How the EU has Changed Politics in Northern Ireland

The twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has been overshadowed by questions concerning the Irish border and the relationship between the North and South of Ireland in the wake of Brexit. Patrick Utz reflects on the volatile relationship between Northern Ireland’s communities and European integration.

Northern Ireland joined the European Communities at the height of the Troubles in 1973 alongside the rest of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. At this stage, the governments in London and Dublin entered the EEC for mainly economic purposes. Dublin’s subsequent Europhoria that helped it emancipate politically and economically from the UK was then merely a vague avant-garde aspiration. In the North of Ireland, the main political groups that were trying to come to terms with the collapse of Stormont and Sunningdale held, at best, a flawed position on European integration. 

The SDLP was, in its initial phase, plagued by the partly-contradictory legacies of the civil rights movement, rural Catholicism and working-class radicalism. The latter tradition was, not unlike their Labour counterpart in Britain, sceptical of pan-European capitalist market integration. It was only when John Hume emerged as the undisputed mastermind of the SDLP in the late 1970s, that his party adopted a clear pro-European profile.

The Ulster Unionists of the time were equally split. However, the division within their camp ran between a small Euro-pragmatic business community and a considerably bigger traditionalist faction that deemed the EEC a threat to British identity and sovereignty.

At the margins of the political spectrum, the European Communities were rejected on the basis of the “satanic power” that kept the Catholic-dominated market together (Ian Paisley) or because they were thought of as a “rich club of former colonial powers” (Sinn Féin).

The peace process of the 1990s led to a qualitative leap in Northern Ireland-EU relations. John Hume’s vision of reconciliation modelled after the post-WWII transformation of Franco-German relations seemed more realistic after the abolition of customs checks on the Irish border and the ceasefires of the major armed groups in the region. Simultaneously, the EU’s PEACE funds injected money into cross-community and cross-border projects.

Moreover, the devolved institutions that emerged from the Good Friday Agreement opened up new avenues through which Northern Irish politicians could interact with Brussels. The effects of these interactions (and indeed of the power-sharing institutions themselves) might be questionable. Yet, the pursuit of common regional interests, not least in the agricultural sector, has been interpreted as an incipient Europeanization of Northern Irish politics and a tentative rapprochement of unionists’ and nationalists’ interests at the supranational stage.

These changes have also contributed to new interpretations of the European project by Northern Irish political elites: The DUP came to acknowledge the financial benefits of EU membership, the UUP set out for a new “Euro-realist” approach, and Sinn Féin shifted from rejection of to “critical engagement” in the EU.

This incipient convergence around a more pragmatic approach to Europe, however, was brought to a halt, when leavers and remainers in Northern Ireland largely aligned around the old communal divide in the wake of the Brexit vote.

On the unionist side, this led to a rollback of the embryonic endorsement of Europe by the DUP and its commendation of the most hard-line Brexit rhetoric. Hitherto, the more business-minded and pragmatic factions within their ranks seem to have been muted.

All-the-more deteriorated by their electoral decline, the main architects of the Good Friday Agreement are struggling to get their messages across. The UUP is now less Eurosceptic than in previous years. Yet their broad-church approach, not only in European affairs, has paved the way for the DUP’s success. Similarly, the SDLP has a hard time finding its pro-European niche in the nationalist community, given Sinn Féin’s new-found love for the EU.

The latter seem, at least on the surface, to have overcome their long-standing rejection of the neo-liberal superpower, which they used to blame for allegedly undermining Irish sovereignty and military neutrality. In the light of future barriers on the Irish border (technological or not) and the potential hollowing out of EU citizens’ rights in the UK, this strategy obviously pays off in elections in the North. In the South, however, Sinn Féin has moved closer to the pro-EU consensus that has existed there since the country’s accession, and the electoral implications of this change remain to be seen.

Forty-five years after EEC accession and twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Irish nationalism in all its guises has converged on a pro-European consensus that might supersede some of the long-standing internal divisions within this tradition. Yet, the pre-condition for this convergence seems to have been a reinvigorated and staunchly anti-European British nationalism. The multi-layered and pragmatic approaches to national and European identities that loomed in the 1990s are increasingly hard to find on the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary.


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Patrick Utz's picture
post by Patrick Utz
University of Edinburgh
11th April 2018
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