Northern Ireland is the smallest of the four components of the United Kingdom (the others are England, Wales and Scotland). It just accounts for 2.9 per cent (1.9 million) of the UK’s population (67 million) and for 2.2 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP). But Northern Ireland is perhaps the most interesting “state project” that can currently be observed on the European continent.
As the United Kingdom left the European Union at the end of 2020, Northern Ireland was given a special status. This was laid down in the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.
Under that scheme, Northern Ireland follows EU customs rules, remains part of the Single Market for goods and applies EU law on VAT (Value Added Tax) to avoid border checks with the EU member state Republic of Ireland.
The special status has good reasons.
Firstly, Northern Ireland has the UK’s only land border with the EU.
Secondly, the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a very special one.
The island’s separation happened a century ago. It took place in 1921 after Ireland won its war of independence from Britain. At that time, the majority in Northern Ireland were British settlers who wished to remain part of the UK.
The partition led to a civil war (from June 1922 to May 1923) that pitted communities and families within the Republic against each other.
Decades of tensions followed, including a sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland – beginning in the late 1960s – that left more than 3,600 people dead and thousands injured.
The so-called Good Friday Agreement (it was reached on Good Friday, 10 April 1998) between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, ended most of the violence. The agreement sets out how Northern Ireland should be governed. It restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of power-sharing between nationalist parties (want Irish unity) and the unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK). And it included acceptance of the principle of consent, commitment to civil and political rights, cultural parity of esteem, police reform, paramilitary disarmament and early release of paramilitary prisoners, followed by demilitarisation.
A return to any form of a physical border would have reopened scars from the conflict. So the Northern Ireland Protocol was implemented. It avoided reopening old wounds – but created a new frontier. That border now runs on the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Brexit separated Northern Ireland in many ways from the rest of the UK and brought it closer to the Republic of Ireland – a country that already accounts for one-third of Northern Ireland’s exports.
The shift towards the Republic of Ireland is evident in the recent election. At the latest election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Féin – once considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organisation with the goal of ending British rule in Northern Ireland – became the biggest party with Michelle O’Neill, the party’s vice president, is now set to become the country’s first nationalist first minister.
What will this change? The Brexit negotiations had increased resentment towards the government in London. There was a feeling among many in Northern Ireland that London was not taking account of the impact that Brexit would have on the region. Sinn Féin representatives highlighted this and have now been rewarded for it by the voters.
Sinn Féin is also a strong supporter of uniting the two Irish states. So there might be efforts in the future to distance themselves further from London. Especially if the current negotiations between the EU and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol will lead to a new agreement that will make the border between the two Irish states more visible and troubling.
Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald recently said that the party would work towards holding a so-called border poll within the next five years. Such a poll would ask voters whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or join with the Republic of Ireland to form a united Ireland.
Since a majority of the people in the Republic of Ireland are in favour of such a unified Ireland, current opinion polls in Northern Ireland do not suggest that there is overwhelming support for a split.
It is, therefore, more likely that the two Irish parts will continue to improve their terms instead of uniting. Maybe in the way of a federal arrangement where you have a united Ireland but the North having its own governing system. Maybe with both countries part of the EU, but with close ties of Northern Irland to the UK.
One thing is for sure, politically exciting years lie ahead for Northern Ireland. And there is reason to believe that the violent past holds lessons for this future. That is, any change is not brought about by violence but through democracy and the rule of law.