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Northern Ireland after Brexit

By Jennifer M. Ramos and Victoria Graf

The expected upheaval in Northern Ireland this year was to be centered on the 100-year anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising and its legacy—whether it would instigate more violence than usual during the year, particularly during marching season when mostly Unionists (namely, Protestants) and some Nationalists (namely, Catholics) proudly parade through their sections of town, recalling their history, traditions, and old wounds. Yet, this year of all years, the 100th anniversary took place within the broader context of the U.K. vote on European Union membership. Rather than the Irish Tricolor providing fuel for the bonfires on July 12 (the climax of marching season), more than anything, the financial consequences of the surprise Brexit outcome could put peace building in jeopardy.

Though the U.K. voted to opt out of the European Union, the majority of citizens (56 percent) in Northern Ireland voted to stay in. From a practical angle, this is not surprising. Northern Ireland receives a great deal of funds directly from the European Union. A large part of the EU budget is devoted to agriculture—a source of funding highly relevant to Northern Ireland, which receives 350 million pounds per year for this purpose. Moreover, as Glenda Davies, the strategic development manager for the Sandy Row Community Forum in Belfast explains, “A lot of key government infrastructure projects are reliant on EU structural funds to shore up the capital financing to undertake the works … the Northern Ireland Executive has built a number of key programs within their current mandate around investment from Europe.”

Perhaps most important in this post-conflict society are EU funds spent educating the youth and future leaders, as recognized by the EU PEACE IV initiative of January 2016. This is a continuation of funding for PEACE programs in Northern Ireland since 1995, so far totaling 1.3 billion euros. This series of programs is designed to primarily support peace and reconciliation, and social and economic stability both in Northern Ireland and in the Border Region of Ireland. The latest program, PEACE IV, began earlier this year with a major focus on providing opportunities for the youth of Ireland and Northern Ireland, including support for religious diversity in the classroom.  

For many years, the vast majority of students in Northern Ireland have been educated along religious lines: Catholic children go to Catholic schools, and Protestant children attend Protestant schools. The result is that over 90 percent of schools are segregated based on religious background. Together with the fact that families live in similarly segregated communities, it is not uncommon for students of different faith backgrounds to never meet until they go to university. This educational segregation based on the faith background of the student has perpetuated the stigma of the “other” and has resulted in ongoing misunderstanding among the communities, sometimes resulting in violence even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which formally ended the conflict in Northern Ireland.  

Education is slowly being recognized as the key to communities coming together in deeper mutual understanding. Seven percent of students are enrolled in “integrated” schools, which accept any student regardless of their faith, gender, or academic ability. In particular, these schools try to provide a balance of Protestants and Catholics in the classroom. Yet in this post-conflict, deeply segregated society, fully integrated schools are still uncomfortable for many. As a way to work within this context, Queen’s University Belfast developed the Shared Education program in 2007, in which students from different faith schools have largely separate curricula but “share” some classes together, thereby increasing intercommunity contact in a positive environment. Now with Brexit, funding for these types of programs may be in jeopardy and the momentum for collaboration and understanding among the communities may come to a standstill. So, while the vote to leave Europe is not an immediate death sentence for the peace, the financial fallout could be.

With the youth unemployment rate already at over 20 percent, and drug and related crimes increasing, it is important for Northern Ireland to make sure it can continue funding these critical programs. Conor Houston, program director for the Centre for Democracy and Peace (Northern Ireland), is hopeful: “The initial signs are positive.” He points to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s prioritization of the economy and social investment funding, and the business organizations “calling for a closer partnership between the business community and the Northern Ireland Executive” to move the country forward. However, Philip Orr, playwright, historian, and chair of Mediation Northern Ireland, is a bit more cautious: ”It’s the long-term power of commercial and personal interactions that matters, less than the single issue of Brexit per se, yet you never know … there are so many unknowns.” One thing does seem certain, though: If funding does not continue for critical programs like the PEACE IV and its future iterations, a sustainable peace will remain elusive for Northern Ireland.   

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Jennifer M. Ramos is an associate professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.

Victoria Graf is a professor of primary and secondary education at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of Albert Bridge]

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