This year the University Express hopes to bring you, our readers high quality news and content that you can’t get anywhere else. We feel that there is no better place to look than on our own institution, which at its heart has an incredible set of expertise and information in the form of lecturers who teach at UCC. Beginning our series of lecturer interviews is Dr Mary C. Murphy from the Department of Government and Politics.
Dr Murphy has been lecturing at UCC since 2003. She specialises in the study of the EU and Northern Ireland and her latest monograph titled, Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future: Negotiating Brexit’s Unique Case, was a major success. Since 2015 and in particular following the Brexit Referendum in 2016, Mary has become one of, if not the leading Irish academic when it comes to implications for Ireland and Northern Ireland following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. For the past three years she has been invited to speak in the US, across Europe, here in Ireland and to China, where she was invited by the Irish Government. Dr Murphy’s extensive understanding of the Brexit process and the impact that it would have on the island of Ireland has pushed her to the apex of academic thought on the subject, much to the advantage of her students and the wider UCC audience.
“It’s been very busy”, laughs Dr Murphy when asked what the past few years have been like. Without taking any credit away from the Government and Politics lecturer, the decision made by 17.4 million people to leave the EU gave Mary an incredible opportunity to showcase her knowledge and understanding on a topic that she may not have been otherwise able to share to such a wide audience. In a way the referendum was the lottery and Dr Murphy was holding the Brexit ticket, effectively meaning that she “struck gold”. This is something that she acknowledges and goes on to explain that her studies from 20 years ago have helped to put her into such a niche position. “As an academic I’ve been lucky because when I did my PhD I was at Queens in Belfast and it was around the time of the Good Friday Agreement and the topic I chose was to look at Northern Ireland and the EU,” Mary tells the Express. “So when David Cameron announced the plans for a referendum in 2015 I was really fortunate to be in such a nice area. Since 2015 the work that I specialise in has been in huge demand and not just from an academic perspective, so it’s been quite opportune”, she continues. So since then Mary has clocked up the air miles, speaking as an expert across the world at various events and while this has been at times challenging, the overall experience has been one of positivity.
Given her rise to the top of the field, Mary encounters many interesting people along the way, who like her have many interesting insights and thoughts on the current state of Anglo-Irish politics. Recently she was speaking at a two-day event in Dundalk, a town which of course is very close to the Northern Irish border. Dr Murphy recalls quite evidently how surprised she was when the gloomy
and ominous atmosphere became apparent around the room. “It was quite down beat to be honest, I was a little taken aback by that. The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service was there and he was very interesting, forthright and frank, where he revealed some very considerable concerns about Brexit”.
Having spent a number of years in Northern Ireland, Mary knows more than most about the impacts that a hard Brexit could have for not only economic relations on the island of Ireland but also cultural. “I’ve drawn on my time in QUB quite a lot recently in terms of my own research”, Mary says. “In some ways the challenges then are the same today, in terms of trying to bring Unionists and Nationalists together, which is becoming increasingly difficult. I have been quite disappointed that that period of time seems to have been forgotten. Britain and Ireland, to a lesser extent, have become less attentive to the post-conflict challenges that any post-conflict area faces, and then you throw Brexit into the mix which creates other distinct problems.”
The Reality Of A Hard Brexit
Since June 2016 every spokesperson for the British government and likewise for the EU counterparts, there has been constant reiteration that all parties want to and openly advocate for the avoidance of border infrastructure in Ireland, aka a hard border. The Irish Executive have spoken in similar utterances, with An Tanaiste Simon Coveney saying last year at an event in UCC that the
government would “not facilitate border infrastructure in Ireland.” However, despite the rhetoric used, which now seems in some ways disingenuous, the island of Ireland is on the brink of facing physical barriers between North and South. “It is the reality”, Dr Murphy says on the inevitability of borders subsequent to what seems to be an impending hard Brexit. “A lot of academics including myself have been saying for some time that if there is no deal, that border infrastructure of some form is a necessity. Ireland is remaining in the Single Market and the priority for the EU in all of this is the protection of the Single Market and there has to be a distinction when it comes to borders. The key question is how will that border take shape. How light is it and where does it border infrastructure go?”
