As a young European, the idea of war in Europe has always seemed absurd to me. But now, the possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has reignited violence and highlights a fundamental flaw of the entire Brexit debate and negotiation process. The majority of people in Northern Ireland, who want a constructive and non-disruptive solution to the border issue, are misrepresented in both politics and public discourse.
At the 2016 Brexit referendum, 55.8 percent of Northern Irish people voted to remain in the European Union, and in some constituencies close to the border this portion was as high as 78 percent. Yet, Brexit might still derail their lives. A hard border between the two countries risks destroying the freedom of movement – the very essence of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which managed to end the violence of the Troubles.
Laura Kennedy, a young woman from Derry, a Northern Irish city close to the border, grew up knowing only open borders. But when the Republic of Ireland introduced limited border checks during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the early 2000s, she understood what a hard border would mean.
“It was nowhere as severe, there were no armed policemen, but even then, I remember it was very tense,” she said. “For my parents’ generation, it was a horrible reminder of how bad it had been.”
Even temporary disruptions to free movement proved traumatic to many locals because, in Northern Ireland, free movement means more than just having a holiday home on the seaside over the border.
The open border freed people from having to choose a side in the conflict and in doing so, managed to de-escalate tensions. People built new lives on this freedom, but now it is on the chopping block of Brexit hardliners. This has a simple reason: the voices of the moderate majority of Northern Irish are nowhere to be heard. Not in the U.K. government, not in their own (Northern Ireland doesn’t have a functioning government), and not in mainstream media.
Misrepresentation and Radicalization
The widespread fear is that a hard border could strengthen radical groups such as the New IRA. However, the underlying issue isn’t radicalism itself, but misrepresentation: a hard border would prove that the voice of the moderate majority most directly affected wasn’t heard. Radicalization is a logical consequence of misrepresentation.
“I know a lot of people that felt in the aftermath of Brexit, when Northern Ireland voted to remain and we still had to leave, that our voices weren’t being heard,” said Kennedy. “Even myself, I find myself getting more and more frustrated with the British government because I genuinely feel like we’re not being represented.”
While the Northern Irish clearly have a stake in the Brexit negotiations, they don’t have a seat at the table. Northern Ireland is currently holding the world record for the longest peacetime period without an elected government, which seriously damages their ability to stand up for their interests.
Democratic Unionist Party and Public Discourse
The Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, is the only Northern Irish actor in the Brexit negotiations. The highly partisan, pro-British, and pro-Brexit party is Northern Ireland’s largest party by a slight margin and props up Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government in the United Kingdom. That’s a convenient position to be in when you want your view on things to inform decision making.
The problem, however, isn’t merely political. Public discourse has been mesmerized by the potential resurgence of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, and indeed there have been attacks by splinter groups. On April 18, a Northern Irish journalist was killed during riots in Derry.
Too often, however, all of Northern Ireland is portrayed as a tinderbox that might light up at any moment. This means that the radical but tiny minority of those ready to use violence is exerting a disproportionate influence on the debate. Moderate voices are forced to react to a perceived threat instead of discussing their own vision of the future.
“We’re getting represented as this angry, violent population that hates England and wants absolutely nothing to do with it,” said Kennedy. “And that’s not the case.”
For the first time in my life, I can see a path that could lead to armed conflict within Europe. That there are groups willing to use violence is worrying, but the underlying issue of misrepresentation is a far greater danger – especially because few people are talking about it.
Brexit itself already is a failure, but the biggest failure is that our political representatives – and ourselves – refuse to simply listen.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.