While the U.K. finally exited the European Union on Jan. 31, beginning a year of tough negotiations on a future trade deal with the bloc, the future of post-Brexit Northern Ireland is still up in the air.
It was the fate of Northern Ireland that held up Britain’s divorce from the EU for nearly three years. Last fall, after months of maneuvering among Britain’s various political factions that made American politics seem quaint by comparison, Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a resounding victory in snap December elections, ensuring that he had a solid parliamentary majority to finally do what his predecessor, Theresa May, could not: get a Brexit withdrawal agreement passed.
Johnson’s Brexit breakup blueprint is, in fact, not all that different from May’s plan — with the exception of the now-notorious Irish backstop, a contingency demanded by EU officials to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland (also see “Irish Backstop Threatens U.K.’s Divorce from EU, and Northern Ireland’s Fragile Peace” in our March 2019 issue).
An open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was a key part of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that ended 30 years of violence known as the Troubles, which pitted British-identifying, largely Protestant unionists against predominantly Catholic Irish nationalists seeking to end British rule over Northern Ireland.
“The Belfast Agreement made the border invisible,” Peter Sheridan, CEO of the peace-building charity Co-operation Ireland, told us last March. “It also said to people in Northern Ireland, you have the right to choose your birth right — Irish or British or both — and we will uphold that. One of the great things, too, was that it also created a Northern Irish identity. Both Catholics and Protestants in the north became settled in the idea of an identity within the EU.”
It also accelerated economic development throughout the British Isles.
Today, the open border allows goods to flow seamlessly between Ireland, an EU member state, and Northern Ireland, which is still a part of the U.K. but shares an island with Ireland. After Brexit, however, the U.K. can no longer enjoy the frictionless trade that comes with EU membership and will be subject to the same border checks and tariffs that all non-EU countries face. To implement these checks, a physical border crossing would need to come down between Northern Ireland and Ireland, erecting what would become the new dividing line between the U.K. and EU.
Critics of a hard border say it would significantly slow down trade, damaging both the Irish and British economies, and potentially reignite violence between nationalists and unionists.
But U.K. “Leave” supporters argue that an open border via the Irish backstop essentially subverts Brexit because Northern Ireland would still have to abide by EU customs regulations — which, by extension, would force the rest of the U.K. to be tied to the very of the EU customs union and single market that it voted to leave.
This was the conundrum that derailed May’s plan. Johnson’s version ditches the backstop and creates a highly complex system of customs declarations and duties that would keep Northern Ireland — and therefore the U.K. — out of the EU customs union (although his plan would allow Northern Ireland lawmakers to vote on how closely they want to stay aligned with the EU after four years).
If Not by Land, then by Sea
To absorb Northern Ireland into the U.K.’s own customs regime and include it in any future trade agreements London negotiates, Johnson’s deal states that goods going from Great Britain into Northern Ireland will not be subject to tariffs — “unless that good is at risk of subsequently being moved into the [European] Union” via Ireland.
The EU and U.K. would need to determine which goods are “at risk” of being transported to Ireland and therefore subject to tariffs, a process many say would essentially create a de facto customs border — right down the middle of the Irish Sea.
While this arrangement, which would involve checks taking place at ports and airports, assuages Irish nationalist concerns over a revived land border, it is anathema to unionists who oppose any kind of barrier — whether by land or sea — that divides Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
Unionists are also angry because under Johnson’s plan, Northern Ireland would still be aligned with certain EU rules, including the bloc’s value-added tax (VAT) on goods. Jim Shannon of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party told CNBC last October that any separate regulatory framework for the province would make unionists feel like “second-class citizens” and “less British.”
Unionist fears of becoming economically separated from Britain are well-founded. Even though Johnson repeatedly denied the possibility of creating a border down the Irish Sea, he has reversed course. And in mid-January, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told reporters that, “The implementation of [the U.K.’s EU withdrawal agreement] foresees checks and controls entering the island of Ireland.”
That has some unionists, particularly the more militant, “loyalist” groups, up in arms.
“If there is a proposal … to run a border down the Irish Sea,” leading loyalist activist Jamie Bryson recently told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper, “we would have no option but to take to the streets.”
Referendum on Irish Unity
This militancy derives from fears that such a customs frontier would weaken the link between Northern Ireland and the U.K. and might be a move toward a united Ireland — a fear recently stoked by increasing talk, both north and south of the border, of a future referendum on Irish unity.
The economic fallout of Brexit has fueled increasing calls for such a referendum in Northern Ireland because unification with Ireland would allow the province — which has benefited from unfettered trade with the EU and received significant funding from the bloc to spur economic growth and foster peace — to remain in the EU.
Indeed, the benefits of EU membership are a big reason why 56% of the electorate in Northern Ireland voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Yet any future referendum on Irish unity is a distant, uncertain prospect. First, no one knows yet how exactly Brexit will affect Northern Ireland or what Johnson will be able to negotiate with the EU over the critical coming months. Second, any unity referendum, known as a “border poll,” would need to be approved by both Ireland and Northern Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. While surveys have shown increasing support for a unified Ireland in the wake of Brexit, public opinion on the issue remains mixed. Even Ireland, which has long supported unity, has questioned how much it would cost to absorb its neighbor to the north.
And any referendum would still be met with fierce resistance by the unionist community, which constitutes a majority of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people.
So for any referendum to pass, Irish nationalists would need to convince a good number of unionists that their British and Protestant identities would be preserved in a unified Ireland — a tall order considering the decades of sectarian bloodshed between the two groups.
At the same time, recent years of relative peace between Northern Ireland’s unionist and Irish nationalist communities — combined with disillusionment among both with the province’s established politicians — have shifted the political landscape.