Early suggestions at the beginning of the Brexit debate showed an appetite for what was deemed to be one of the most sensible solutions, where a border would develop on the Irish Sea. However, as the Conservatives lost their majority following a snap-election in 2017, and subsequently has to rely on the DUP for minority support, this idea quickly washed away with the tide due to the new-found power for elected Ulster and British Unionists. “The idea of a Northern Ireland only ‘backstop’ was the initial version of the 2017 joint report, but it was shelved because the DUP rejected it.” However, an Irish Sea border is now back on the agenda and one wonders if it is only a matter of time before the Tory party throw their Ulster friends under the bus and push for such an arrangement. According to Dr Murphy an sea border does seem to be a considerable solution. “In terms of giving Northern Ireland the best of both worlds, there is definitely merit in that argument. But the problem is for Unionism that a border in those terms is hugely problematic, however I can’t see any other way around it.”
Where Does The EU Go From Here?
While many on this side of the pond currently hold the EU and its main figureheads in high esteem due to their clear backing of the Irish question in the whole Brexit process, questions may arise when other issues on the agenda take centre stage. When asked whether she thinks the EU will take some moments for self-reflection, given that an important nation state has now left the table, Dr Murphy says, “I think the EU is certainly considering its future and they have been doing that explicitly since 2017. I do think that European leaders are cognisant that Brexit poses challenges not just for the UK as it leaves the EU but it also to a certain extent re-awakens some of the forces and pressures in their own member states. However, what has been really striking over the EU’s response to Brexit is the single voice which they have adopted in responding to it. I don’t think we have ever seen a period where the EU has been as one as this, but I suspect it’s because European leaders fear that if you leave that genie out of the bottle then forces in their own states will start to agitate.”
Despite the fact that the EU is currently working through this harmonic voice, it’s of vital importance that they don’t take their eye off the ball and take time to take on board what has happened according to the UCC lecturer. “I think it’s important that the EU self-reflect in a very meaningful way because the Brexit vote to a certain extent reflects badly on them. Some people do feel let down by the forces of globalisation and the EU is sort of a manifestation of that. There is a sense of despair and despondency and I guess that lack of hope is a consequence of an EU that hasn’t been wholly attentive to cohorts of the population, not just in the UK but across the EU.”
On A United Ireland
Mary has been quite clear in her views that any talk of a United Ireland on these shores today is very unwise and insensitive, given the polarisation that has developed in recent times. “There should be preparation for that debate on every possible aspect of life on this Island because there are so many things that need to be understood and considered. I think we should take stock from what happened in the UK referendum when the population was not prepared to take on that type of discussion.”
Many people south of the border and also in UCC believe that “taking back” the six counties is a rite of passage, while little attention is actually paid to those that have actual “skin in the game”. Dr Murphy is of the opinion that in the Republic we have not yet taken the time to consider all sides of the argument. “I don’t think we pay enough attention to (British) Unionism and we haven’t throughout the Brexit discussions. That is probably because we fail to understand the Unionist mindset but at the same token Unionism hasn’t done itself a whole lot of favours because it doesn’t always engage on this side of the border.”
Given the hostility in the North, any serious push for a United Ireland as it currently stands would create tension and invariably this would lead to violent conflict, akin to the 70s and 80s. “What we know about Unionists and loyalism is that they are reactive”, Mary explains. “They would and will react to anything that they see as being a threat to their culture and identity, so a lot care is needed…..because relations have taken a bit of a battering. I’m very conscious of the words and rhetoric we are using at this time because I’ve lived in Northern Ireland for seven or eight years and I have definitely been impacted by that on how I understand relations on this Islands.”
End In Sight
While like many of us watching, Mary cannot see into the crystal ball and give a certain prediction of how the next few weeks will play out. Before our interview, the Supreme Court judgement had not yet been announced, typifying what it’s been like to stay on top of Brexit proceedings. However, Dr Murphy does believe that some form of “technical extension” will see this process extend, and from
there negotiations will continue. In a couple of weeks’ time Mary is pleased to announce that renowned scholar and academic, Prof
Des Dinan, will be coming to UCC as part of a lecture series. Further details will emerge for what is sure to be a great event. >