The EU and Soft Power in Northern Ireland

By Sander Mulder

On June 23rd, 2016, 55,8% of the Northern Irish population voted in favour of remaining within the European Union. However, the discussion about the border with Ireland has become one of the most controversial elements of the Brexit negotiations. Even though the British government wants one single market policy, thus creating a barrier between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the European Union insists on having a backstop option – a temporary open border – in the case negotiations fail.

At this moment, it is hard to say what the final consensus will be. The biggest fear on all sides – the British, Irish and European – is that a change of the current status quo will reignite violent clashes in Northern Ireland. The recent past has shown that these fears are not irrational. During the late 1960s until the early 1990s, a period known as the Troubles, tensions often escalated into protests, paramilitary assassinations, and other violent acts. The conflict revolved around the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, where Protestant Unionists wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and Catholic Nationalists wanted succession to the Republic of Ireland. In total, almost 3500 people lost their lives during the Troubles, making it one of the deadliest post-World War II conflicts in Europe.

In 1998, parties signed the Good Friday Agreement. Besides reaching an agreement on the governmental structure of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, the agreement also gave all citizens of Northern Ireland the right to both an Irish and a British passport and ensured free travel between the two countries. A no-deal Brexit may complicate the situation, since a hard border will put pressure on this Common Travel Area. Former British Prime Minister, and one of the main negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair shares this concern when he stated that a no-deal Brexit would be ‘devastating’ for the Good Friday Agreement and the general peace process in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland and the EU

The European Union has had an important role in the negotiations and aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Since Ireland and the UK both joined the EU in the 1970s, the Troubles were inherently part of the internal political stability and security of the EU. At that time, the other political leaders chose an indirect approach towards the Northern Irish problem, showing their influence through the political process and use of the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (PEACE) fund.

The PEACE fund, mostly designed for supporting local initiatives, had some clear European references as well. This included, for instance, the hope that it would help developing […] the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.’ PEACE I, running from 1995 until 1999, was a success;after that, the PEACE programme got extended three times, adding up to a total of almost $1.5 billion in funds in 2018. 

As mentioned, PEACE I and II were partly designed to increase the sense of a European identity. However, for citizens of Northern Ireland, social-economic problems such as segregated housing and education were more urgent issues. For example, in the Northern Irish city of Belfast, more than 50 per cent of the population lives and works in areas where over 90 per cent have the same religious background. A negative side effect of this local segregation – be it in terms of housing, education, or employment – is that it caused violence by eroding interethnic contact, trust and friendship. 

PEACE III and IV were created specifically to address these issues. This example shows that the EU is most effective in its soft power role, asserting influence through the use of socio-economic funds. It can even be said that in this case, Northern Ireland survives by the direct financial involvement of the EU.

The Janus-faced fate of the EU in Northern Ireland

Even though the EU has done a lot of good for Northern Ireland, one important element is not mentioned explicitly: the European Union is actually the implicit facilitator of the whole Good Friday Agreement. The execution of important elements of the agreement, for instance regarding dual citizenship and free movement of peoples and goods, are dependent on the European Union providing the political and legal framework through which these goals can be achieved. Since both parties were part of that framework as members of the European Union, everything managed itself. Both the hard security implications and soft power of the PEACE funds face an uncertain future. British and other European politicians should not forget the complex entanglement of the EU, Britain and Ireland in Northern Ireland, something that is not untangled that easily without risks of reinvoking the past.

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