Brexit: Uncertainty remains as UK formally leaves European Union
After 47 years of membership, the UK officially departed from the EU at 11pm on Friday night past.
The move follows 3 years of negotiations that saw the EU and UK come to serious blows over a number of outstanding issues, including the Irish border. The historic occasion was marked by protests organised by local anti-brexit residents who continue to voice their concerns about what the future will hold for the North, particularly its border communities.
In a video message released by Downing Street just hours before the withdrawal, Boris Johnson described Brexit as the “dawn of a new era” which will “unleash the full potential” of the UK. The Prime Minister, who led the 2016 referendum’s ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, acknowledged that there would be “bumps in the road” and that it was his responsibility “to bring this country together now and take us forward.” The juncture was also lauded by his fellow Leave campaigner and leader of the Brexit party Nigel Farage, who described it as “the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation” at celebrations in Parliament Square outside Westminster. Similar triumphal events were hosted across the UK, including a public gathering at the front gates of Stormont organised by South Down DUP MLA Jim Wells.
Closer to home, however, the exit has been received with a more worrisome tone. Hundreds of anti-brexit activists descended on six border locations on Friday night, including at Carrickcarnon on the Armagh/Louth crossing above the dual carriageway. Addressing the large crowd, representatives from Border Communities Against Brexit (BCAB) demanded that NI continue to have a voice in European politics. “Today we meet all the parties at Stormont and one of the things we would like to impress upon them is the urgent need for both the Executive in Stormont and the Irish government to address the issue of representation for communities”, remarked local businessman and BCAB spokesperson Declan Fearon. “We are entitled to be represented in Europe, we are still part of the single market, and we should have that representation at the table, even in an advisory role” he added. A number of high-ranking EU politicians, including chief Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt, have shown a willingness to facilitate this request.
Indeed, the BCAB group has proved quite successful in driving the campaign to ensure no border roads would be closed in the wake of Brexit. They spearheaded this not only through the organisation of protests and the placement of billboards, but also by raising awareness of the issue with national and international media outlets over the last few years. Yet, the group took care to warn that Brexit was far from a settled issue and that there remained the threat of a harmful no-deal Brexit as further negotiations begin. Local farmer Seamus McDonnell shared these concerns at the rally: “We will be left in limbo here for the next 11 months because we don’t know if there will be a hard border, soft border or no deal. No one knows. I don’t think Boris Johnson knows yet.”
Local Sinn Féin politician and Stormont Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, who was also present at the protest, aired his dismay at the North being withdrawn from the EU despite voting to Remain, citing that local people remain fearful as to what consequences Brexit could have on them. The Newry Armagh MLA cautioned the South’s government “to be vigilant that the protocols that have been agreed by the British government are followed” going forward. His sentiments are shared by a number of other local parties. SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has spoken of the need for close cooperation between the UK and EU in order “to prevent further damage”. Across the divide, UUP leader Steve Aiken has warned that “Northern Ireland [has] already sustained enough collateral damage in the pursuit of an ideologically pure Brexit” and couldn’t afford anymore instability.
Despite this significant milestone in the Brexit process, the debacle is far from over as both sides now prepare to enter talks to establish an agreement for their future trading relationship. Boris Johnson has already spoken of his intention to impose a full set of customs and border checks on EU goods from next year, in a move he hopes will pressure Brussels into providing a satisfactory deal. On the other hand, however, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asserted last week that while he hoped a “good” deal for all sides could be reached, Ireland and the EU would be taking a firm stand for their own economic interests at the forthcoming negotiations.