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NI as seen from Brussels

Last September, during her State of the Union speech in the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen made reference to former leader of the SDLP, John Hume.

“If so many people in Ireland live in peace today on the island of Ireland,” she said, “it is in large part because of his unwavering belief in humanity and conflict resolution. He used to say that conflict was about difference and that peace was about respect for difference.

“And as he so rightly reminded this House in 1998: “The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is the essence of humanity””.

That a Nationalist from Northern Ireland could inspire the head of the European Commission in 2020 tells you something about where sympathies lie in Brussels when it comes to what we in Ireland euphemistically refer to as ‘the National Question’.

It has often been said that Unionism has few friends globally. If the same is true in Brussels, it is largely down to the fact that the DUP rarely missed a chance to repeat pro-Brexit slogans and to lecture the EU generally about its shortcomings in ‘aggressive’ terms.

I spoke to MEPs and officials in preparation for this article and there is certainly a sympathy for reunification. There is an awareness that the European Council has made it clear that unity will trigger full membership of the EU for a united Ireland along the same lines as Germany in 1990. In practical terms, it would mean additional MEPs and Ireland would leapfrog Finland, Denmark, Bulgaria and Slovakia in population terms.

One official told me that he sees Brexit as leading inevitably to the correction of ‘an historical mistake’ - the partition of Ireland. The same official and many others hold the view that the problems of the Protocol and many others would be corrected with reunification.

This does give rise to concerns about ensuring that all communities in Northern Ireland are properly understood in Brussels as the impact of future EU legislation becomes clearer.

Fianna Fail is a republican political party and aspires through its platform and candidates to bring about the unity of the island of Ireland. For many years, the details of that aspiration didn’t require any further elaboration.

However, Brexit, demographics and even Covid have all contributed to bringing the discussion forward. Presently, the Irish Government’s focus is not so much on uniting the territory of the island as it is on uniting the people. That is a correct approach but it can’t ignore the fact that in Brussels, as elsewhere, debate on the nature of Irish unity has already started.

Some MEPs do not see unity as inevitable.

One MEP made the following very interesting remark. “Having read more about the Protocol I thought it had the potential to solidify support for the current constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland. Having a foot in both camps has the potential to bring prosperity to Northern Ireland for the first time. I didn’t expect Unionism to beat a path to Brussels to strategise ways to take advantage of the new position. But I thought there might be a more pragmatic approach than has been the case so far.”

It is true that the issue of identity in the Good Friday Agreement (British and Irish) is mirrored economically in the Protocol (British and European).

Polling in Northern Ireland consistently showed that a hard Brexit would lead to greater support for a united Ireland. Unionism does not seem to have considered that making the Protocol work might help their cause.

This view that the Protocol and the post-Brexit settlement generally offers a lifeline to Unionism is not widely held.

In fact, most MEPs and officials don’t think so deeply about the situation at all.

Most of us recall the endless visits to Irish border towns from EU officials and politicians after 2016 as the Irish Government sought to impress upon the decision makers how complex the situation was and how important was the constitutional architecture created by the Good Friday Agreement. MEPs, who have visited, said they were ‘taken aback’ or that it was an ‘eye-opener’ when referring to the divisions in the North.

This underlines a problem for the future operation of the Protocol. I have consistently raised the need for more ‘connective tissue’ between Brussels and Belfast. In Brussels, the job of interpreting Northern Ireland in the European Parliament will fall to the 13 Irish MEPs. For most of us, encouraging the European institutions to appreciate the sensitivities of life for the all communities that live in Northern Ireland is just as important as representing Nationalism.

We don’t want a repeat of the attempt to trigger Article 16.

The role of the European Union in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland has been much discussed although not always well understood. It is difficult to quantify. Darren Litter, a PhD candidate in QUB, wrote a good piece last month on the role of the European Council in helping bring about agreement in 1985 and in 1998. He quotes John Major who said, “the peace process in Ireland actually began in private discussions with Albert Reynolds in the margins of the European Council”.

There is a widespread view in Brussels that this proximity will be sorely missed if tensions continue to rise.

In my short time in the Brussels bubble, I have learnt that Northern Ireland is not fully understood in Brussels any more than it is fully understood in Dublin or London. One MEP speculated that the negative economic impact of Brexit might convince Unionists that their future would be better in a united Ireland - something I very much doubt. Northern Ireland has lagged far behind every other region of the UK for decades without undermining Unionism.

There is little appreciation for ideas like ‘parallel consent’ or the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Island’ vision. The emergence of a significant part of the population of Northern Ireland identifying as neither Unionist nor Nationalist is not understood despite Naomi Long winning a seat for the Alliance Party in the 2019 European Parliament elections. The vulnerability of the DUP to the TUV in next year’s Assembly elections would not be something that has registered in Brussels.

Finally, there is an appetite in Brussels to develop closer ties with Belfast and the Northern Ireland Assembly, knowing that the Assembly will have to vote on whether to rollover the Protocol in 4 years time. In the medium term, that will be a far more consequential vote than a border poll.

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