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The EU’s approach to Northern Ireland recognises legitimacy of both British and Irish nationalisms

In the looming shadow of Brexit, it is the potential loss of the EU’s accommodation of nationalism, not its transcendence, that will be most missed, says Dr Katy Hayward.

The EU’s approach to Northern Ireland recognises legitimacy of both British and Irish nationalisms

The 500km jagged line around Northern Ireland’s six counties (delineating a population constituting 3% of the UK population and 28% of the island of Ireland) has, for almost a century, embodied a line of tension between two competing versions of nationalism.

That these nationalisms are seen as ‘live projects’ rather than fading ideologies is reflected in the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement’s provision for a ‘border poll’, which would see reunification of the island if a majority on both sides of the border voted in favour. It also reaffirmed that the Irish government has a right to shape the future of Northern Ireland – a principle upheld since the Sunningdale Agreement over forty years ago (which was itself renewing a similar commitment made in 1921, at the time the border was drawn). The 1998 Agreement, it is clear, did not “problematize” the fundamental logic of either nationalist ideology but rather entangled them in mutual accommodation.

Thus unionist and nationalist leaders in the region have become accustomed to legitimising their actions not according to the benefit of all the people resident in Northern Ireland, but according to the interests of their six-counties’ version of British and Irish nationalism respectively. Finding a common position in Northern Ireland on Brexit is quite difficult now, as unionists are wary of any deepening distinction between the parts of the UK and nationalists want to preserve close all-island connections. The narrow Northern Ireland Assembly vote on 17 October this year (split along unionist/nationalist lines) against a special arrangement for the region regarding Brexit is evidence of the competing definitions of national interest within the region. The EU has not always been a touchstone for unionist/nationalist division (Sinn Féin’s pro-EU position is not deep-rooted), but it has long accommodated both types of nationalism.


The EU and the Northern Ireland Problem

The European Union views the ‘Northern Ireland problem’ as one of “conflicting national identities” (British and Irish) and advocates cooperation between the two governments as a primary means of resolving the conflict. The Haagerup Report of the European Parliament in 1984 set the tone for this approach, stating “that the improvement in the situation requires the closest possible co-operation between the United Kingdom and Irish Governments”

Against this background, the EU has conceived its own role as being a facilitator and enabler of peace – encouraging contact, resourcing initiatives, building confidence for cooperation – and not as an alternative locus of identity or driver of post-nationalism.

As such, common EU membership has normalised and facilitated cross-border collaboration as a process that does not compete with the intentions or interests of nationalism, British or Irish. Since entry to the European Single Market in 1987, which led to the removal of customs checkpoints, and the post-Agreement dismantling of security checkpoints by 2002, the Irish border has been one of the most open in Europe. However, political sensitivities have meant that politicians of all shades have been careful to present all-island cooperation as being delimited by whatever was in both Irish and British national interests. The process of reassuring unionists that north/south cooperation is not a slippery slope to reunification but a means of unlocking mutual benefit has been patiently achieved by the trust-building invested by the Irish government and the EU’s ‘soft power of commitment’ to the peace process.

Allowing Ireland a seat at the negotiating table of the UK’s exit from the EU is in this tradition. The EU is thereby acknowledging the unique significance of the Republic of Ireland for the interests of Northern Ireland (and, indeed, the wider UK), even as Prime Minister May appears to be excluding special representation of Northern Ireland from the UK’s strategising team.

Nonetheless, for obvious reasons, unionists have made clear that they want their interests to be represented on the British side of the table. Whether such arrangements would be in the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole (and the 47% of people here who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist) can only be a matter of speculation at this point.

It may be presumed, however, that the EU will be keen to avoid its negotiating table becoming the point at which the “conflicting national identities” of Britain and Ireland diverge once more.

Dr Katy Hayward
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Dr Katy Hayward is a Reader in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests centre on Ireland, both north and south as well as: cross-border conflict and cooperation; EU integration (inc. ‘Brexit’ and its impact on Ireland); peace and conflict processes; political sociology; political discourses, protest and violence.

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