Brexit Debacle And Its Impact On South African Expats

BREXIT UPDATE: deadlocked or good to go?

Rand Rescue has written numerous articles to cover the Brexit debacle and its impact on South Africa expats, but given the complexity of the situation, it’s a topic which definitely warrants further exploration.

From the outside, the issue seems to have morphed into a political Sophie’s Choice, with both the EU and UK having to choose between their metaphorical children.  We’ve already noted the Gibraltar tiff between the UK and Spain, but now it seems there’s an even bigger conundrum facing the two sides over the administration and authority of the Irish territories. More specifically—more specifically, their borders. 

Perhaps before jumping into the latest developments, it’s important to recap the Irish history and how it came to be that a country with one name could essentially become two nations with soft borders.

Whose border is it anyway?

There are many important developments in the UK and Ireland over the centuries, but for the sake of brevity and to get to the heart of the current crisis, we will mention only the key points.

Just over 100 years after the Normans invaded England, they landed on Irish shores in 1069. Their “reign” in Ireland would be limited for a long time to the northern part of Ireland around the area of Dublin, which came to be known as the Pale by 1500.  It’s important to note that during this entire time most of Ireland (especially to the south) were of catholic denomination, whereas the north, through the influence and resettlement of the English in that region, was becoming increasingly protestant.

During the 16th century, however, the English under the rule of Henry VIII started to break away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic church. This process would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation, or English Reformation. The reformation led to a significant spat between Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII, which would see Henry VIII denounce the Catholic Church entirely and proclaim himself head of the Church of England. The disagreement had not been due to some religious tiff as one would like to believe, but due to Henry seeking an annulment from his marriage from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry a Anne Boleyn, which Pope Clement VII forbid.

Oppressing the Catholics

After declaring himself Head of the Church, Henry sought to eliminate Catholic influence through all territories under his control, and enforced this oppression and suppression of Catholicism through military conquest. This conquest was to be quite devastating for most of Ireland, save for the northern region of Ulster which maintained independence. By the beginning of the 17th century a rebellion had ensued in Ulster, but given their relatively small numbers against England and its military power, Ulster was defeated and brought under English control. The defeat sent the last Gaelic leaders fleeing and made room for colonisation—with England sanctioning the confiscation of land from locals (catholics).

In a period known as the Plantation, English and Scottish protestant settlers were given land confiscated from Irish catholics in Ulster and other Irishs regions which was sanctioned by King James I. This was a deliberate move to oust any subsequent catholic uprising in the area. But, in fact,  it did the opposite, as the Plantation lead to an Irish uprising which was to coincide with the English Civil War at the time.

Not only did the uprising not yield the results the Irish Catholics had sought, but England dispatched Cromwell to Ireland who would massacre thousands of Catholic Irish for their insubordination and in retaliation for the deaths of Protestants during the latest uprising. Following this military campaign, Catholic land ownership was further reduced over a period of two decades from 59% to but 5-10%

After the English civil war, the 70% catholic majority in Ireland was further oppressed through laws which South Africans may find rather familiar. The English Penal Laws imposed on Ireland prohibited the Catholic Irish populace from land ownership, land inheritance, the political and educational systems, entering the legal profession and more.

Teyrnas Unedig Prydain Fawr a Gogledd Iwerddon (The United Kingdom)

Although Ireland still had its own Parliament through all these strifes, it was essentially ruled by England and in the 18th century even the protestant Irish had begun to campaign for greater Irish autonomy. A united Irish protestant and catholic rebellion began, but instead of gaining autonomy it led to the Act of Union 1800 which saw the abolishment of the Irish government and the inclusion of Ireland into Great Britain (which had been formed a century before through the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland).

The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom or Teyrnas Unedig Prydian Fawr a Gogledd (as it was known in Wales) was finally established—uniting Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales under one unitary parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. 

The Call for Home Rule

Since Ireland was now part of Great Britain, anti-Catholic measures were gradually lifted and eventually saw to the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act which repealed the last penal laws. Though Britain may have thought this a way to appease catholic agitation, it had, in some ways, only fuelled the Catholic fire of discontent. The Catholic Association evolved into the Repeal Association and began its campaign to repeal the Act of Union 1800, and to gain Irish sovereignty once more.

By the mid 19th century, many Irish were making a living from subsistence farming as tenants which, given that most farmers had less than five acres for farming and were responsible for maintaining their own land without compensation from landlords, meant that they were set up for failure from the get-go. This eventually led to the great potato famine after potato crops failed every consecutive year from 1845 to 1849. Over a million people died due to the famine and more than two million emigrated to other countries like the United States.

