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RUSI - Northern Ireland’s Delicate Peace Process at Risk Should the UK Leave the European Union

Northern Ireland’s economy, security and its delicate peace process will be negatively affected should the UK vote to leave the EU, argues a new article published in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute. As the referendum debate intensifies, it  claims that politicians in Westminster and Stormont have failed to address the risks to Northern Ireland associated with Brexit.

‘Who Will Speak for Northern Ireland? The Looming Danger of an Ulster Brexit’ by Edward Burke, argues that ‘Northern Ireland, with its 300-mile land border, its fractured political structures, weak economy and enduring terrorist threat’ requires urgent attention in the debate on a potential Brexit. While the debate focuses on trade and English and Scottish issues, ‘inattention in the case of Northern Ireland, particularly on Brexit, is complacent and dangerous; Northern Ireland’s departure from conflict remains brittle.’

Edward Burke outlines how membership of the European Union has also allowed deeper security cooperation between the UK and Ireland through the European Union Arrest Warrant (EAW).

With 192 suspected criminals or terrorists handed over to the UK authorities by Ireland under the EAW from 2004-2013, he observes that European police and judicial co-operation agencies such as Europol and Eurojust are also frequently used by the British and Irish police and security agencies during counter-terrorism and criminal investigations on both sides of the border. 

While the article acknowledges that the British-Irish Council – created under the Good Friday Agreement – could serve as an overarching body to replace EU agreements on a bilateral basis, it argues that the body has been largely ignored by David Cameron since he became prime minister. Burke claims that Irish officials are concerned at the prospect of the UK’s imminent departure from the EAW.  ‘A similar agreement, Irish officials warn, would have to be negotiated – a protracted consultative and legislative process would likely ensue.’

The article also claims that ‘joint EU membership also helps to underpin the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish government – having ceded Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution (claiming jurisdiction over the whole island) – leaned on a collective European identity as a means of reassuring Nationalists in Northern Ireland that the island, despite this constitutional change, would come closer together. 

The UK’s part in a wider European identity, articulated through its membership of the EU, is also attractive to those who, although they have come to accept UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland, are uncomfortable with being identified as British.  Removing a European dimension that ‘softens the border’ between the North and South of Ireland may upset the delicate equilibrium painstakingly constructed since the Good Friday Agreement.’Meanwhile, Burke argues that, ‘any re-imposition of border controls on the UK’s only land border to restrict “back-door” immigration from the EU or the introduction of enhanced customs inspections, hindering cross-border trade, would likely see a further deterioration in Northern Ireland’s already parlous economic fortunes.’

Burke claims that much of Northern Ireland’s ‘peace dividend’ has come from the EU, both through structural funds aimed at boosting Northern Ireland’s economy and specialised programmes designed to reinforce the peace process. Compared with other UK regions, Northern Ireland also disproportionately benefits from Common Agriculture Policy funding. Burke argues that it is unlikely that fiscal transfers from London will match lost EU funds post-Brexit. He also outlines how Northern Ireland’s robust civil society – often called upon to mitigate tensions during regular period of political deadlock – is heavily dependent on crucial EU funding which will be hard to replace in the event of Brexit. ‘The potential withdrawal of such funds risks undermining the cross-community dialogue, community and mental-health projects that have been put in place since the Good Friday Agreement.’

The article examines how the debate in Northern Ireland on the merits of Brexit has become increasingly polarised along familiar lines, with the Democratic Unionist Party opting for Vote Leave and Sinn Fein for remaining in the EU, ‘… it is the legacy of the Troubles, the persistent breakdown of trust and institutional co-operation in the Stormont executive and Assembly, that most seriously hinders a serious cross-party policy discussion of the UK’s membership of the EU in Northern Ireland.’

Based on research and interviews with officials in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Edward Burke also reveals how Irish diplomats are privately in ‘campaign mode … a special unit has been set up in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to deal with Brexit issues and to advise on the referendum. Dublin is also mindful that 330,000 Irish citizens are eligible to vote in UK referendums, with a similar number of UK citizens living in the Republic of Ireland who are also entitled to cast a ballot.’

To access the article, click here:

Notes to Editors

  1. Edward Burke is Lecturer in Strategic Studies at the University of Portsmouth. His article is published in the April 2016 edition of the RUSI Journal. A press copy is available at:
  2. The RUSI Journal is the flagship periodical  of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). 
  3. RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.
  4. As an independent think tank, RUSI itself will not hold an official view on the EU Referendum and will maintain a policy of strict neutrality. Full analysis of the defence and security implications of the EU Referendum found at: 
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