At Belfast Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, I hosted a session: Could Northern Ireland be an independent member of the EU, or have “special status”.
I thought it was important to have a forum during the festival for people to discuss the EU. I’m not pushing any particular outcome, but I present the case for taking this seriously—and what realistic options are available. Those in attendance had plenty to say on the topic too!
What follows is a summary of my contribution to this debate.
People in Northern Ireland should take this seriously because Scotland may plausibly become independent, or at least get some kind of concession to keep it closer to the EU than England and Wales. What then for Northern Ireland?
Regardless of Scotland, Brexit may have a negative impact on Northern Ireland’s economy and it may threaten peace and stability. It may not, but it would be poor governance not to have contingency plans in place.
What does being in the EU really mean? Out of the various treaties and agreements, we could summarise this in six points:
- 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”
The last point represents the possibility of enhanced co-operation by EU member states on just about anything, and also the possibility of the creation over time of a quasi-federal European state.
Most countries in the world belong to a customs union, a trade bloc or both. Brexit is therefore all the more surprising as a move against the global trend. Although Brexit might be better understood as a pull away from the political union implied by the European Project.
At this point I make a claim, which is that the late-twentieth century trend towards greater co-operation between states has created international structures that support the existence of smaller states. So many of the world's smaller independent states would be less viable without strong international structures to support their existence, such as NATO, various UN agencies and the EU.
Some EU member states are probably only viable because they are members of international organisations. I’m thinking of the importance of NATO to the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) as well as the importance of the EU to various small countries, for example Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia.
In this context, Northern Ireland on its own has a larger population than four full EU member states and is similar in size to two others, although Northern Ireland has a smaller landmass than all but two EU members.
So as a “naïve” starting point, Northern Ireland is not too small to be an independent EU member state—and it would enjoy the supports that comes from membership. These supports are less obvious to larger states that employ their own policy experts on everything from defence to climate change, although even they too usually benefit from pooling their resources, for example to share a single group of international trade negotiators.
At any rate, Options 1 and 2 for Northern Ireland would be to become a fully-fledged member of the EU. Why two options? Option 1 is what has been called “devolution max” by various commentators, including former PM Sir John Major. This is the idea of a United Kingdom very much centred on the monarchy and shared defence, with each of the nations being given sovereignty and opting-in to other UK federal functions. This would of course mean radical constitutional change for the UK, but it may be the best (or least worst) outcome for the Union given the SNP's ambitions for Scotland.
As an aside, it would be interesting to see the British-Irish Council emerging as a stronger intergovernmental structure, including the Republic of Ireland, along the lines of the Nordic Council that also includes EU and non-EU members.
Option 2 would be for Northern Ireland to leave the UK in part or in whole, becoming a Crown Dependency (like the Isle of Man), British Overseas Territory (like Gibraltar), a Commonwealth Realm (like New Zealand) or even a republic (like Malta). For example, whatever happens to Gibraltar—where 96% voted Remain—may be of interest to Northern Ireland in terms of mimicking any deal to give Gibraltarians access to the EU.
Of course, Northern Ireland could stay in the EU by joining up with the Republic in some way, but that seems unlikely to happen at this point in time. Nonetheless, the Irish Government is seeking for any Brexit deal to have a clause guaranteeing Northern Ireland immediate membership in any future scenario of a united or federal Ireland.
Would Options 1 or 2 be a step towards a united Ireland? Not necessarily, but they would both represent steps away from the current UK, and are likely to be bitterly opposed by many people in Northern Ireland on that basis. Although if Scotland pulls away, Northern Ireland may have to face UK constitutional change regardless.
If neither Options 1 nor 2 are politically viable, what remains is to consider what EU “special status” might look like for Northern Ireland.
What we perceive as the monolithic EU is actually a series of overlapping treaties and agreements, some of which can be accessed separately.
Option 3 would be for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Customs Union. For example, Turkey is a member without otherwise being in the EU. On the other hand, Norway is not a member, despite being in the Single Market.
This would mean no tariffs between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU, including the Republic. For example, it would make it much simpler to keep the existing agricultural arrangements, such as the movement of cattle across the border for slaughter, movement of milk for dairy processing, etc. If significant tariffs are brought in on agricultural produce, it would disrupt these supply lines or render North-South agri-food co-operation uncompetitive.
However, being inside the Customs Union would mean tariffs between Northern Ireland and GB. And the EU would handle Northern Ireland’s trade deals not the UK government. This could have major pros and cons on what sectors of the economy would prosper in Northern Ireland compared to GB.
Option 4 would be for Northern Ireland to remain in the Single Market, for example by becoming a signatory to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement, along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein. That would mean that the four freedoms of movement (capital, goods, services and people) would apply to Northern Ireland, but not the rest of the UK. This could be good for attracting US foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland, as the Americans have long favoured English-speaking countries as their base of operations for engaging with the EU single market. However, it could mean other barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and GB (or England and Wales, if Scotland also remains in the Single Market).
Option 5 would involve opting-in—and paying-in—for a number of EU programmes, to retain their benefits. The UK may well want to stay in some of these too—like the Erasmus education programme—but Northern Ireland could plausibly opt-in to extra ones, not least CAP (the Common Agricultural Policy) upon which farmers are so reliant. The Republic is already pushing for continued EU support post-Brexit for programmes that benefit Northern Ireland, like the PEACE funding.
