Katy Hayward on Brexit and the peace process in Northern Ireland: ‘it is worth reminding ourselves that we are only at the beginning’

In light of recent developments in Northern Ireland, we spoke to Katy Hayward, Professor of Political Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast and an expert on Ireland, cross-border conflict and cooperation.

  1. We have all seen the news and breakout of violence over the last couple of weeks, why is this happening and why now?

There are several processes going on and I think it’s worth separating them into three boxes.

The first is context: the process of Brexit has been very destabilising for Northern Ireland across all the pillars of the Good Friday Agreement, so there’s a sense of insecurity and destabilisation across the board. Then there are particular concerns across the Unionist community about where NI stands in the UK union. This has been exacerbated by the NI protocol that was agreed in the UK- EU withdrawal agreement, so this is the Irish Sea border, and they are worried about NI’s place in the Union and they feel betrayed by London – so again that sense of frustration and resentment and unease is there.

And then on the ground there are dynamics within Loyalism exploiting that sense of unease but also picking up on other ongoing issues of resentment and anger in loyalist communities, including anger at the police and several elements of tensions in and between loyalist groupings in certain areas. 

And we shouldn’t forget the impact of Covid-19 which has seen youth centres closed and all those projects that connect people and things that help build relationships and positive influences – those have been suspended for the past year really. That also impacts on the rioters’ behaviour and the ability of positive connections to temper the elements that would stir up dissent.

  1. The way the situation has been discussed in England has been quite polarised too, with some commentators laying all the blame on Brexit, and others who take issue with that – NI obviously holds a special and confusing place in the Brexit process, so could you give us a rough guide as to where NI is now in relation to Brexit?

Тhe peace process encapsulated by the Good Friday Belfast agreement is about managing the connections between Britain and Ireland that have been conflictual in the past, and turning them into positive ones, and a big part of that was EU membership. And so with the process of the UK leaving, and adding friction to borders, rather than diminishing it, we’ve had a situation in which NI and the peace process has felt under pressure. 

Essentially the significance of the Irish border, both in symbolic and practical terms, has gone up as a consequence of Brexit. Both the EU and the UK agreed that they wanted to keep it as open as possible and then the protocol on NI is a means of doing that. It is not keeping it completely open, but it’s a means of minimising the impact of Brexit on that bordert. Therefore, what we have is a very peculiar arrangement where NI is effectively in the single market for the movement of goods and this means the UK’s relationship with the EU is now manifested in the border between Britain and Ireland i.e. the Irish Sea. So the hard Brexit is reflected in the hardening of the Irish Sea border. 

This is a really unusual arrangement and it’s been difficult implementing it – partly because people have not been prepared in their minds about what it entails, partly also in practical terms they haven’t been prepared. 

I’ve been repeating this point throughout my career of course but it has become more urgentwith Brexit – this is a fragile peace process and it is finely balanced. So, just tread very carefully when making any changes to NI’s borders. This is because borders are not just sites of division but also points of connection. 

So, I think symbolically for unionists now they think nationalists have won, because they see the border in the Irish Sea, which is their point of connection to Britain. But nationalists think they’ve lost because they see NI has left the European Union and have therefore weaker connections to Ireland. And so both communities have cause for resentment and anxiety, and this is why we can’t separate the Brexit process from the peace process.

  1. A lot of the practical manifestation of that comes down to trade – are there any steps the UK Gov can take right now to ease the frictions in trade? But also would that be enough to placate the anxiety on both sides?

First of all, it is worth reminding ourselves that we are only at the beginning, and still within the grace periods, so we’ve not seen the full extent of disruption by any means. So there is technical work going on to try and manage some of the burdens on businesses exporting from GB into NI, and some of the more sensitive controversial ones around medicines for example – they are hoping to find solutions there. 

Ultimately, though, the decision that would make the most impact is the UK’s, namely, is the UK prepared to align more closely to the EU to avoid hardening of the border. The focus is on SPS agreements (relating to food and animal welfare regulation), in which case GB would agree to align or replicate EU standards to reduce the need for checks and controls. 

Essentially, the EU wants to ensure that what’s coming into NI, and thus into the single market for goods, meets their standards. The more GB diverges from them, the more costly and extensive checks and controls will be on goods entering NI from there, and the greater the burden on business and the price for consumers here. 

Then there’s the political aspect – the symbolism of borders and what they mean to people, in some ways more important than the practical effects, and that’s also what they are trying to manage at the moment. We are beyond the point where people’s concerns can be addressed with warm words. There’s a need to rebuild trust with all communities here and we are very far from that at the moment. 

We recently conducted an opinion poll for a project we’re doing here at Queen’s University Belfast on the protocol and we found a mere 5% of respondents (sample size of over 2,000) trust in Westminster, and we don’t have great trust in the NI Executive either – around 15-16%. So, it’s pretty dire. You can see an environment where everything is up in the air and nobody trusts there are institutions to catch NI’s interests and tend to them. 

  1. For some that fuels the argument for United Ireland, do you see it as imminent as sometimes presented? What are the hurdles?

The response to Brexit and the question to unification differs depending on which communities you ask. Nationalists think Brexit makes united Ireland more likely and imminent, and more desirable as they want to rejoin the EU. Unionists largely think it doesn’t make a difference. However, deep down, the fact that nationalists and others in Britain are talking more about a united Ireland creates a sense of unease and threat for unionism. That said, there is little to indicate that it is imminent. 

The thing we know is that, if the secretary of state for NI thinks there’s likely to be a majority for Irish unity if a referendum were to be held, he has to make that judgement to hold one. The things you’d look at to assess whether such a majority exists are not pointing towards it – first preference votes and opinion polls and the like. However, we know that in the 2021 census there is likely to be a Catholic majority and that will add to the speculation. 

But we know from recent experience that a referendum with a binary question – status quo or radical change – is by no means simple. We’ve seen just how complicated and divisive it can be. And we already have polarisation here along those lines. This is why some people are trying to find ways to think sensibly and cautiously about what questions to ask and what preparations need to take place before a referendum is on the cards.

We could be talking decades yet. But at the same time we know, again from the Brexit process, that something can happen very quickly in unexpected ways. Some Republicans voted for Brexit to hasten a united Ireland. There’s a sense of some opportunities being seen in this for nationalists, and that adds to the current tensions. 

We’ve got so many problems – look at the areas of persistent poverty and multiple deprivation, stubborn problems with health service provision and job creation etc. It’s a dysfunctional place in many ways and unfortunately because Brexit was, at root, all about borders, it has made it all the more difficult to find the necessary even keel on which to move forward.