Northern Ireland’s first minister-elect says that Scotland and Northern Ireland should reconsider independence from the UK in the aftermath of the 2016 decision to leave the European Union.
At an event hosted by the National Press Club in Washington, Michelle O’Neill—a member of the pro-Northern Irish independence Sinn Fein party—said Brexit was “never compatible” with the Good Friday Agreement that brokered a peace between Irish unionists and separatists in the second half of the 20th century.
Although the voters of England and Wales supported the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, the move was far less popular in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Northern Ireland and Scotland, O’Neill suggested, should reconsider independence so that they can remain in the EU, which grants its members certain economic and commercial privileges.
Northern Ireland grappled in the 20th century with about 30 years of internecine warfare between Irish separatists, supporting Irish independence from the UK, and unionists, who supported a continued union with the UK. Known as “the Troubles” in Ireland, the period from the 1960s to 1998 was marked by guerrilla warfare between unionists and separatists, acts of terrorism, and general social distrust.
The Troubles were brought to an end in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which put in place a power-sharing arrangement between the Irish republican separatists and the unionists. This year, the Good Friday Agreement celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Under the terms of the agreement, power in Northern Ireland is shared between unionists and republicans. Specifically, this means that representatives from both sides of the dispute have to share power in the government.
Ongoing disputes between O’Neill’s Sinn Fein party, which opposes Brexit, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports Brexit, mean that O’Neill has been unable to form a government despite being elected to the post in May 2022.
Consequently, Northern Ireland has been without a true executive figurehead for nearly a year now.
The 2016 referendum to leave the EU inflamed political passions in Northern Ireland again after decades of tranquility.
Only in England and Wales did a majority of voters express the wish to leave the EU. The decision to leave the EU, which would revoke the free trade laws governing EU member states, was least popular in Scotland, where 62 percent of the population voted to remain. The move was the second least popular in Northern Ireland, where 56 percent of voters said the UK should remain in the EU.
However, the DUP disagrees with the Windsor protocol, a trade agreement between Northern Ireland, the UK, and the EU that seeks to clarify Northern Ireland’s economic relationship with the UK and EU. The DUP has demanded reconsideration of the Windsor protocol before it will agree to the formation of a government with Sinn Fein.
O’Neill said she has her own disagreements with the Windsor protocol but was overall laudatory of the deal.
“[The Windsor protocol] in itself mitigates against the worst impact of Brexit on our island,” O’Neill said.
She told the audience that the deal does “a number of fundamental things,” including protecting the Good Friday peace, ensuring Northern Irish access to both UK and EU markets, and avoiding the creation of a “hard” border on the Irish island. Currently, Irish citizens from both of the island’s two states can freely travel between the two despite their divided political governance.
“[Brexit has been the] root cause of the political and economic problems that we have,” O’Neill said.
She criticized the UK government, which she said had failed to respect the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit’s impact on that agreement.
Past referendum efforts at independence for Northern Ireland and Scotland have been rejected by voters of the two nations.
In 1973, for instance, 98.9 percent of Northern Irish voters voted in favor of remaining in the UK.
In 2014, Scotland held a referendum to leave the UK, but this vote failed to garner the support needed for a political separation. About 55 percent of Scottish voters rejected independence, with 45 percent in favor.