By historical standards, it is fair to say that we are at a time of significant fluidity in terms of identity, politics, social issues, and economic relations across the islands containing the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Indeed, that deliberate framing is indicative of the subtleties and complexities in this regard.
Throughout history, there have always been complex interdependent relationships across the islands. This has been manifested through considerable movements and settlements of people between our islands and from beyond, and indeed subsequent mixing of populations. This has been matched with considerable outward immigration beyond these shores to the United States, Australia and other places, creating a substantial diaspora. This has provided a rich tapestry of diversity to celebrate and promote.
At different times, this has been facilitated or impeded by actions of governments or other political actors.
Over time, but particularly in the past century, various dynamics have driven a social construction of identity including a conflation of national, political and religious identity with the presumption that British=unionist=Protestant, and Irish=nationalist=Catholic.
This belies the reality of open, mixed and multiple identities. Recent migration into the UK and Ireland over recent decades has enriched our societies further. Furthermore, increasing numbers have broken away from traditional labels.
In Northern Ireland, this is perhaps most clearly manifested through recent elections with the growth of those voting for parties not aligned with the traditional unionist-nationalist paradigm.
In a similar vein, the partition of Ireland a hundred years ago saw both the UK as a whole, including notably Northern Ireland specifically, and Ireland turn away from each other. Furthermore, the legitimacy of the creation of Northern Ireland was contested for most of this time.
Nevertheless, throughout this period, the innovative Common Travel Area, with its mix of policies and practices, provided a unique and innovative approach to facilitate relative freedom of movement and access to services across jurisdictions.
The Good Friday Agreement was the game-changer in building a new paradigm. It would not have been possible without a consider rapprochement and subsequent co-operation between the UK and Irish Governments.
The Agreement itself provides for a balanced set of relationships governing the internal governance of Northern Ireland, north-south interaction and the east-west aspect, alongside recognising the Principle of Consent for determining the future constitutional status of the region. Furthermore, the Agreement recognised the rights to identity and citizenship in terms of British, Irish or both. However, there are major issues regarding how this commitment hasn’t been effectively translated into UK domestic law.
Implementation of the Agreement over the past 20 years has nonetheless been problematic, with the foundation to achieve greater levels of integration and reconciliation not being built upon sufficiently. Yet, there was a level of relative stability.
Brexit has overturned this limited status quo. Whilst the Good Friday Agreement may not have many direct references to the European Union, it was joint membership of the European Union, specifically the Customs Union and the Single Market, that allowed borders to wither away.
As both a divided society and a contested space Northern Ireland can only really work through sharing and interdependence, but Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, entails new boundaries which consequently entail friction and cut across some people’s sense of identity.
Essentially, once the UK opted to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union, an interface with the EU economic structures was created to be managed somewhere and somehow.
Brexit has also posed issues in terms of citizenship and identity. Differential levels of rights for people from Northern Ireland as continuity EU Citizens have emerged based on whether one identifies as British or Irish. Freedom of movement rights for EU Citizens into Northern Ireland the wider UK have been substantially constrained outside of the EU Settlement Scheme.
There are significant questions if the Common Travel Area continues to be fit for purpose. It has been significantly overlaid by the EU Acquis over the past five decades. It remains to be seen how robust it remains with the UK now having left the EU. The EU Settlement Scheme now provides a more secure legal framework than the CTA. By contrast, the Common Travel Area remains a mix of accepted practices and some statutory rules, and there is a strong case for upgrading the post Brexit Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Ireland needs into a formal treaty.
Relationships across our islands are never static, and evolve to recognise new realities and demands. The potential ability for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and across the diaspora to vote in Presidential Elections is one such development, and something I would support.
There are also challenges as to how Northern Ireland, under the Protocol, can have an active say with the European Union regarding the formulation of new regulations that would impact it.
Alliance is conscious of calls for wider change across these islands. We recognise that Brexit and other factors have energised the debate around the constitutional question.
Given the nature of Alliance, some may suggest that this would be a particular challenge. But on the contrary, these are debates in which we can engage with confidence.
Alliance is not a party that is defined by the constitutional question. We are not an amalgamation of unionists and nationalists in an uneasy co-existence. Rather we are a cross-community party, proud and self-confident in our identity. While there may be some members who prefer the union, and some who prefer a united Ireland and indeed with most who are open to persuasion, we are not only united, but defined, by our shared commitment to make our society and these islands work, to overcome divisions and to build a better future.
We are not advocating a Border Poll and don’t believe that the conditions currently exist for one being called. But we can with confidence, and without prejudice to any outcome, engage in civilised, rational and evidence-based discussions. In all respects, we will be guided by our vision and values and always advocate what we think is right.
Short of political or constitutional change, there is also substantial scope for practical, pragmatic north-south co-operation on a range of social, economic and environmental matters.
Ultimately, wherever lines are drawn on maps, these will remain many core challenges including managing varied identities and building sharing, integration and reconciliation. And in turn the spirit of partnership and co-operation across these islands, the essence of Good Friday Agreement must be preserved and indeed enhanced.
Any sustainable future must reflect the particular circumstances and requirements of the region of Northern Ireland, and respect the wider dynamics across our shared islands home.
Stephen Farry is the Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and MP for North Down