Brexit and Northern Ireland: A special case since 1920

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Centre for Cross Border Studies Winter Lecture by Duncan MORROW
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
4 December 2017

The Centre for Cross Border Studies (CCBS) launched the 2017 Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland at Queen’s Riddel Hall on Monday, 4 December. Ulster University’s Duncan Morrow was invited as the guest speaker to present the CCBS Winter Lecture.

Chairperson Helen Johnston officially launched the twelfth volume of the journal, which focuses largely on Brexit and reflects the various perspectives of scholars and ‘borderlanders’ across the island of Ireland.

Reflecting on the busy year, Johnston highlighted CCBS’s response to the the imminent, yet ambiguous reality of Brexit; by hosting policy seminars, political fora, public lectures, and delegations, the centre attempts to address the situation directly — collecting and disseminating as much information as possible.

Morrow’s lecture, “A problem to every solution? Hard borders, reconciliation, and Ireland’s ethnic frontier”, confronted the discomfort that many residents of this island feel in response to Brexit.

Currently Director of Community Engagement at Ulster University, Morrow spent 15 years as a lecturer in politics and ten years at the Community Relations Council. These roles have helped him see the double-reality of this small country. Despite Northern Ireland’s big problems, it is often dismissed because of its size — discounted by larger institutions who do not wish to be hindered by the problems of smaller countries.

As Morrow explained, divisions have never disappeared in the North: ‘different’ is equated with ‘dangerous’, and fear has been rationalised by years of narrative context. Each community has a claim to legitimacy than cannot be refuted. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) established trust by inviting all sides to participate equally. It also set the precedent to be Irish, British, or both, legitimating multiple narratives simultaneously, Morrow remarked.

However, Northern Ireland suffers from an identity deficit, as Morrow puts it. The country is caught up in an endless debate of: ‘to be or not to be?’or ‘how to be?’ This fundamental question has diffused through generations, trumping every other issue.

Despite years of violent conflict, Northern Ireland has yet to fully collapse. Morrow attributes this to “domesticat[ing] the architecture of hatred”. The intractability of sectarianism has been micromanaged to the point of social compliance; nevertheless, issues of identity and the past remain unsolved and, therefore, volatile, said Morrow.

Because of this, Brexit within the Northern Ireland context is unique and must be handled appropriately, Morrow argued. Northern Ireland has been distanced from both the UK and Ireland since 1920. It is a place with no clear majority, where all ethnic identities are valid and true at once. The provocation of one community could have the potential to disrupt the fragile balance created by the GFA, suggested Morrow.

He continued by saying that it is necessary for leaders to understand and acknowledge the narratives emerging from Northern Ireland in the face of Brexit. The nationalism behind Brexit assumes that the people of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can be assimilated as a singular territory; however, Morrow asserts that we cannot pretend that Northern Ireland fits seamlessly within the rest of the UK when Northern Ireland is a special case and has been since 1920. The future of Northern Ireland demands that Brexit negotiators acknowledge this.

Following Morrow’s lecture, the floor opened to dialogue and discussion. One participant asked if the GFA was dead, and what should be done to replace it. According to Morrow, Brexit has reopened the distrust and insecurity that the GFA aimed to quell 20 years ago. Brexit must be shaped by the GFA, and not vice versa. If the GFA gives way to Brexit, Northern Ireland will be faced with a potentially chaotic situation. The reality is that neither majority identity in Northern Ireland has the capacity or will to enforce its legitimacy over the other.

Moving forward, Morrow asserted that we should not aim to reinstitute the same failing systems, but strive to invent a new system — one focused on reconciliation and pluralism. The perpetual collapse of the power-sharing executive indicates a need for fundamental change. Conceptual issues of identity must be resolved before devolution can be functionally resurrected.

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