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Crowd learns about Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland

By Staff | Nov 30, 2018

Left, Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Executive North America, talks with Shepherdstown resident Elise Baach, following his lecture, "Twenty Years After the Good Friday Agreement." Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Twenty years ago on Dec. 2, 1999, the Good Friday Agreement restored self-government to Northern Ireland, helping to solve decades of violence between the country’s two main religious factions, Protestants and Catholics.

The decisions made surrounding the agreement have made it possible for Northern Ireland to become a peaceful state, but, according to Northern Ireland Bureau Director Norman Houston, the country is once again living in a state of uncertainty, resulting from Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May started the process to separate Britain from the European Union on March 29, 2017, and the exit is expected to be finalized by Dec. 2020, according to Houston.

According to Houston, who spoke on the topic to a crowded Robert C. Byrd Auditorium on Nov. 16, Northern Ireland’s two major factions have a delicate relationship. The Good Friday Agreement ensured equality for both factions, to the extent the country is equally led by a first minister and deputy first minister, representing both parties.

“All of the Good Friday Agreement’s constituent parts worked together to make everyone feel like they are represented the same. What I haven’t seen develop from the peace, is success at trying to bring communities together,” said Houston, who was born and raised in Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and has spent the majority of his career working with the Northern Ireland ambassador to the United States.

“Up until January 2017, we had a functioning government, which I represented,” Houston said. “Why did it collapse? Because we had all of these scandals happening, including a heating scandal.”

According to Houston, these scandals led to the Deputy First Minister quitting, leaving Northern Ireland without a leader, because the Good Friday Agreement says, “If one minister quits, the other has to quit.”

Right now, without the government working, Houston’s position with the ambassador of Northern Ireland is at a stand-still. He hopes this situation will change soon, but said it will take a lot of work.

“There have been many attempts to get the government up and running again, but they have not worked. One reason, I think, is because of Brexit,” Houston said.

One problem Brexit will cause for many residents in Northern Ireland, is the difficulty it will cause travelers crossing the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland, which is remaining in the EU.

“One-hundred-ten million people cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland each year. Sixty million vehicles cross the border each year. Being part of the European Union meant people could move freely,” Houston said, mentioning those who cross the border after Brexit may have to carry a passport, even if they have to cross the border every day for work.

Another concern Houston discussed, was the financial loss Brexit may cause Northern Ireland.

“The European Union puts a lot of money into Northern Ireland every year, to help keep the peace,” Houston said, mentioning Northern Ireland’s border counties unanimously voted against exiting the EU.

Although Houston said he believes Brexit will go through, he said many Northern Ireland residents are questioning it, after Britain voted 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent in favor of the exit.

“There’s been a lot of talk about, ‘We’ve tried it out, can we vote again, please?'” Houston said. “Behind all this, is the frustration that Northern Ireland isn’t represented in any of these discussions about Brexit, because we don’t have a functioning government.”