Uncertainty seems to be the only one thing that’s certain today. It’s a situation that’s relatively recent for those of us living in the United States, but it has been a way of life for those in Northern Ireland for over forty years. Now, with the Brexit vote and more recent events, this notion of uncertainty is top-of-mind once again in Ireland.
On June 23, 2016, voters in the United Kingdom went to the polls to cast a historic vote: should the UK leave the European Union? The decision: a leave vote. But the vote did not prescribe the policies of exit and many were left with questions that over a year later still remain unanswered. One such question: what will happen in Ireland?
The peace in Northern Ireland remains fragile to this day. During the 1970s and 1980s, my father, Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. advocated strongly for Irish peace alongside Senator Daniel Moynihan of New York, Governor Hugh Carey of New York and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Together these influential Irish-American, Catholic politicians, dubbed the Four Horsemen, condemned the violence taking place in Ireland and condemned the financial backing of the IRA by U.S. citizens. Thanks to the commitment of these men there was a significant shift toward a peaceful resolution and ultimately a historic ceasefire in 1994. Slowly the border barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland broke down and people began to pass freely.
Today, many fear that peace may be threatened by the impending consequences of Brexit and the recent actions of British Prime Minister Theresa May. While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein remain the two prominent parties in Northern Ireland, both groups have seen a generational shift which has changed both parties’ earlier platforms. Over the last thirty years both parties have become more tempered in their beliefs allowing for a further push towards peace on the island.
With the recent deal between May and the DUP, new tensions are emerging between the two parties. The vote last year to leave the EU and the recent UK snap election that demonstrated the lack of support for Prime Minister May forced an impasse. In an attempt to keep majority support in Parliament, May went to Northern Ireland’s DUP and established a “confidence and supply” deal. In it, the DUP pledged to throw its support behind the Conservatives in exchange for €1.1 billion in extra funding. As an active part of Parliament and a significant influencer in Northern Ireland, this did not sit well with Sinn Fein, which had already faced conflict with the DUP having been on opposite sides of the Brexit vote. While plans for the €1.1 billion are not yet public, one can only hope that this significant increase in funding is going toward areas such as education to better prepare citizens for the economic shift that will certainly occur following the EU and UK split.
I am confident that common sense will prevail in Ireland. No one wishes to return to a time of violence, unrest, division, and restrictive borders. While there will likely be constraints on trade and travel between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it is doubtful that a physical border will be reinstated.
It is essential for those spearheading the EU and UK talks to remain level-headed and reasonable when discussing this sensitive issue. In this time of uncertainty all we can be sure of is Ireland is one island and peace must remain.