Brexit, Gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship

Guest post by Yvonne Galligan, Technological University Dublin. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

The imminent departure of the UK from the European Union has many financial and political consequences that are considered in other blogs in this series. This blog focuses on the implications of Brexit for peoples’ everyday lives in the border area between Northern Ireland and Ireland. For good or ill, Brexit will shape and define the quotidian aspects of daily life in the border region, giving experiential meaning to the political decision of 23 June 2016. The gendered effects are subtle, bound with identity, peace-building, and the tendrils of family connections that transcend geographical and political borders.

Gender-based support for Brexit

The Brexit process was set in train by the June 2016 referendum result. A majority (56%) in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. There was no overall difference between women and men’s support. Analysis by age group, though, showed that younger women and men (under 45 years of age) of middle-class background were by far the strongest (73% and 77% respectively) supporters of Remain. In the border region contiguous with the territory of the Republic of Ireland, a gender gap was very evident – only 28% of Leave voters were women. Since the referendum, support for the Remain position has grown to 58%. An overall gender gap has opened up, with 61% of women supporting Remain compared to 55% of men.

Peace and Brexit

The 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement brought peace and political stability to Northern Ireland. This agreement, it is worth noting, was formulated at a time when the UK and Ireland, co-guarantors of the peace, were ‘friendly neighbours and [as] partners in the EU’. As a consequence, the peace accord attracted considerable political and financial support from the European institutions, including a dedicated programme to fund peace and reconciliation activities in Northern Ireland and in the border region between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

One of the most significant benefits was the improvement of North-South relations on the island of Ireland, manifest in a ‘soft’ or negligible border between the jurisdictions, development of an ‘all island’ economy and increased security co-operation. It also provided conditions for the enhancement of friendly relations between the two sovereign governments. Now the border is arguably the most contentious issue to be resolved between the UK government and the European Union. For the majority (70%) of women and men in the border region, maintaining the border status quo (no hard border, and no change in cross-border movement) is a priority.

Cross-border movement

One can see how a hard border could be a problem. Cross-border living and working is a regular feature of life—up to 30,000 people traverse the 300-mile border on a daily or weekly basis to work, avail of services, attend educational facilities and for cultural, recreational and family purposes. The impact of cross-border restrictions on the free movement of goods and people, cross-border employment, food prices and cross-border cooperation in health, education and other services were identified as having negative consequences for the daily lives of women and men living in border regions. Cross-border travel to access healthcare during and after pregnancy is a common occurrence. The police services on both sides of the border co-operate closely on crime and security issues, including enforcing European Protection Orders where an abusing partner flees to the other jurisdiction in domestic violence cases.

Impediments to ease of movement facilitating daily life is viewed with anxiety. One woman imagined the difficulty: ‘Say I want to walk the dog. I’m literally 10 minutes across the border. It would be a nightmare’. Similarly, one man chafed at the idea of border travel restrictions: ‘…the last thing that I bloody want is to go across the border with my passport to visit my granny’. Contemplating the effects of Brexit on vital family support, a Dublin-based woman said to the author: ‘what will I do for childcare? My mother travels down from north of the border to look after my children while I go to work’. These voices emphasise that everyday family life in and around Border counties will be severely impacted by a hard Brexit.

This anxiety over the disruption caused by a hard border is shared by women and men from both communities. In 2017, 80% of Catholics and 60% of Protestants resisted the idea of having to carry documentation to travel across the border. Yet, in February 2019, car insurance companies on both sides of the border were preparing to issue green cards to their customers to enable them drive in the other jurisdiction. Drivers with UK licences in the Republic of Ireland were warned to exchange their documentation for Irish licences as a mutual recognition agreement would end on 29 March in the event of a hard Brexit.

Complicating democratic politics

Brexit sharpens and complicates the existing vacuum in Northern Ireland’s democratic politics due to the absence of functioning devolved political institutions. While this state of affairs persists, opportunities to tackle the under-representation of women in formal politics and public life are on hold. Urgent policy issues remain unaddressed. Policy monitoring and advising carried out by equality and human rights bodies is constrained.

Studies of Brexit emanating from Northern Ireland call for a solution that does not exacerbate community divisions in the context of a fragile political and post-conflict settlement. This concern is reflected among women’s groups, who also fear a reinforcement of conservative social and economic policies in the aftermath of Brexit. These fears are expressed most acutely by women living in the border region, where the economy is fragile, reconciliation with neighbours is slowly finding a foothold, and their lived reality is shaped by border crossings on a daily basis. Brexit will impede everyday family and communal shared activities – the social glue that keeps the peace alive. As such, a hard Brexit has clear gendered implications and impact on border communities. For the gender pact between Northern Ireland and women, then, Brexit marks a defining moment whose ramifications will be felt for decades to come.


Professor Yvonne Galligan is the Director for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at Technological University Dublin. This blog is based on a contribution by the author to Gender and Queer Perspectives on Brexit (2019), edited by Moira Dustin, Nuno Ferreira and Susan Millns. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature.

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