Is Brexit An Economic Suicide for Northern Ireland?

In a part of the United Kingdom that is often forgotten, a potential Brexit poses serious threats on the economy alongside with a historically ongoing political-religious conflict.


Easter Saturday, 2016 – A train gets stopped and vandalised in Newry, a small border town between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.


The train was completely stopped, for long enough that passengers had to switch to a bus instead. One of the passengers explained to Euroviews that it was overwhelming to her as a tourist to get stuck on a train stopped by angry young youths, yet she said that it was clear from the first moment that the situation was not by any means dangerous.


It is very legitimate to wonder why were these young youths that angry on their Easter holiday. However, the word ‘Easter’ rings very different bells to the Irish than it does anywhere else in the world.


Falls Road, Belfast, By Reem Fatthelbab
Falls Road, Belfast, By Reem Fatthelbab

Easter Saturday, 1916–  In a culture where ‘memory’ and ‘remembrance’ are foundational elements of the public conscious, it is not surprising that Irish rebellions in 1916 chose Easter Saturday to be the day where they declare the Republic of Ireland independent after defeating back the English soldiers.


Ever since Easter 1916, the Easter celebration became a double-purpose occasion where people celebrate their victory and independence, while trying to sooth their losses and struggle by the fact that even Jesus struggled on the very same day, but only a number of centuries in advance, according to the Catholic belief.


The conflict between the Irish and the English didn’t end in 1916. In Northern Ireland, the Catholics that constantly identifies as Irish has got a long history of civil war with the Protestants who identify as English.


Good Friday, St. Peter’s Church- Belfast By Reem Fatthelbab

Good Friday, 1998 – ‘The Troubles’ crisis, renowned as ‘low-level war’, began in the late 1960 as a result of a campaign to end discrimination against the Catholic/nationalist minority by the Protestant/unionist-dominated government and police force.Violence escalated after the campaign, leading to The Troubles which would eventually last for three decades, and came to an end in 1998 on Good Friday, ironically enough.


International treaties and diplomacy were main reasons to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Afterwards, the EU took up the mission of financing a fair range of peace projects in order to sustain the reached stability.


Back to 2016- Seeing as the Easter occasion is highly symbolic to different stages related to the conflict in Northern Ireland, it was important for Euroviews to observe what the celebrations coming  after 100 years since the Easter Rising were celebrated.

From the celebration in Dublin. By Reem Fatthelbab
From the celebration in Dublin. By Reem Fatthelbab

It wasn’t surprising to see the massive celebrations in the capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin. Thousands hanged out in central squares with their families and children, holding flags and cherishing memories of national heroes in all possible means.


On the other hand, seeing -proportionally- the same amount of celebrations taking place in Belfast was a bit unusual. Seeing as Belfast is officially a UK-territory, it can be problematic to these celebration honouring the defeat of the United Kingdom in 1916. Almost nothing but an exhibition in Ulster Museum gave any form of credit or honour to English soldiers.


Adding that to the vandalism incidents on the trains as the one mentioned earlier, depicts some repressed anger about the conflict, and raises questions about the peace treaty that keeps Northern Ireland a part of the UK while almost half of the population define themselves as Irish.


<Insert Brexit to the equation>


Prime Minister David Cameron set June 23rd as the date for a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. This announcement was followed by negotiations in Brussels to upgrade the UK’s special position in the EU.


Potentially, Northern Ireland could leave the EU as a part of the UK in June this year. This obviously poses some question about how this old conflict can be affected again if the two parts of Ireland are even less connected by the north exiting such a massive International Organization that has been connecting both parts for such a long time.


After those negotiations, David Cameron started campaigning for the UK staying in the EU, therefore the consequences of it getting out of the EU are consensually unclear to anyone.


‘The government is so busy campaigning for staying in the EU that they forgot to tell us what will happen if we choose to get out’ says David Wright, Northern Ireland editor for the Irish Farmers Journal.


This unclarity from the government requires greater responsibility from the individuals and community leaders to try and find out by themselves the benefits they’re getting from the EU in comparison to the drawbacks, and make up their mind accordingly.


One of the problematic aspects of this approach is that it presumes that all the benefits are definitely going to be lost, and that all the drawbacks would be avoided by the mere act of leaving the EU; which obviously might not be the case. However, it’s the only worst-case-scenario-based-choice people in Northern Ireland, and in the UK as a whole have at the moment.


How is the EU involved in Northern Ireland?




One of the constituent element of culture, trade and economy in Northern Ireland is farming and agriculture. Financial support and subsidies to farmers is a mission that the EU decided to take up in Northern Ireland along with Europe in general as one of its first steps in the financial formation of the union.


David Wright explains that the UK getting out of the EU poses some serious concerns about the trade from and to Northern Ireland with Europe, specifically the Republic of Ireland where there is a high level of interdependency between the countries; 50% of the economy in Northern Ireland is dependant on trade.


Wright estimates that around 60-70% of the farmers in Northern Ireland are so far pro staying in the EU. While he explains that the other 30-40% are pressured from the amount of bureaucracy required by the union in order for them to issue their subsidy claims; they also have hope that the money the UK would save from not contributing to other EU member states. However, Wright thinks that the British government is too centralised in London to help farmers in Northern Ireland.


