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Mar 1, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

A Potentially Bad Thursday for Northern Ireland

The Brexit and Northern Ireland
(CHARLES MCQUILLAN/Getty Images)

Voters in Northern Ireland will head to the polls on March 2 to choose a new government, albeit ahead of schedule. The region's last administration, elected in May 2016, collapsed in January in the face of growing friction between the nationalist Sinn Fein party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). On top of the social, political and economic challenges that the Brexit will doubtless present, Northern Ireland's next government will also have to contend with the fact that the framework responsible for bringing two decades of peace to the restive region is beginning to wear out.

Unionism has long been a source of contention in Northern Irish politics. While unionists argue that Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom, the region's nationalists would prefer it to become part of a united Ireland. Broadly speaking, the former camp is predominantly Protestant; the latter is mostly Catholic. Under the Good Friday Agreement, which put an end to decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998, the region's largest unionist and nationalist parties are required to govern side by side in a coalition government.

Based on recent opinion polls, DUP and Sinn Fein will once again be the most popular parties in their respective camps in the upcoming elections. But because their squabbles led to the fall of the last government a mere two months ago, they may have a hard time agreeing on a new coalition deal. Should they fail to reach an accord within three weeks of the vote, Northern Ireland may have to hold another election. Having a follow-up vote so quickly, however, could yield similar results — and the political stalemate that has become all too familiar in the region.

Of course, another option would be for the central government in London to step in and temporarily take charge of ruling Northern Ireland. This could give the region's political parties more time to settle their differences, and it isn't an unprecedented move in Northern Irish history. Even so, nationalists have bluntly stated that direct rule by London is unacceptable. Instead, they have suggested the creation of a joint authority shared by London and Belfast, a proposal the unionists find equally unpalatable.

Preserving the Peace

The March 2 vote will be important for several reasons. For one, it will test the mettle of the Good Friday Agreement at a time when the deal is starting to show signs of strain. Though the agreement has pacified Northern Ireland for the past two decades, the complex power-sharing structures it created are weakening. Since the bargain was struck in 1998, voter turnout has dropped from 70 percent to 55 percent last year — well below the average voter turnout for the United Kingdom. Many Northern Irish voters are becoming frustrated with the region's mainstream political parties and disenchanted with the institutional status quo. This may only get worse if the coming elections result in deadlock or more bickering between the country's unionists and nationalists. (Sinn Fein, for example, has suggested granting official status to the Irish language, a plan the DUP has opposed despite Sinn Fein's warning that its approval will be a precondition to forming a new government.)

Protecting Northern Irish Interests

The elections will also give some indication of Northern Ireland's ability to defend its interests in London's approaching Brexit negotiations with Brussels. Nearly 56 percent of Northern Irish voters chose to remain in the European Union during last year's Brexit referendum, while the region's politicians were split down the middle; Sinn Fein supported the "remain" vote, while the DUP opted to "leave." Many in Northern Ireland are concerned about the impact the Brexit could have on the Good Friday Agreement, which lifted border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Because British Prime Minister Theresa May has said the country will leave Europe's single market, where people, goods, services and capital move freely, some form of border controls may have to be reintroduced between Northern Ireland (which will no longer be an EU member) and the Republic of Ireland (which will continue to be an EU member).

In theory, migration and trade could be treated as separate issues. Neither the Republic of Ireland nor the United Kingdom is a member of the Continent's passport-free Schengen area, which means Belfast and Dublin could agree to set up joint migration controls at the island's airports and ports. Once visitors have entered the island, they could then move freely within it without encountering additional barriers. But trade would be a trickier problem to address, since once the United Kingdom leaves the single market, some customs measures would have to be introduced between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for goods moving in either direction. Even if London and Brussels manage to sign a free trade agreement, customs controls may be required to enforce rules of origin and prove that products entering the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom are genuinely British goods, rather than transshipments from other countries. Moreover, if the free trade agreement fails to include certain sectors, such as agriculture, customs controls would be needed to ensure that restrictions on those goods are enforced.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Northern Ireland would have to institute a "hard border" lined with fixed customs checkpoints. The United Kingdom, European Union and Republic of Ireland could agree to random, mobile checks instead to minimize the amount of disruption experienced by citizens on both sides of the border — a key aim of the governments in Dublin, Belfast and London. But they will have to discuss the issue while trying to settle many others, from the deployment of cross-border police and judicial cooperation to visa arrangements for citizens who live and work on opposite sides of the border, making the process of actually reaching a deal far more complex.  

Meanwhile, the next Belfast government will also have to push London to compensate Northern Ireland for the EU subsidies it will lose after the Brexit is complete. During the last EU budget period from 2007 to 2013, Northern Ireland received nearly 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) from Brussels. Though the region should continue to get agricultural and development funding from the Continental bloc while the Brexit talks proceed, delaying any financial upset until at least mid-2019, it will have to work out an arrangement with London to provide for Northern Irish farmers down the road.

Violence in Northern Ireland has declined dramatically since the Good Friday Agreement was signed nearly two decades ago, but it hasn't disappeared. Persistent tension between nationalist and unionist movements, compounded by the political and economic problems stemming from the Brexit, could stoke unrest and threaten peace throughout the region. And if Northern Ireland fails to form a government after its March 2 elections, it will only add to the uncertainty on the horizon for the unsettled island nation.

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