The combination of the Repeal Association’s efforts and outrage over the famine pushed the Irish to not only call for land reform, but for Home Rule which would kick the British out of Ireland. The efforts were motivated by Ulster Unionism which called the Irish to arms several times but to their own detriment. Their silver lining came in the form of their first successful Home Rule Bill in 1886 and eventually to the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905. Two successive Home Rule Bills were to follow over the next two decades and, were it not for World War I, Ireland may have seen its independence far sooner.

The birth of the IRA and two Irish states

Just before the passing of the last act, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was formed in 1919 on the eve of the Irish War of Independence. The army’s main goal was to force the British out of Northern Ireland and unite the country as one, once more. They led an unsuccessful rebellion which saw the execution of their leaders. This execution once more united the Irish in their pursuit of independence.

Due to the area’s demographics, which by this point consisted of mainly protestant immigrants and their descendants, however, there was widespread opposition against the cession enforced by the IRA.

Forced by Irish protest and opposition—especially violence from Michael Collins and the IRA—the British passed the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which divided Ireland in two and partitioned the country into two independent states which would still remain part of the UK.

Ironically, that decision by British rule were in many ways a Brexit of sorts. After the partition was actioned, the South decided to secede from the north and violent clashes were to follow.

And so began the official tale of Ireland versus Ireland. It came to pass that the British sanctioned the split and polarisation of Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Instead of creating harmony, however, the decision create a definitive border and pressured all of Ireland to choose a side.

The Trouble with The Troubles

The official clash of North versus South in Ireland is known as “The Troubles”. The problem with Britain partitioning the country was that this was not the outcome which had been sought by the IRA. They had sought a united Ireland free from british rule, not a divided Ireland still governed by Britain.

You see, despite the Government of Ireland Act, the fact that Home Rule had failed four times saw an ensuing Civil War in Ireland which was eventually “stopped” by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The treaty allowed for a self-governing Irish Free State and allowed Northern Ireland to either opt in or out of the free state. Northern Ireland opted out.

The North’s decision to remain under British rule led to a renewed hostilities and civil war. The violent clashes were concentrated in the north between unionists and nationalists.

A Civil War ensued in Ireland as those who sanctioned the Free State clashed against those who believed in British rule. Once more, it was catholic against protestant, Irish against Irish. And as before, the protestant-catholic clashes were mainly centred in the north.

Na Trioblóidí – the Troubles in a nutshell

In popular culture the world was led to dub The Northern Ireland Conflict or “The Troubles” a religious clash, but that is not the case at all. Though the division had been greatly split in the middle between protestant and catholic groups, this comes down to the locality of the groups since both the protestant and catholic Irish had—at the start of The Troubles—been rooted in the country for centuries.

It is said that The Troubles was therefore more political and nationalistic than religious.

The Troubles pitted the North (and predominantly protestant) with British heritage and affiliation against the South (and predominantly catholic) who wished to finally be free of British rule and sought a united Ireland.

It all started with a campaign by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to end discrimination against catholic nationalists. The authorities attempted to suppress the campaign and was accused of police brutality sparking widespread riots in August 1969. British troops were deployed to the area and what followed was three decades of clashes which devastated Ireland.

Though there had been rioting on Irish shores for ages, none was so consequential as the August 1969 riots. The violence persisted and peaked in 1972 which was Ireland bloodiest year of the conflict. A particular noteworthy event was Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972 when thirteen unarmed civilians were killed by the British military at a rally.

The remaining decade would see numerous attempts at a ceasefire and agreements, but this would all be thwarted during the 1981 hunger strike where ten prominent republican prisoners died of starvation and conflict was once more incited. The 80s would see several bombings throughout Ireland by both Irish and British loyalists.

By the early 90s, the IRA’s military wing, Sinn Fein, had begun campaigning for negotiations to end the conflict.

The first ceasefires occurred in 1994, but the ceasefire was thwarted by the IRA in 1996 with the Docklands bombing. Several other bombings were to follow, including the Manchester bombing which was to be the largest bombing in the UK since World War II.

A second ceasefire was called in 1997, and was followed shortly by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

What was the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement was about more than a ceasefire or maintaining peace between north and south. In many ways the agreement was one of the most pivotal agreements in world history.

The agreement states, among other things, that the people of Northern Ireland are free to choose their citizenship—whether Irish or British. The Agreement further sanctioned the drawing up of an All-Ireland Charter of Rights, which means that both north and south would have the same legislature for the most part.

The agreement further supported the Common Travel Area Arrangements (CTA) which allows or free movement rights on the island of Ireland as well as between the island and Britain. Over time, the CTA evolved into something more—with reciprocal travel, work and other entitlements for both Irish and British in both countries.