Wright adds that 60% of the Northern Irish lamb meat is slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland and distributed and sold in both ‘countries’. While 10 kilos of pigs per week from the Republic of Ireland are slaughtered in Northern Ireland.


Although the UK and Ireland are using different currencies, with the UK getting out of you the EU the GBP wouldn’t even be bound to the euro and to the EU economical state in general, which might increase in significant price discrepancies and more complicated trade process.




Border controls is another issue that is closely tight to the trade relations, and it also is not clear what exactly is going to happen with that either; however, since one of the main arguments is increasing border controls for restricting the refugee influx, it is highly expected that borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are going to be even stricter than what they are these days.


In a small town that is halfway between Belfast and the North Coast of Northern Ireland we went to talk to Hillary Sutch, a pensioner who survived the atrocities of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Hillary Sutch near her hometown. By Reem Fatthelbab

While speaking  about her experience and recalling an incident where her school was bombed, she described how security checks in the streets were part of the daily life and made an interesting remark:


‘Traveling to the Republic of Ireland during the Troubles was a lot easier than is nowadays.”said Hillary.  


Hillary referred to the excessive border checks that have been imposed around the UK starting the time of the refugee crisis, and she believes that those borders are the strictest, even when compared to the time of the Troubles.


Border controls are obviously not something that contribute to an efficient trade process. One of the very first step that the EU has taken to ensure a strong single market was working on cutting down the unnecessary expenses, time, and paperwork of crossing borders.




Flags supporting different sects ion a side street. By Reem Fatthelbab

As described earlier, the situation in Northern Ireland is not at its best when it comes to peace between Catholic-Republicans and Protestant-Unionists. Wince Republicans are strongly attached to the Republic of Ireland on a number of levels, decreasing the ties between both side by removing the umbrella of an international institution such as the European Union might not prove very helpful in regards to peace.


However, out of all the other points, this one might be the hardest to predict since it is not based on tangible givens or calculations. There are two main points to look at when it comes to peace: funding of peace projects and general political situation.


Peace Funding

As far as funding is concerned, there has been a continuous funding allocated by the EU for peace projects in Northern Ireland since 1995. A financial contribution of EUR 1.3 billion was received in the first stage, then followed by a  programme that had a total value of EUR 270 million. The ERDF contribution to the Programme is approximately EUR 229 million (85%), and EUR 41 million (15%) will come from match-funding ( non-EU sources which may include national, regional and local government funding), according to the website of the European union.


These projects have applied the bottom-up approach that the EU is keen to implement in its developmental mindset, and thus provided opportunities for participation, dialogue, and brought decision-making and responsibility for community development closer to the people. A wide range of projects was funded, including projects to support victims and survivors, young people, small business enterprises, infrastructure and urban regeneration projects, as well as projects in support of immigrants and of celebrating the ethnic diversity of society as a whole.

The EU reports show that the peace projects implemented in Northern Ireland are now seen as an example of peace-building policy to be shared throughout Europe and other regions.


Politics of Peace


Speaking of the general politics of peace in Northern Ireland, Sammy Wilson, Member of Parliament representing a Northern Irish province from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) argued that there is an element of violence and even terrorism in the Republican approach that is believed to make them attain their goal. He added that this is an element that is prevalent in a small minority of the Republicans; however, it makes it makes its way to the surface and the non-violent majority gets blamed for it.


Wilson said that DUP is campaigning for Brexit mainly because they’re strongly against the massive sums of money contributed by the UK to the union while the country would be better off keeping this money for its own affairs.


Wilson continued criticising different aspects of the EU policy to defend the party’s stance campaigning for Brexit. He explained that he was personally supposed to work on authorising the European directives decided in the Maastricht treaty in Northern Ireland; however, his role as an executive was marginalised and the directives were directly handed to the Parliament, in what he describes as an undemocratic process.


Wilson emphasised the point that he doesn’t think that Brexit will contribute anything to the political-religious conflict and continues to blame it on the Republican approach. He explained that the main thing that DUP cares about is saving the 370 million GBP that the country contributes to the EU on weekly basis.


*We tried to get in touch with a few Republican parties to discuss their stance on Brexit and Wilson’s arguments; however, they unfortunately did not get back.


When asked about the borders and farming concerns mentioned earlier, Wilson did not have solid answers due to the unclarity issue with the consequences of Brexit. However, he hopes that the borders with the Republic of Ireland would have a ‘special treatment’ due to the complicated history and international treaties. As for the farmers, he said that ‘it’s worse to have centralisation of brussels than in London.’


What to expect?


Basic mathematics show that the economy seems to be the highest expense Northern Ireland is going to suffer; due to its high dependency on agriculture that is much more appreciated by Brussels than London, and on exports that are generally dependent on open borders with EU member states. Unclarity from the government makes it harder to predict with other aspects.


PhD Katy Radson, project manager in the Institute for Conflict Research (ICR), explained that peace -too- can be affected by Brexit, but rather as a long term change and not an ‘overnight effect’. In a region that is already unstable, increasing bureaucratic burdens and creating economic problems would normally catalyse a simmering conflict.

Also: See What People On The Street Think of Brexit