period on December 31st, he said.
“It is a sad day in this year... we are determined to continue to press all involved to make sure that we are allowed to mitigate as many of the issues Brexit has brought to the people,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s MEP for the Six Counties Martina Anderson cast her last vote at the European Union Parliament in Brussels on Thursday, and signed off by insisting Brexit has made the time ripe for a vote on Irish reunification.
Following her final speech in the EU Parliament, Ms Anderson said “there is no good Brexit” but added it had “reinvigorated” the debate around unification.
“We have been arguing for and discussing and planning and preparing for Irish unity for a long time but there’s no doubt that Brexit has invigorated that conversation,” she said.
“We would not be getting dragged out of the EU against the democratically expressed wishes of the people if it were not for partition. So partition is a disaster.”
Ms Anderson has been a vocal critic of Brexit in the European Parliament, famously once telling former prime minister Theresa May to “stick your border where the sun don’t shine” during a fiery debate contribution. But she acknowledged that Britain has been deeply divided by Brexit.
“People of Britain should sort out their own problems and they should leave us with the situation we are in and allow us to plan and prepare for a better Ireland,” she added.
“We don’t want to interfere in their problems and we wish they would stop interfering in ours and allow us to just go forward in that reasonable sensible way to reunite our country.”
* On Monday, Ms Anderson is set to take a seat in the Stormont Assembly after she was nominated to replace Foyle Assembly member, Raymond McCartney, who is standing down. Due to Brexit, she will no longer be an MEP from 11pm on January 31.
It will mark a return to Stormont for the politician who was an Assembly member in the same constituency between 2007 and 2012. She also previously held the post of junior minister in the Executive Office under Martin McGuinness. She will join the North’s two other MEPs, who have already taken up Ministerial positions in the restored power-sharing administration in Belfast.