Since both the UK and Ireland were part of the EU, the CTA has at times been indistinguishable from the free movement provisions of the EU. Since the Good Friday Agreement underpins that the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland be the same as those in Ireland, the extension is that the EU, in upholding the GFA, could uphold that Northern Ireland not break away from Ireland in any legal way since both the north and south are subject to the fundamental rights jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the European Union (‘the CJEU’).

How will Brexit impact Ireland?

With the UK having chosen to exit from the EU without much input from the EU, the Union is more than reluctant to grant the UK any kind of special deals or treatment in the wake of their exit. In unofficial terms, the sentiment from the EU seems to be one of “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”.

The prime minister of Luxembourg had put it rather succinctly earlier this month by stating that Brexit was the UK’s idea, not the EU’s and implying that the EU really owes them nothing.

The problem with the Irish border in terms of Brexit is the soft border which had been put in place when the north and south finally made their peace in 1998 on the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. For with Northern Ireland being a UK territory and the Republic of Ireland being part of the EU, a soft border would not quite suffice when it comes to customs and trade regulations. But with Northern Ireland no longer being part of the EU, such regulations are a given in a way.

And then there is that issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s legal systems being intrinsically bound by the Good Friday Agreement.

A “backstop” had been suggested which would guarantee open borders between the north and south, but the UK and EU are bumping heads over the matter.

The EU had proposed a special regulatory deal for Northern Ireland which would allow for “special treatment” of the region and its border with the Republic of Ireland. Prime Theresa May had made it clear, however, that she would not allow Northern Ireland to have any regulatory distinction to the rest of the UK as this would require newly established “borders” in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Britain which Downing Street has no intention of manning. Nor is the UK willing to have EU staff at their ports.

The EU, on the other hand, is clear on its stance that it could not allow the free flow of goods from the UK via Northern Ireland or the Irish sea into the EU. For the “soft border” to remain between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a regulatory border will need to be placed elsewhere. And that elsewhere is the Irish Sea.

And on the far end of the spectrum, hard-line Brexiteers are completely aghast at any type of negotiation. Such pro-Brexit individuals are of the same opinion as most of the EU—wanting a complete severance of any connection to the customs union as soon as possible.

Chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, stated that the UK’s attempts to keep themselves within the EU regulations and customs while they want to exit the EU is no solution at all and though both the UK and EU had agreed on maintaining a soft border between the north and south of Ireland, they cannot seem to agree on the terms of the backstop after the transition period ends in 2020. 

For Ireland, the border debacle is about more than regulations and customs, however. For a “country” (or countries) which has struggled to maintain its peace for centuries, any changes to its border and agreements between south and north could prove devastating and catapult the two nations back into a civil war.

Consider other factors at play, for instance. Such as the two nations having all-Ireland “national” teams which represents Ireland on the world stage. Such factors have sparked debate over Ireland unifying once more and dissing the UK completely. It seemed possible given that more than half of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, but most people believe this is but a pipe dream.

People like Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald don’t necessarily agree with the assertion that a united Ireland after Brexit is a fantasy. Sinn Fein is of the mind that the British have, to date, completely ignored the plight of Ireland in their Brexit negotiations and believe that an Irish Unification Poll is most definitely on the cards and McDonald stated that such a referendum is not a matter of “if” but “when”.

But if Ireland has proven anything over the centuries, it’s that unity may be even harder to come by than any kind or amount of backstops concocted by the UK and EU. Not only will a unification carry exorbitant costs, but the hard-won tentative peace between both sides of the border is still a fragile one. Divisiveness is unfortunately still at play. Irish unionists and protestants still recoil at the thought of a unified Ireland given their loyalty to Britain, whereas catholics both north and south of the border remember the persecution which they faced as one nation.  And yet the Belfast Agreement had made it clear that although Northern Ireland wanted to remain part of the UK, both the north and south wished for unification.

So what’s the solution?

Well, given that the UK and EU can’t find agreement on possible solutions no matter how hard they try, we can surely not comment on a quick-fix to allay everyone’s fears over Brexit and its implications for travel, citizenship, customs, economy or any other topic of concern for those within and outside UK borders.

Some have suggested a second referendum. This may have seemed absurd at some point not too long ago (especially given that it was supported by pundits like Tony Blair), but many believe that the deadlocked negotiations can only be solved through a second vote or, as the Washington Post calls it “History’s Greatest Do-Over”. Theresa May is stern on her stance that a second referendum is not a possibility at all and has stated that she would rather consider resigning should British MP’s vote in favour of a second referendum than allow such a move.

Whether the two giants will eventually be able to manage a deal or remain unmoved by the opposition remains to be seen.

As for Ireland, well, the question remains whether the Irish will unite in their common pursuit of open borders or whether the north and south will part ways for the last time.

Keep a close watch on your Rand Rescue news as we bring you more updates in 2019!

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