Northern Ireland has lost its voice in the Brexit debacle.
Until late last week, I had absolutely no doubts about the decision our family made two years ago to leave New York for the United Kingdom. In my hometown of Belfast in Northern Ireland, we have been able to buy our own home, send our children to excellent local schools for free, and take advantage of our proximity to the European mainland to travel frequently. With that in mind, it's probably not a surprise that I voted to "Remain" in Europe in Thursday's referendum, as did my husband (a New Yorker with a British passport).
It was with an almost cavalier attitude that we walked to our local polling station before leaving my daughter at school on the morning of the referendum. Of course the UK wouldn't vote to leave the EU! To us, the very idea was preposterous. We have seen the impact of EU legislation firsthand through better working hours and pay, for example, as well as the funding that has underpinned the growing stability of Northern Ireland's peace process. We are also well aware of similar effects throughout the rest of the UK, where familiar EU flag-adorned signs indicate that a building, a bridge, or some other important project has received EU support. Surely most voters would also understand the difficulties of extricating the UK from the EU and, although there was a strong contingent in the "Leave" camp that were keen to regain British sovereignty for a range of reasons, we were certain they would not be in the majority.
After university, I left Northern Ireland as fast as I could. I felt that Northern Ireland was mired in the past and I was sure that I would never return for more than a holiday to visit friends and family. I moved to London and then five years later to New York, where I met my husband and started a family. In spite of my initial eagerness to leave Northern Ireland, however, being away from home actually made me more attached to the place. Where once I had snarked about the divisive political situation, after a few years away I started to regularly and vehemently defend "the situation" back home to colleagues or friends in London or New York who I felt could never understand its complexities. I raved about the North Antrim coast road to anyone who would listen (it is spectacular, though), as well the great "craic" to be had with the locals and the burgeoning culinary scene. I became an avid Northern Ireland film and television location spotter. I proudly pointed out Dark Hedges or Mourne Mountains scenes during Game of Thrones and waxed lyrical about The Fall to random parents in Brooklyn playgrounds who quickly regretted enquiring about my accent.
And it wasn't just love from afar. I started to return to Belfast to visit friends and family two to three times a year, and then I began to extend the trips, staying for a month or more at a time. These trips felt like they were to a different city than the one in which I grew up. While the North of Ireland is certainly not out of the woods yet, bomb scares are now a thing of the past, the police checkpoints at which our family car was regularly stopped when I was a child had disappeared, and the security guards that flanked the doors of city center department stores, checking people's bags as they came in to shop, were long forgotten. Not only that, but Northern Ireland was very much looking to the future. Apart from the high standard of education and access to the National Health Service my family would have here, the local restaurant scene was thriving and visitors were arriving in record numbers to experience everything the North has to offer.
Having spent the first 20 years of my life desperate to leave, I was now desperately homesick and intent on returning. And as my husband and I discussed the ins and outs of what we wanted for our family, Northern Ireland increasingly seemed like the best place for all of us to live. We left New York in the fall of 2015 and quickly settled into a routine of school, work, and exploring our new surroundings on the weekends.
So when a colleague texted my husband about the referendum result early on Friday morning, I was in denial, adamant that she had made a mistake. I checked the news on my phone as I dressed my daughter for school and, sure enough, 51.9 percent of people in the UK had voted to leave the European Union. My mind raced: What will this mean for Northern Ireland? What about the peace process? Will my husband think this move was a massive mistake?
It may be difficult to confidently answer such questions for some time to come. The only real certainty right now is that the outlook is very uncertain, particularly for Northern Ireland. Even though 55.8 percent of Northern Irish voters wanted to remain in the EU, we are tied into the overall UK decision to leave. In the wake of the results announcement, confusion reigned throughout the UK and it became obvious that Northern Ireland's future is especially uncertain for a number of reasons. The leading nationalist party called for a vote on reunification with the Republic of Ireland as soon as the EU referendum results were announced. This possibility has already been rejected by Northern Ireland's first minister and Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary (the UK government's representative in the region), but the danger of a return to Northern Ireland's violent past always lurks in the background. Could this be the catalyst for a renewed Troubles-style campaign of violence? What's more, the viability of the Good Friday Agreement — the legislative foundation of the current peace process — has also been called into question following the UK's vote to leave the EU.
European funding designed to underpin the peace process is set to dry up after 2020, putting many important local projects in jeopardy. More than 1 billion euros have been invested in the peace process since 1995 through the EU's PEACE and INTERREG programs. This money supports political and social stability in a region that has seen more than its fair share of problems. What will happen to these projects now? The latest round of funding focuses on creating opportunities for young people across Northern Ireland. The under 18-year-olds who need these programs didn't even get a say in the referendum, and the voices of those who were of age and voted to remain in the EU went unheard anyway. What lies ahead for communities in which such funding played a key role in providing people with a safe place to hang out, often encouraging interaction between people from different religious or political backgrounds? What future impact will its loss have on a peace that still feels quite fragile?
Another unknown, and a major issue in the run-up to the referendum, has been how the loss of the EU's Common Travel Agreement might affect Northern Ireland's 300-mile border with our closest neighbor and EU member the Republic of Ireland. While Leave campaigners rejected the idea of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic following the vote to leave the EU, the discussion has brought back grim memories of Troubles-era security checks and travel delays. And how this will affect those living and working near the border, who currently flit between the two countries with ease, also remains unknown.
There is no precedent for such a political upheaval, and we have no idea how the referendum results will translate politically or economically in Northern Ireland, within the UK, or throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Northern Ireland lost its voice during the UK's scramble for the Brexit and now the future is uncertain. For those of us who voted remain, the hope is that the peace process has grown strong enough roots to continue to survive and to thrive in this new political situation, whatever it may be.
Pauline McCallion is a freelance journalist. She is based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
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