Northern Ireland and the EU Referendum – What next?

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With the first anniversary of the EU Referendum on the horizon, it could be argued that the vote to leave the European Union has generated many more questions than answers.

The fate of the United Kingdom appears to have been sealed after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 back in March, which officially opened the two-year divorce negotiations with the EU.

Article 50’s triggering puts an end to the UK’s 44-year association with Europe.

The Prime Minister then proceeded to call a snap general election for 8 June, and is set to battle it out with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for the right to lead the UK out of their EU membership over the next two years.

Regardless of who ends up with the keys to 10 Downing Street, numerous significant issues will need to be addressed to avoid a so-called “hard” Brexit.

One of the most important of these issues concerns the impact that Brexit will have on the island of Ireland, and particularly the questions surrounding the Common Travel Area.

A hard border has not been seen between the Republic and Northern Ireland since before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but that is what could materialise following Brexit negotiations.

Most of the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain in the EU, much like voters in Scotland. However, a significant surge in leave votes in England and Wales meant that the leave campaign obtained an overall majority, regardless of the results in the devolved nations.

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

The result of the referendum has been met with widespread anger and ridicule in Northern Ireland. Most of the main parties such as Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party all campaigned for a remain outcome, with only the Democratic Unionist Party lobbying for a leave vote in the North.

The SDLP, among others, say that the result is unjust since 56% of Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU, and they have called for the Northern Ireland Executive to ‘ensure that the will of the people of Northern Ireland is accurately represented in relation to the European Union.’

Shauna Cusack is a SDLP councillor for the Foyle constituency, and she is adamant that the remain majority in Northern Ireland should be given every opportunity to protect their EU membership, as the consequences may be severe outside the block.

She said: “We have not given our consent to change the constitutional make-up of the North, therefore our membership of Europe should not be altered.

“We here already suffer from the greatest levels of historical, social and economic deprivation and are last on the list when it comes to investment backed and funded by Westminster.

“The ever-reducing Block Grant combined with the austerity of Welfare Reform does not make for a prosperous or bright future.

“EU funding has often been our lifeline. It has provided a plethora of capital and social projects here in the North and has changed both landscapes, communities and even lives. What therefore will fill the gap when this is gone?”

Cllr Cusack was also deeply concerned by the potential of a hard border being erected, and the consequences this may have on those living and working on both sides of the divide.

She asked: “What happens our invisible border on this island? Given our immediate proximity, how will this affect our ability to work, live and claim state assistance in any area of this island, which many in this city and district do?”

“In this single, arguably most life changing political decision of our generation we must ensure that Westminster, for once, respects, protects and prioritises the will of the people here.”

As well as the effects of Brexit mentioned by Cllr Cusack, the demographic that will arguably be hit hardest by the decision to leave is the younger generation.

Youngsters who had grand plans to work within another EU country will find it much more difficult to obtain the legal documents necessary following Brexit negotiations, which may go some way to explaining the sudden upsurge in applications for Irish passports in recent months.

It also remains to be seen how EU citizens studying in the UK will be affected when divorce proceedings are finalised.

Students protest at Westminster, London.

Ulster University Students’ Union President, Colum Mackey, believes that Brexit will have a negative impact on the student bodies in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and feels that the overall student experience will suffer drastically.

He said: “The European Union has a terrific relationship with the university, and through EU funding of schemes such as ERASMUS, students are given the opportunity to study abroad in EU nations. This way they can experience unique cultures and make lifelong friendships without losing the overall student experience.

“In the wake of the EU Referendum, I am deeply concerned that schemes such as ERASMUS will not be running for much longer. We may be left relying on funding from the UK government, which is unrealistic given the constant rise in tuition fees year on year.

“There are also many students from EU nations, most notably the Republic of Ireland, who are undergoing their studies here in Northern Ireland and the UK, and it is uncertain at this stage how they will inevitably be affected by the vote.”

When Brexit negotiations finally begin in earnest, those residing in Northern Ireland will be desperate to ensure that the country is not overlooked by the powers that be in Westminster.

Theresa May has previously promised that maintaining the Common Travel Area is an absolute priority for the party, and anything less than an open border could spell logistical chaos in Ireland.

The only question that can be answered with any certainty at this early stage is that the UK will be leaving the European Union – the condition that one of the world’s largest economies will be in when all is said and done is anyone’s guess.

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