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An Independent Northern Ireland within the EU?

by Frank Schnittger Wed Mar 22nd, 2017 at 10:40:53 PM EST

Dr. Nat O'Connor (School of CPSP, Ulster University) has an interesting piece up on the Progressive Economy website on the options for Northern Ireland if it doesn't want to go the full Brexit with the leavers in Westminster. In particular he asks: Could Northern Ireland be an independent member of the EU, or have a “special status” within it? It is well worth a read in full and discusses the options for Northern Ireland under six headings:

    Being inside the European Customs Union
    Being inside the European Single Market
    Holding EU Citizenship Rights
    Participating in EU Programmes (e.g. CAP, Erasmus)
    Common EU Security and Defence
    The "European Project"

My response is included below the fold...

Thanks for this erudite and well considered contribution to the debate.  I have one nit pick and a few major reservations.  First the nit-pick: You say "And the British Social Attitudes survey finds that 29% of people identify as "Northern Irish" when forced to prioritise one identity, as opposed to 48% "British" and 28% "Irish"." If respondents were forced to prioritise one identity, how could the sum of choices total 105%?

My major reservations:

Firstly, your article is necessarily very N. Ireland centric with only cursory references to the attitudes that the London, Dublin, Madrid or the rest of the EU might strike in a response to N. I. choosing one of the options cited.  That is understandable for an initial exploration - N. Ireland must first decide what it wants.  Given the fractured nature of the polity, Assembly and Executive the first great difficultly is arriving at a consensus choice of which option to pursue.  Is there any political mechanism or leadership or combination of parties capable of generating a widely acceptable consensus choice in the foreseeable future?

Secondly, as all options come with costs, some sort of cost/benefit analysis must be presented for each in order for an informed debate to take place.  This necessarily requires taking an informed view of what attitudes London, Dublin, Madrid and Brussels will take to the various options being considered. For example, what happens to the 5.2 - 9.2 Billion subvention?  Will Dublin/EU agree to bear some of that cost? Why would they?  What are they getting in return?

Thirdly, for all the talk about economics, the EU is ultimately about politics, and above all about maintaining some sort of peace and cohesion on the European mainland in particular. The EU27 needs more small, divided, stricken member states like it needs a hole in the head. The emphasis now, for the EU, has to be on its own survival as a cohesive entity in the face of unprecedented threats from the UK, Russia, Trump/Bannon, international terrorism, Catalonian and other separatism, and a populist revolt against globalism, immigration, and "liberal values" which prioritise individual rights over traditional national/regional/ethnic identities. What does N. I. offer the EU?

Fourthly, the Republic of Ireland is still at least nominally committed to pursuing a United Ireland by peaceful means.  If it is viscerally opposed to a hard border, why would it be any less opposed to an entrenchment of N. I. as a distinct political entity and putative nation? Why enable a competitor for FDI and the other benefits EU/Single Market and Customs Union can bring?  Being a good neighbour works both ways.  What would N.I. offer the Republic in return for agreement?

For the sake of brevity I will posit a few principles that would need lengthy exposition to justify but which I think may hold true:

  1. N.I. Ireland doesn't qualify as a putative Sovereign State and Member of the EU because it doesn't have the cohesion, processes, institutions, leadership capabilities, resources or independent economic viability to achieve that status. The very fact that the referendum result in N. I. is being ignored by the May Government and the House of Commons explicitly voted down an SDLP motion that the Good Friday Agreement be taken into account in the Brexit negotiations underlines its subsidiary, not to say supplicant, status within the UK.

  2. The Republic of Ireland would have a veto on N. I. being able to achieve any of the cited options and would legitimately extract a price for its agreement.  That price would likely include some kind of Federal arrangement and the formal transfer of at least some Sovereign functions (Defence, Foreign affairs, Trade) from Westminster to Dublin and Brussels.

  3. Unless the Republic is prepared to take ownership of the process of inclusion of N.I. in the EU, Brussels will not care to take on the problem. It has bigger fish to fry.

  4. Scottish independence poses an existential threat to a UK which is increasingly dominated by an ever-narrower English nationalism. In that context, N. I. increasingly becomes an ever more disposable liability. The choice for N.I. in the context, (insofar as it is capable of making one) may well be not between the status quo and some other option, but the least worst option it can secure from the EU with the support of the Republic. It may well take at least a decade of increasing isolation and impoverishment to change the political landscape sufficiently to make currently unacceptable options even marginally acceptable, but N.I. simply isn't the master of its own destiny in this process. London and Dublin hold all the trump cards.


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