• Frances Brown

The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Impact of Brexit

The conflict in Northern Ireland, commonly referred to as The Troubles, has seen 16,209 bombings and 36,923 shootings. The Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) Archive at Ulster University poignantly highlights that every day of the year is an anniversary of a life lost during the conflict.


During the 30 years of the conflict, anguish was felt on both sides of the sectarian divide. The Troubles erupted in response to Catholic discrimination by the Protestant-dominated government and local authorities, particularly the police. A huge escalation occurred on Bloody Sunday in 1972 when British soldiers shot dead 26 innocent civilians who were protesting in Derry. The Republicans and Unionists have paradoxical views on how the six counties of Northern Ireland should be controlled; the Republicans see themselves as Irish and want to be ruled by Dublin while the Unionists see themselves as British and want to be ruled by Westminster.


The Good Friday Agreement was a successful compromise agreed upon in 1998 and brought to an end most of the violence of The Troubles. The agreement includes allowing Northern Irish residents to have either an Irish or British passport, the release of paramilitary prisoners and an outline of a new power-sharing agreement. From a humanitarian standpoint, this was a huge success for the people of Northern Ireland and both the Irish and British governments. It was a contentious agreement with difficult conversations regarding the terms but it ultimately brought to a close much of the violence of The Troubles.


The EU referendum in 2016 immensely jeopardised peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. How can a non-EU country (Northern Ireland as part of the UK) and an EU country (the Republic of Ireland) have completely free and open borders to move goods? The EU has strict rules and the UK voted to be rid of these rules. How is this possible without jeopardising the relative peace of the past 18 years?


Many, such as former Tony Blair strategist Alastair Campbell, argue that Brexiteers had not considered how Northern Ireland would be affected if the UK left the EU. This was perhaps emblematic of the ignorance of Westminster politicians towards Northern Ireland, a forgetfulness of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and consequently, by extension, a lack of understanding of the history of Ireland. The conflict in the UK took place between roughly 1968-1998 and excluding Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, The Troubles are not widely taught. In England's National Curriculum for History, there is a single suggestion, not a requirement, for teaching Ireland and Home Rule which took place in 1914. But there is no mandate nor suggestion to teach children at any stage of their schooling about this immensely complex and painful period in British and Irish history.


This has compounded into a huge problem both during the Brexit negotiations and afterward. How can the Good Friday Agreement be upheld and respected whilst Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have no hard border and are no longer in the same intergovernmental organisation?


The result of the negotiations between the EU, UK and Ireland resulted in the Northern Irish Protocol which attempted to respect the Good Friday Agreement. The ultimate conclusion of this was a trade border in the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (the mainland of England, Scotland and Wales). But this protocol has broken down and been unsuccessful, particularly for Unionists in Northern Ireland describing it as "an existential threat" to Northern Ireland's position in the union. The Democratic Unionist Party - the DUP, the leading unionist political party, feels the protocol cuts off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, thus threatening their place in the union as a whole.


Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said "the UK government is now effectively in disorderly retreat from the agreement it made". The UK government is seeking to alter the agreement but needs EU agreement to do so. New negotiations are beginning to take place, however, there are contentious points which both sides are steadfastly opposed - such as whether or not Northern Ireland should be subject to the European Courts of Justice. Boris Johnson’s government does not have overly positive relations with the European Union, hence the fear negotiations will be complex and vexed.


The best-case scenario is that a fair agreement can be made between all parties (the EU, the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland). The worst-case scenario could be catastrophic from a UK-EU trade war to a complex breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland. The stakes are very high and there is immense distrust between the different stakeholders. However, there is a glimmer of hope that no party wants to return to the bloodshed and violence of The Troubles that claimed the life of 3,720 people. Many pray this will prevent a return to a period in British and Irish history that many still vividly recall and of which they continue to suffer the consequences.