Brexit has brought the constitutional question into sharper focus than it ever has before, writes Sarah Creighton
Talking about Brexit on Christmas Eve was the sour cherry on top of the rotten cake that is 2020. Even so, I feel relieved that the UK and European Union have managed to agree a trade deal.
For years, the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit has loomed over Northern Ireland like a dark cloud. If the UK had exited the EU without a deal, the sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland would have been even harsher. Thanks to the new trade deal, that nightmare scenario has been averted.
There were smiles all around from Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as they announced the new deal. The vibe was very much one of, ‘This is finally over.’ On Twitter, journalists and academics celebrated and said they would never have to talk about Brexit ever again.
For Northern Ireland, it isn’t over yet. This isn’t a moment of celebration.
For Remainers, the trade deal marks the official beginning of the UK’s exit from the EU. No trade deal will be better than what we had before. Few Brexiteers are enthusiastic about the Northern Ireland Protocol and its implications. Nobody is getting what they want.
Northern Ireland has been affected by Brexit more than any other part of the UK. It was here that the contradictions of the Brexit project were laid bare. We were ignored in the referendum campaign, but the border has dominated political discourse over the past four years.
The impact of Brexit will be felt for many years to come. Since 2016 Brexit has thrown our already divided communities on either side of a jagged line. It has exposed the fault lines between generations and added another label to our identity politics. We now have ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’ along with unionists and nationalists. Sands have shifted in our local elections. Brexit has galvanised people to vote for parties they’ve never considered before.
More than anything, Brexit has brought the constitutional question into sharper focus than it ever has before. I’ve had more conversations with people about the union and a united Ireland over the past four years than I’ve ever had in my life.
The Northern Ireland Protocol will come into effect in a few days’ time. It fundamentally changes the relationship between Northern Ireland and Britain. Recent mitigations have provided some certainty to local businesses but there is still fear that it could be economically damaging. We’re going to have to make the best of it, but right now the future looks uneasy and hard to pin down.
The rest of the world might be moving on from Brexit, but Northern Ireland won’t. The Protocol could be a key issue at the next Assembly election. The Assembly must vote to either consent or reject the arrangements in 2024. A lot will depend on how good or bad the Protocol is in practice, but the issue will likely dominate politics for the next few years.
We have been left in a difficult, problematic position by the EU and the UK government. Even if the Protocol is economically disastrous, removing it could put a hard border between north and south. That arrangement would further fracture community relations and cause tensions.
As I said in a Slugger O’Toole article in 2019, Northern Ireland is being trapped in a box with the chaos of the past four years. The scars from the referendum run deep. Will anybody pay attention when we grapple with the fall out?
The new deal is meant to protect the Good Friday Agreement. In its preamble the 1998 signatories commend the agreement to the people, north and south, “in the spirit of concord.” To heal and move forward, we’re going to need to find that spirit again.