I will outline some of the implications for peace and reconciliation, identity and political stability in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland. Uncertainty over crucial issues always poses risks in societies where division is deeply rooted and stability is fragile. Brexit has potentially uncertain implications for identity, borders, equality, parity of esteem and cross-Border relationships in Ireland and hence for the political, economic and security well-being of Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular. Whatever happens, it will touch on those issues. It cannot be understood without understanding and touching on those issues.
Two dimensions pose particular difficulties. First, the unilateral nature of the Brexit decision means that the central elements of British-Irish partnership and the cultural and social equality that underpins co-operation in Northern Ireland are raised. Second, as a result, reconciliation in Northern Ireland appears to be a second-order consideration for the UK in light of Brexit. It has not factored in, in any detailed way, the ramifications of the decision for Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland.
British-Irish was the alternative to British or Irish in the Agreement. That is clear from the citizenship arrangements. The unresolved question is: has this been unilaterally abandoned?
The result is a climate of uncertainty which, in and of itself, is complicated. Since we do not know what Brexit will involve, the discussion about it is problematic simply because of the uncertainty. I find myself in the position of being caught between needing to raise an alarm without wishing to be alarmist but it is critical that we begin to get something under the floor of this now because the uncertainty surrounding it is a problem.
I have outlined six possible options which still appear to be possible. They include, a hard border implemented against the will of Irish nationalism, so a unilateral act that would create a hard border or it emerging from either EU or UK law; a soft border, which represents a deviation from mainstream UK practice, unsettling unionism; an articulated Brexit, which is what the SNP wants, where we would have different Brexits for each part of the United Kingdom with different regional implications for the UK; special regional status for Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement model, including a special and permanent role for Ireland; a fifth option, which is not currently on the table, that Ireland would leave the EU; and a sixth option, Northern Ireland as secondary unplanned collateral to the priority of other agendas: an agenda taker, not an agenda maker, with the sense of us being a bubble in the middle of a sea where we will be the small part that we represent in numbers. I do not want to go through those options in detail other than to refer to them.
There are fundamental assumptions about the Good Friday Agreement. The issues of sovereignty and personal and community identity are very clearly separated in the Good Friday Agreement. It now appears unclear as to how they will now be put forward. This unique formulation has allowed the question of the Border to recede from the politics of Ireland since 1998. An open Border facilitated close co-operation and gave reality to the aspiration of the Agreement to vindicate the multiple and complex identities of Northern Ireland. Brexit, especially where it disrupts the practical experience of Irish or British identity or the equality extended to both, creates doubts and uncertainties about the compact at the heart of the Agreement.
The evidence of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey has been about growing Irish identity but also a willingness to accommodate that within Northern Ireland. The evidence of divided societies everywhere is that the implications of unilateral decisions for identity and cultural issues may be more specific and potentially dangerous in the long run than the specific economic questions. Therefore, we also have to address the cultural and social questions.
There is the issue of uncertainty and the Brexit decision being an unilateral decision. Another significant issue is that divisions over Brexit within the Northern Ireland Executive have so far disabled the devolved institutions as vehicles for representing these vital interests with any consistency or coherence during negotiations. There is a real problem. I was talking about this outside the committee room. The requirement for reconciliation is to find common ground. The implication of Brexit is that we will be pulled apart. That gives right to the question of how do those things go together.
After Brexit, Northern Ireland will remain a unique territory in the United Kingdom where all citizens retain the ongoing right to Irish citizenship, and hence to citizenship of the European Union. The issue of protection of citizens and citizen rights within the United Kingdom on a sub-territorial basis therefore applies on a unique basis to Northern Ireland and will give Ireland a special status within one part of the UK which does not apply anywhere else.
The geographical distribution of support for Brexit is significant in Northern Ireland. Support for Brexit is strongest in Unionist-supporting areas outside Belfast and weaker elsewhere. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the majorities were against leaving the EU, this has reopened the most contentious question about the sovereignty of the UK. In the Northern Ireland Assembly elections last week, in four of the five constituencies touching the Border, four of the seats are now held by nationalists. That means that the Border will run through those areas which are most firmly nationalist and the imposition of that Border will have significant issues.
Closing Border crossings is another specific issue. The symbolic importance of State visits in recent years has been very important. We need to be mindful of to what extend would Brexit compromise that.
The future of North-South bodies, the customs implications for agriculture, food and services are necessarily uncertain. Trade and economic integration have been understood as critical contributors to peace-building and disrupting that would create a problem.
Security and policing co-operation has been one of the most important aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. The recent Fresh Start agreement established further cross-Border working with regard to organised crime. While everybody remains committed to the rule of law, and it is important to say that, the potential for this pillar of the agreement to be undermined by Brexit is considerable, especially in the case where smuggling and-or cross-Border crime escalates or the Border requires a reinforcement of the physical presence of security forces, including customs officials and immigration officials in large numbers. Any deterioration of community relations in Northern Ireland is likely to have security implications on the Border. Funding is an obvious issue, including the long-term potential of EU funding.
I was asked for practical solutions. The language of special status for Northern Ireland is already present and stated in the Good Friday Agreement. It could be argued that not to recognise special status would be a breach of that Agreement. What is clear is that Northern Ireland's concerns for stability and a continuing and seamless expression of Irish citizenship and identity require a unique answer and focus. To date, most of the debate on Article 50 has focused on establishing a new basis for economic and trading relationships. Given that Brexit raises significant issues of identity, freedom of movement and reconciliation for Ireland, I would like to see Ireland asking for a specific strand of the Brexit negotiations designed to deal directly with the protection of the Good Friday Agreement as an element as of the EU negotiations in 2017. I do not know how that would happen but I would like it to see it being addressed as a specific issue and for it to be seen as an important sub-stream and not as not simply as an add-on. The Good Friday Agreement foresaw an ongoing civic element to public life in Northern Ireland. Given the disabling of the political element, it is important to find as many civic contexts within which those issues, at a very practical level, can be addressed, whether they be in the context of business, agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, education, community or culture. As a first step, would it be possible for possibly the Irish Government or the European Union to commission a detailed study into the potential implications of Brexit for reconciliation which would set a bottom line. The gap between alarm and alarmism will only be filled by some evidence and some moving into that space, which identifies that these are the specific issues. My view would be that we should draw on and talk to political and civic sources but also identify quantitative and qualitative issues which may impinge on reconciliation and stability in detail. This could provide an important early document indicating in detail what these concerns are about and would give a basis for a conversation which can then be negotiated.