A full list of EU programmes is here.
Finally, Option 6 for Northern Ireland is already secured. Regardless of what happens, people in Northern Ireland have the right—under the Good Friday Belfast Agreement—to retain EU citizenship by taking up an Irish passport. On a personal basis, this guarantees access to anywhere in the EU to work, reside, study, travel and retire.
So far, so rosy; but how likely is Northern Ireland to remain closer to the EU than the rest of the UK?
Northern Ireland is much more divided on the EU than Scotland. Although both nations voted Remain, every single constituency in Scotland had a Remain majority, whereas seven Northern Irish constituencies—all to the northeast—voted Leave by a majority vote ranging from 50.6 to 62.2%. The fact that the DUP—still by far the largest unionist party—campaigned for Leave emphasises political divisions over the EU that do not exist in Scotland.
Also, just as some people are arguing that there is no such thing as a European polity, one could debate whether Northern Ireland is a polity—that is, a people who see themselves as belonging to Northern Ireland as a separate political entity. The relatively high turnout to the assembly elections has been interpreted as public support for the institutions of self-government. Yet, politics remains divided by the constitutional question.
On the other hand, the 2015 Life and Times Survey found that 40% of people see themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. More than half of younger people (18-34) identified as “neither”. 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”. This suggests that a Northern Irish polity is plausible, especially as people can of course retain multiple, overlapping identities.
However, there are other barriers to Northern Ireland remaining in the EU. Legal experts suggest that Scotland would have to re-apply, although it would be fast-tracked in again in just a few years. But years are a very long time in politics and economics!
It is plausible that Northern Ireland might get a “free pass” to immediate EU membership as an independent state, if pressure from the Irish Government—and EU commitment to the peace process—was to be evoked, but it would be hard to do it for Northern Ireland and not for Scotland or Gibraltar.
Spain might also oppose membership for breakaway nations, although the most recent statements by their Prime Minister suggest a softening of attitudes and a claim that Scotland’s case is totally different from Catalonia.
EU membership of course comes with a membership fee (the UK paid £161m net/week; HM Treasury). Northern Ireland would not get to keep the UK’s rebate, but as a full member state would almost certainly be a net beneficiary at first. The Republic paid €1.6bn to the EU in 2015 and received c.€2bn. However, if Northern Ireland opts in to partial-EU access, this would probably have a net cost from the outset.
More critically for Northern Ireland is the potential loss of the subvention from the UK (£5.2bn or £9.2bn depending on how you calculate it). The EU might bridge some of this funding loss in the short-term, but Northern Ireland would need to restructure its economy to be more productive and to generate a larger tax base. In part-compensation for the lost subvention, Northern Ireland might take on a reduced proportion of the UK’s national debt, which would allow some borrowing for infrastructural investment. But the economic shock if the subvention was withdrawn quickly would be palpable, and many public sector jobs could be lost.
On an institutional basis, Northern Ireland lacks much of the expertise that would be needed to run itself as an independent EU member state. However, many other countries have gotten over this in a short time, and there is plenty of scope to recruit experts from GB and elsewhere. Northern Ireland could quickly become entirely self-governing and ready to engage fully with EU legislation and to transact with EU members and institutions.
The biggest sticking point remains the constitutional division looming over the political system. Although many people in Northern Ireland say they are neither unionist nor nationalist, the vote at the last Assembly election says otherwise (although the smaller cross-community parties' vote share did rise). While there was significant cross-community support for Northern Ireland’s Remain vote, there was a strongly unionist/loyalist dimension to its Leave vote. Holding a referendum on Northern Ireland remaining in the EU could be deeply divisive.
And there would be no option of Direct Rule if the parties couldn’t work together, which means that the mandatory coalition envisaged by the Agreement might not be viable if Northern Ireland was to be independent within the EU.
In conclusion, while Options 1 and 2 still seem fanciful, Brexit seemed implausible and Scottish independence used to seem unlikely. Options 3, 4 and 5 are largely down to economic calculations of what would be in the best interest of Northern Ireland. However, is anyone doing these calculations?
Option 6—personal access to the EU—is already in the bag for anyone who wants it, and even DUP politicians have expressed sanguinity about their constituents taking up an EU document with an Irish harp on the front.
As a final thought, based on the age profile of the UK’s voters—73% of those aged 18-29 voted Remain and 60% aged 65+ voted Leave—it may be a case of Northern Ireland (and/or Scotland) keeping the UK’s seat warm in the EU for twenty years.
The ironic result of Brexit might be for the UK's nations to give up a seat in the EU only to have four of them in future.
PS Colm Tóibín has an article in The Irish Times (15 March) which I only saw subsequently, which is more forthright about this idea: 'The North must become an independent EU state'
PPS A version of my post first appeared on SluggerO'Toole.com
Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a Lecturer of Public Policy and Public Management in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.
Previously Director of TASC, Nat also led the research team in Dublin’s Homeless Agency.
Nat holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin (2008) and an MA in Political Science and Social Policy form the University of Dundee (1998). Nat’s primary research interest is in how research-informed public policy can achieve social justice and human wellbeing. Nat’s work has focused on economic inequality, housing and homelessness, democratic accountability and public policy analysis. His PhD focused on public access to information as part of democratic policy making.