These changes — visible in the December U.K. general election and in previous votes for the Northern Ireland Assembly — leave it by no means certain how Brexit will play out.
Indeed, for many in Northern Ireland, old certainties are crumbling across the board, with a discussion on the province’s future now taking place that is far wider than what would have been possible just a few years ago.
DUP’s Declining Fortunes
If a week is a long time in politics, as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously said, a month can be an eternity. By this measure, Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British grouping, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), must have felt like it’s already gone through a lifetime of eternities over the past several months.
Just last year, this largely Protestant, fiercely anti-Irish nationalist party — founded by that great symbol of Free Presbyterian, biblical sectarianism, the Rev. Ian Paisley — held the balance of power in the U.K. Parliament, wielding great influence over the then-minority Conservative government led by Theresa May.
May’s decision to hold a 2017 general election severely backfired on her Conservative party, which lost its parliamentary majority and was forced to rely on 10 DUP votes to get anything passed — including Brexit.
As such, this small, stridently anti-Brexit contingent of politicians was able to bring the entire withdrawal process to a halt because of their objections to the Irish backstop. Given their outsize influence, DUP’s leaders were regularly consulted by EU chiefs, anxious to find a way out of the Brexit quagmire.
But after the bruising general election that returned Johnson to power and ended the DUP’s grip on parliament, the party is now largely ignored in Brussels and irrelevant in Westminster.
At the same time, while the party once enjoyed the loyalty of the overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland’s unionist voters, the December election saw their support among unionists slashed.
The key constituency of North Belfast switched to Sinn Féin, the main Irish nationalist party, while the neutral Alliance Party, which sees itself as neither unionist nor nationalist, won in North Down.
As a result, for the first time in history, only a minority of members elected to the U.K. Parliament from Northern Ireland were unionists.
But behind these changing political fortunes lie longer-term trends that go beyond Brexit and point to major shifts in attitudes, both in traditionally nationalist and unionist communities.
In fact, neither the unionists nor nationalists came out looking particularly rosy in the recent elections.
“Both the DUP and Sinn Féin did badly in the elections,” professor Rory O’Connell, director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University, told The Washington Diplomat, noting that Sinn Féin was ousted from its Foyle stronghold by the anti-sectarian and moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
Voter frustration with Sinn Féin and the DUP stems from health care strikes that have crippled the province and political gridlock that led to the closure of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin, this power-sharing body, created by the Good Friday Agreement, collapsed in 2017 when the two parties walked out.
The dispute initially centered around allegations of corruption but expanded to other disagreements, such as Sinn Féin’s demands to recognize Irish (i.e. Gaelic) as an official language of Northern Ireland — and the DUP’s counter demand that this be balanced by equal recognition for the Ulster Scots dialect.
“There was a sense of people being fed up that they hadn’t had a government for three years,” O’Connell said. “So, at the general elections, they punished both parties.”
This was not lost on the DUP or Sinn Féin, which faced a British ultimatum to overcome their differences and reopen the Northern Ireland Assembly, or else Westminster would call fresh elections for Northern Ireland. In mid-January, the two parties agreed to a deal that led to the assembly’s first session in three years.
While the old tribal lines that divided Northern Ireland — British versus Irish, Protestant versus Catholic, north versus south — still exist, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) erased many of them.
The recent elections in particular showed that the unionist community — never monolithic — is not what it once was.
“It’s clear unionism is undergoing a transformation,” professor Peter Shirlow, director of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool, told The Washington Diplomat. “The GFA produced a growing group of people who were no longer infused with the traditional, biblical, circle-the-wagons mentality.”
Now, many in Northern Ireland’s Protestant community — the traditional heartland of unionism — would “describe themselves as pro-British, but not unionist, voted to remain in the EU, have liberal social attitudes and don’t have any particular anger or frustration,” Shirlow said.
Also long gone is the traditional organizational base of working-class unionism: Northern Ireland’s trade unions in places such as the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic was built.
“They’ve never been able to energize the loyalist, working-class community like they used to,” according to Shirlow.
Meanwhile, hard-core unionist paramilitary groups known as loyalists, such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), have so far taken a cautious approach to recent events.
“Once the IRA stopped, how could they legitimize violence?” said Shirlow. “So now, you’re more likely to see the UDA running community groups and organizing anti-racism and anti-homophobia events in the heart of loyalist districts like the Shankill.”
At the same time, while the IRA gave up its weapons as part of the peace accords, a radical offshoot known as the New Irish Republican Army has emerged and was linked to a string of attacks in 2019, including a car bombing and a shooting that killed a journalist. In recent years, Irish republican militias have gained a foothold in Catholic areas frustrated by ongoing poverty and political paralysis. Now, some fear they will take advantage of Brexit to restart the type of guerilla warfare that once tore Northern Ireland apart.
“Serious people are talking about this now, when they wouldn’t have been a few years ago,” said O’Connell. “This could also make the loyalist groups nervous, which clearly isn’t desirable.”
Bryson, the loyalist activist, was more blunt, telling Foreign Policy in early January that, “I would imagine there would probably be civil war first before unionists and loyalists would ever walk into a united Ireland.”
But after three decades of bloodshed and two decades of relative peace and prosperity, there may be little appetite for civil war. Yet it’s clear there will be some kind of shift as Brexit irrevocably redefines Northern Ireland’s relationship with the U.K. — whether it be via a new customs border down the Irish Sea or a push toward Irish reunification.
For now, though, as Johnson tries to hammer out a trade deal with Brussels by the end of the 2020, all of the players in the Brexit saga — the U.K., Northern Ireland, EU and Ireland — have one thing in common: They’ll have to wait and see what the next act has in store for them.
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.