“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a
piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod
be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…”
John Donne, Devotions, XII
The European Union (EU) is a project founded on the idea of protecting and fostering peace among the nations of Europe, by pursuing shared goals through shared economic and social policy. Northern Ireland’s accession to the EU as part of the United Kingdom on 1 January 1973 was simultaneous to that of the Republic of Ireland, and was the first day of a year that followed the most fatal of the Troubles—479 people were killed as a result of the violent conflict in 1972. In a society where identity is the most salient issue and greatest flashpoint, the role of Europe in conflict, peace and progress has been unique in the region, and one which has provided both further unity and cleavage in identity. “Protestant, Catholic, British, Irish, Northern Irish, Unionist, Nationalist, Loyalist, Republican,” Paul Carmichael asked in his reflection on the 2016 Brexit referendum, “in Northern Ireland, what does the idea of Europe mean and what actual difference does it make?”
In June 1975, the first referendum on EU membership was held, putting forward the question: “do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” Northern Ireland voted to remain by 52% Yes to 48% No, a much smaller margin and greater ‘Leave’ vote than the rest of the United Kingdom, who voted 67% Yes to 32% No. Forty-one years later, on 23 June 2016, the second referendum on EU membership was held. This time, 52% of the UK voted to leave the European Union, while 48% voted to remain. The margin in Northern Ireland was larger, and in favour of continued EU membership. 56% voted to remain, while just 44% of Northern Irish voters wished to leave the EU. From 1975 to 2016, it is evident that in peace, politics and identity, the EU came to mean something more to Northern Ireland than it did to the UK as a whole.
In a 2018 poll, 57% of Northern Irish people identified themselves as European, with 59% self-identifying as Irish, 58% as Northern Irish, and 47% as British. In 2002, in contrast, 67% of those surveyed in Northern Ireland found the most truth in the statement “I never think of myself as a European.” More people have come to see themselves as ‘European’, a non-sectarian identity, but as a result of the impassioned Brexit referendum of 2016, it is now neither a neutral one.
The question of European identity in Northern Ireland is as complex as any other. What is it to be European, yet existing separate from the mainland continent, at the intersection between an EU and a non-EU member state? In a policy review entitled ‘The Development of European Identity/Identities: Unfinished Business’, the European Commission defined a number of concepts that lead to the cultivation of a sense of European identity: an identification with Europe, Europeanisation, transnationalism, and cosmopolitanism. An identification with Europe in Northern Ireland is a by-product of the latter. Each of these concepts are based on the preservation of peace, and as Northern Ireland migrated from a place of conflict to one of concord, European values became synonymous with those of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. Europeanisation—defined as a “trend towards national institutions”—is witnessed in the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and designation of three Members of European Parliament from Northern Ireland representing a self-governing, outward-looking region open to Europeanisation. Trans-nationalism refers to “cross-border living where, thanks to modern infrastructure, a person can maintain a social existence both in their country of residence and their country of origin” and is evident in the capacity of Northern Irish citizens to declare themselves as British, Irish, or both, as well as not discounting the fluidity of the open border with the Republic of Ireland. Finally, cosmopolitanism is defined as “actively seeking out and appreciating contact with other cultures [a feat which] coincides with perceived European values of tolerance and equality,” seen in the growing interaction and communication between communities.
The cultivation of a European identity in Northern Ireland began with its integration into the European project, and the first major initiative taken by the EU on the conflict in Northern Ireland was the Haagerup Report of 1984. The report asserts that the EU is “aware that the conflict, deeply rooted in British-Irish history, is less one of religious strife than of conflicting national identities in Northern Ireland.” It cast the EU as a facilitator to the peaceful expression of identities in Northern Ireland, rather than to their suppression or replacement. The report was adamant that the European Parliament’s place is not to make proposals on the constitutional and political affairs of Northern Ireland, but instead has a responsibility in the social and economic development of the region as “the commitment to help all the citizens of Northern Ireland is the more powerful.” This responsibility was acted upon, most notably, through the PEACE programme.
A European Commission task force established the PEACE Programme in 1994, to facilitate peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland, providing approximately 1.1 billion euro in funding throughout its 20 year duration. It first ran from 1995-99, before being renewed for PEACE II in 2004, PEACE III in 2006, PEACE III from 2007-2013, and PEACE IV from 2014-2020. The objectives set out in each period have included support for marginalised groups, the promotion of shared education, youth employment and economic growth to foster stability in Northern Ireland. Between 2014 and 2020, Northern Ireland will have received 3.5 billion euro in funding from the EU for peacebuilding, development and agriculture.
