Why Brexit won’t derail the Northern Ireland peace process

Why Brexit won’t derail the Northern Ireland peace process

For the past 10 years I have been a proud member of the Ulster Unionist Party. The UUP enjoyed political hegemony in Northern Ireland for over 100 years. Ultimately this was brought to an end because we made the decision to make painful and unpopular compromises to bring peace to Northern Ireland through the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement. As a result the peace process and the progress we have made is precious to me.

I am equally proud that I played an active role campaigning for Brexit. I believe that Brexit will make Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole richer, safer and more free in the long term.

I am deeply concerned that some players in the Brexit debate are using the peace process as a smoke screen to hide their own selfish ulterior motives. Many figures representing Irish nationalism or the EU Commission have falsely claimed that a “soft border” is guaranteed under the Belfast Agreement. This is not true and it needs to be vigorously and consistently challenged at every opportunity.

The Northern Ireland and Ireland position paper prepared by Her Majesty’s Government clearly sets out the commitments under the Belfast Agreement that could be impacted by Brexit. These commitments are the rights of Northern Ireland residents to hold both British and Irish passports and the EU’s continued support for peace projects through the PEACE IV funding scheme. Both of these obligations have been guaranteed by Her Majesty’s Government.

Given that there is no conflict between the commitments of the UK Government under the Belfast Agreement and associated treaties, the only way Brexit would damage the peace process would be if it fundamentally alienated one community to the extent that our political settlement was unsustainable.

This is patently not the case. A recent study undertaken by Queens University Belfast indicates that unionists voted for Brexit by a margin of two to one. Unionists are therefore unlikely to abandon the peace process over Brexit.

I accept that nationalists were overwhelmingly against Brexit. This is understandable when you consider the role the EU has had harmonising regulations on either side of the border. It was a long standing republican tactic to gradually reduce these barriers in order to make unification a more feasible option. Brexit has undoubtedly frustrated this tactic.

However, I see no evidence to suggest that republicans and nationalists will disengage from the political process as a result of Brexit. If anything, Brexit has emboldened nationalists and republicans to seek to break up the UK – but via the ballot box.

For these reasons I do not see any credible threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland. If anything, the far great threat is the ongoing political crisis relating to alleged corruption and the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive. Issues such as the Irish Language and general dissatisfaction with the Assembly’s ability to deliver will have a much great bearing on the success of the peace process than Brexit.

What is clear is that the EU Commission and the Irish Government are attempting to use the Irish border issue to force the UK to stay in the single market and customs union. By insisting on a completely soft border without any checks on freight the Commission are forcing the UK to either stay in the customs union or agree to special status for Northern Ireland. The EU Commission are well aware that the latter option is political impossible given current parliamentary arithmetic.

This would put the UK in a situation where they have to choose between remaining in the customs union or to leave with a no deal scenario. This would not be in the interests of the UK, Ireland or the wider EU.

I am deeply disturbed at what I believe is a cynical and calculated attempt by the EU Commission to disguise their own narrow and misguided agenda behind concern for the Northern Ireland peace process. What is needed is pragmatism and creativity to minimise trade disruption along the Ireland-UK border allied with a comprehensive free trade deal. This would maintain the EU’s customs barrier, maximise the economic benefits for those on both sides of the Irish border and honour the choice of the British people to leave the European Union in a meaningful way.