Brexit, borders and peace in Ireland


An Irishman who has lived in Scotland for many years considers the potential impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland’s peace settlement and the prospect of a new border between the Republic and the North, which voted to remain.

This summer, as many people take the ferry across the Irish Sea to Belfast or Larne on their way to holiday in Ireland, they will be wondering how soon it will be before they encounter a new border between the North and South.  What shape will it take and how will it impact on the hard won peace in Northern Ireland?

The Brexit threat is causing alarm in Irish border communities, north and south.  When I grew up in the border county of Donegal in the 1950s, there were three border posts between Donegal and neighbouring Derry.  To most people the border meant little, unless they were travelling to work in Dublin or further afield.  A fair bit of smuggling went on between Donegal sheep and cattle dealers, and Derry farmers.  If there was a subsidy on lambs or heifers in Northern Ireland, truckloads of lambs or heifers would cross the border at dead of night.  My father was a cattle dealer and I can remember sitting in a lorry waiting for the flash of a torch to signal it was safe to cross the border.

Crossing the border during ‘the Troubles’ was a different experience.  Those who made the crossing will recall armed soldiers and long queues at heavily fortified places like Toome Bridge.  Nervous young squaddies, plucked from the housing schemes of Glasgow and Manchester, brandished their weapons in the half light of bleak winter mornings on exposed border posts.  Journeys were longer, and more likely to be interrupted.

Since the peace agreement the border has become barely noticeable, except where road signs change from miles to kilometres and currency switches from sterling to euros.  What will the new border look like?

The old border was a customs border.  The new one will be a customs and immigration border situated on the most westerly land frontier of Europe with its 400 million citizens.  EU migrants will lawfully enter the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU.  How will they be prevented from entering Northern Ireland, part of the UK?

Under the 1998 peace settlement, anyone born in Northern Ireland has the right to be a citizen of the UK or Ireland or both.  After Brexit, can someone born in Northern Ireland be simultaneously an EU citizen and not an EU citizen?

The Good Friday Agreement was one of the greatest achievements of British diplomacy, brought about by an awareness of the need to talk and patient dialogue which built bridges between unlikely political alliances.  Yet, as Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has pointed out, the English nationalists who champion Brexit have recklessly and casually placed a bomb under the settlement that brought peace to Ireland.  It was not just a settlement of the Northern Ireland problem, it is an international treaty, registered with the UN.  It has been held up as one of the most successful models of conflict resolution in the world.

My nephew, who works for an international company based in Cork, told me recently about a shareholders’ meeting he attended at a brewery near Belfast.  He was struck by the words of a Unionist who told him he was worried about the fallout from Brexit.  What Northern Ireland needed, he said, was a generation of politics which focussed on everyday issues like business support and the provision of services like health and education .  His greatest fear was that Brexit could bring a return to conflict.

Europe has made Ireland one of its priorities in the Brexit discussions which are to come.  We must hope that the British negotiators will be forced to think deeply about their responsibilities to the people of Ireland and the hard won peace they helped to bring about.

Eamonn Cullen is a retired teacher.  He was a member of a church group on Northern Ireland in the 1980s which brought together members of the Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.