Alongside socio-economic development in the region, the European Union played a key role in encouraging political cooperation and dialogue between communities in Northern Ireland through European institutions. From the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, representatives of Unionists, Nationalists, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain were working in the same parliament for the first time since Irish independence. The EU facilitated dialogue between the representatives of each through, as David Phinnemore writes, the creation of a space “unsullied by economic dependence, political antagonism and mutual suspicion.” From 1979 until 1999, Northern Ireland was represented in the European Parliament by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and John Taylor of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Ian Paisley represented staunch Euroscepticism, while John Hume is described as “unrepentantly Europhile” for the influence he garnered within the SDLP’s political grouping, European Confederation of Socialist Parties, as its treasurer and within the European Parliament itself. From his position on the front benches, Hume secured support for an investigation into “the Northern Ireland problem,” which became the Haagerup Report of 1984. It is argued that for his lobbying within the European Parliament on behalf of Northern Ireland, and his hopes for the establishment of a power-sharing government underpinned by the Haagerup Report, Hume’s efforts helped prompt Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Meanwhile, the Northern Irish membership of the European Parliament was dedicated to the shared economic interests of all communities in the region, and their co-operation to secure financial assistance from the EU led to the establishment of the first PEACE programme.
While without a negotiating role in the Northern Irish peace process, the principles of transnational governance and cooperation held by the European Union were inherited by future agreements on the political stalemate and conflict. The Anglo-Irish Agreement cited the importance of the Irish government in public affairs in Northern Ireland, and such a transnational system of governance evolved into crucial aspects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement: the establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. The functional cross-border partnerships which existed at the European level were realised as a possibility for Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Upon the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the preservation of these relationships to maintain peace became a priority, but one which is now interrupted by the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU.
The benefits of EU membership appears to have been more appreciated by the people of Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK, as well as an increased awareness of the implications of losing the link to Europe through Brexit. Politically and economically, stability in Northern Ireland is viewed by some as being challenged by the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, as it implies the withdrawal of EU funding and market access. There is also a potential of heightened tensions between political parties in Northern Ireland, divided on pro- and anti-EU lines. The risk is this division on EU membership mirroring traditional ethno-national cleavages—Unionists as anti-EU and Nationalists as pro-EU. Yet in the 2019 elections to European Parliament, one in five first preference votes went to a candidate aligned with neither nationalism nor unionism. One of the three MEPs elected was from the Alliance Party, a non confessional party that is firmly pro-EU.
Following the referendum, where 52% of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and 48% opted to remain, attention began to turn to what would be the newest external border to the EU: the 499-kilometre line that separates Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The establishment of the EU Single Market in 1993 marked the abolition of economic checkpoints and customs posts at the border, which has more than 208 crossings, more than there are along the entire border with European Union and the countries to its east. By leaving the EU, the United Kingdom is also leaving the single market and the customs union, which would require a hard border with customs checks across the island of Ireland as a result. The fear that such a partition would threaten peace and reignite violence in Northern Ireland, as well as arguments about the impracticality of implementing such a hard border regime, led to a deal that included the creation of a “backstop”—a provision stating that in the instance that a comprehensive trade deal between the EU and UK was not achieved, then Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union with a “soft border”. The backstop was opposed by many unionist groups including the DUP, who believed it “would damage the union.” In early October 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead announced a new Withdrawal Agreement, which replaced the backstop with a Protocol that aligns Northern Ireland with the EU for four years after the transition period which, in summary, “guarantees no hard border on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the EU’s single market for goods, and will apply EU customs rules, so that neither regulatory controls, tariffs or customs formalities will apply at the land border.” With the ratification of this Withdrawal Agreement, the United Kingdom exited the EU on 31 January 2020, with Northern Ireland and its border largely unaffected, but with uncertainty of what the agreed regulatory regime will look like in practice.
As Great Britain and Northern Ireland progress through the stages of separation with the European Union, the Northern Irish political divides deepened by Brexit emphasise the importance of a continuous peace process. The exit of the UK from the EU has challenged the state of peace in Northern Ireland, a peace that EU membership helped to broker through support, funding and the facilitation of dialogue between islands. Brexit is the fracturing of a relationship greater appreciated in Northern Ireland than it was across the wider United Kingdom, positioning the region, its politics and people in a state of uncertainty. Attitudes on Brexit fall largely on sectarian lines and Northern Ireland’s new position as the land interface between the UK and Europe, as well as that of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, exerts renewed pressure on pre-existing tensions. The expansion of Northern Irish politics beyond the traditional cleavages of nationalism/unionism has shown how the political dynamics of the region have changed, and the extent to which a cross-community commitment to peace is determined to prevent the reignition of violence and conflict.