This is a pivotal time for Northern Ireland

By Dale R. Herspring

Imagine sitting in your living room in Northern Ireland several years ago, picking up your local newspaper and spotting an article on Brexit. A strange word, new at the time. Read further and discover that the United Kingdom was planning to leave the European Union. (Brexit is shorthand for Britain’s exit). As a good (Northern) Irishman or woman, you think that might be a step forward. Given what Northern Ireland has endured the past 50 years, it couldn’t be all bad.

Then the writer suggests that the North has two possibilities. It can remain a somewhat convoluted part of the U.K. or perhaps become part of the Republic of Ireland. Well, you think, no one wants to be part of the UK, when it is not a part of the EU. But what about a united, independent Ireland, something most Irish have only dreamed about for hundreds of years. Then it hits you! This is one of those damned if you-do and damned-if-you don’t propositions.

If you remain part of the U.K., you would be with your co-religionists and in a position to keep the Catholics in their place. You would not have to accept the sovereignty of a Catholic prime minister and all the other trappings of the Irish state.

However, you would lose direct access to the Common Market. You wouldn’t be kicked out, but you may find yourselves pretty close to it. After all, almost all of Northern Ireland’s economic ties run through the Republic. It and the UK are Northern Ireland’s shipping hubs for goods from the countries of Europe.

But then you think, being part of the U.K. will be an economic disaster. As it is now, you can walk across the street in Northern Ireland and purchase any British product you choose for a relatively low price. That would change if you leave the U.K. — Northern Ireland’s political future is in question. In an election March 1, the Unionist Party won 28 seats while Sinn Fein got 27. No other party won more than 12 seats. It took three days for all of the votes to be counted, a result of the province’s complicated proportional representation system.

The system calls for a joint administration in which the leaders of the two largest parties form a government. One leader serves as first minister and the other as deputy first minister. Unfortunately, relations between Sinn Fein and the Unionist Party have deteriorated to the point that few observers believe such a government is realistic.

Let us assume there is no deal. In that case, Northern Ireland will be ruled from London. This would undermine the Good Friday Agreement that ended “the Troubles” — the bloody fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland throughout the 1990s. The Good Friday Agreement was critical to bringing stability to Belfast and the Northern provinces.

If Northern Ireland remains part of the U.K., there will be tremendous economic uncertainty as a result of Brexit. Most observers believe the result will be a sluggish economy for the North. Goods from the EU will be harder to find and cost more. Recognizing these possibilities, trade unions, business groups and social organizations banded together to get the two most important political groups to work together. The alternative for the North would be chaos. Everything would depend on London, which has other priorities. The two parties tried to set up such an arrangement last year, but it collapsed and cost the taxpayers nearly $1 billion.

Unless a solution is found, some fear the region could find itself back in the days of the “Troubles.” In the March 1 election, the Unionists lost their 10-seat lead, but the Unionist leader, Ms. Foster, refused to step down. Sinn Fein wants power. Its leader, Gerry Adams, said, “We are not quieting down one second.” He also made clear that Sinn Fein is committed to Northern Ireland’s political institutions, and in practical terms that means the last election.

The Irish have suffered long enough. Neither Catholics nor Protestants want to experience another round of assassinations or random explosions.

Most observers believe that about the only road out of the current mess is union of the North and South with some sort of a special relationship for Ireland both in the European Union and with the U.K. It is not clear, however, that the Irish are yet prepared for that. One can only hope and pray that Ireland does not experience a new form of the “Troubles.” Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired U. S. diplomat and Navy captain.

“Most observers believe that about the only road out of this mess is union of the North and South with some sort of a special relationship for Ireland both in the European Union and with the U.K.”

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