Although the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Community at the height of the Northern Irish conflict, the European Union and its predecessor merely played a footnote in the history of the war and its transformation. This changed almost overnight when the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. Northern Ireland and its post-Brexit fate became headline news around the globe.
Politicians and journalists in continental Europe were puzzled about why Brexit had happened and why Northern Ireland became a stumbling block in the negotiations. Most European journalists had never set foot into Northern Ireland. The few media companies and national broadcasters who keep foreign correspondents on their payroll have London offices covering both islands.
If these correspondents are among the handful of veterans, they had visited Belfast for the last time in April and May 1998, and some returned for a day in 2005 after the IRA decommissioning. Still, most younger journalists only knew Northern Ireland from the stories of older colleagues and archival footage.
Sent by editors to cover the main Brexit story occupying European media for years – the dangers of a hard border through Ireland – they found themselves standing on an empty field somewhere in counties Louth or Monaghan, informing a somehow shocked European audience how it is for farmers to have their cattle in the EU while their farm is outside of it.
The message of the correspondents who had just spent the first day of their lives in Northern Ireland was clear. Either there is the Brexit that Brussels wants or a return to war. The audience listened and so did the politicians.
Both options were wrong. With or without a border, there was never to be a return to war, not because of a special arrangement for Northern Ireland, red or green lanes, or the colour of your passport, but because the people of Northern Ireland do not want armed conflict any longer.
Agency was taken away from the people of Northern Ireland, thus foreign correspondents told the world that the war might return because of Brexit. Instead of listening to the people, a sense of triumphalism prevailed: Northern Ireland must be taken out of the post-Brexit UK, otherwise there will be a hard border and war.
This message suited Brussels. Northern Ireland remained a pawn in the larger game – of the English nationalists who took over the Tories under Boris Johnson and the hardliners in the Brussels negotiation team who wanted to teach the UK a lesson so that Hungary, Italy or any other EU members will not dare to follow the Brexit example.
For Northern Irish Unionists, Brexit is not about red or green lanes. It is about identity and their place in the UK. This situation could have been avoided in 2016, the continental Europe triumphalism was also noticed in Belfast and positions hardened.
Eventually, London and Brussels learned their lessons, leading to the signing of the Windsor Framework earlier this year – a far reaching agreement. Unfortunately, however, it was probably too late. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continues to boycott Stormont, backed by the vast majority of their voters as recent opinion polls suggest.
Fifty years after Ireland and the UK joined the European Community and 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is stuck in a political cul-de-sac. Politicians in London and Brussels need to stop using Northern Ireland as a pawn in their game.
The future has already started in Northern Ireland. A majority voted to remain in the EU, the demographics have shifted, thus nationalists and republicans will be the strongest political block for coming decades. While many Unionists will see this as a threat, Dublin and Brussels should see it as an opportunity to start a discussion with Unionists and prepare for a united Ireland in which the identity and culture of the Unionist community is not threatened but embraced.
The EU can and must take a leading role in these conversations. If it manages to do so, it will move from being a footnote to an influential actor in Northern Irish politics. Instead, if the EU is unwilling to take this lead and carve out a positive place for Unionists in the future of Ireland, the province will remain stuck in its political deadlock with no working regional parliament in Stormont for the unforeseeable future.
To understand society, more needs to be done than just leaving your office in Brussels for a flying visit to a meeting in a Belfast innercity hotel or a trip from London to Derry in the aftermath of July 12 interface troubles.
Yet, that might differ from the story the correspondents in their London offices want to tell. After all, rioting youth, two petrol bombs and a burning bin on Easter Monday in Derry are better footage for the eight o’clock news and headlines for tomorrow’s papers than understanding the dynamics of society. It might not reflect Northern Irish society, but it is the story that still sells in Continental European newsrooms – and that is what pays the journalist’s bills.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.