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Northern Ireland’s Future within Brexit

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Written by Jacob Starr

After 30 years of conflict inflicted upon Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process and provided a political settlement whereby peace could be maintained. The agreement was made more accessible by both the UK and the Republic of Ireland being EU member states, given that it allowed extremely close ties to be maintained across the Irish border, which was prevented from being a hard border under the agreement. Brexit, however, destabilises this political settlement and places the political future of Northern Ireland into uncertainly.  

While Northern Ireland as a whole voted to remain in the EU by 56% to 44%, what was evident was the tendency for voting patterns to follow sectarian lines. Catholics were highly likely to vote remain, to preserve the close relationship with the Republic of Ireland, while Protestants, though more evenly split, mostly voted to leave due to the identification with Britain. Therefore, Northern Ireland has been taken out of the EU against its democratic majority, while its political and religious divisions have been exemplified, and are potentially aggravated, by Brexit.

Regardless, Northern Ireland has left the EU, finding itself in unique political and economic situation in the wake of Johnson’s Brexit deal. In order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and thus avoid any violation of the Good Friday Agreement, the UK and the EU agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, where Northern Ireland remains within the EU single market and subject to certain EU customs rules. Meanwhile, it effectively places a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland. 

This has the consequences of producing a degree of political detachment between Unionist and the British state that they identify with. This demonstrates the reluctance of the Conservative Party to support Unionist political objectives as enthusiastically as times gone by. Evidently, achieving a deal with the EU was of greater importance. As such, the political dynamic present in post-Brexit Northern Ireland has shifted in favour of Irish reunification.  

This situation generates political challenges for Unionists in Northern Ireland. The position of the Democratic Union Party (DUP) to staunchly support Brexit appears to have backfired, considering the weakening of Unionists political ties to London, alongside the collapse of the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives in 2019.  

Meanwhile, the political opportunities for Irish reunification arise for Nationalists as a result of Brexit, such as the ability to demonstrate the economic benefits if being in the EU. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald has suggested that Brexit raises ‘fundamental questions around the wisdom and the sustainability of the partition of our island’. There are several factors, both resulting from Brexit and operating in parallel to Brexit, that make a United Ireland possible in the foreseeable future. 

The first of these is Northern Ireland’s demographic projections. The 2011 census already recorded Protestants to be below 50%, and it is predicted that Catholics will form a majority in Northern Ireland within the next decade. While this doesn’t necessarily equate to support for a United Ireland, it increases the prospect of a successful vote for Irish unity, should such a referendum occur, therefore increasing the possibility of a democratic mandate for a United Ireland being attained. Moreover, Irish reunification, and consequentially re-admittance of Northern Ireland into the EU, has already obtained a certain degree of democratic legitimacy, through Northern Ireland’s EU referendum result. 

British politics could also be situated to allow for Irish reunification. Although their official name remains the Conservative and Unionist Party, the party’s willingness to defend British political control in Northern Ireland has decreased. The Conservatives maintain a deeply ideological connection to the notion of the British state, something that isn’t profoundly threatened by Irish reunification it the same way it would fundamentally be by Scottish Independence. Meanwhile, the Labour Party would accept a United Ireland, should there be a democratic majority for it. Is essence, there is now a lack of enthusiasm by many throughout the British political spectrum to resolutely support British authority in Northern Ireland. 

Meanwhile, while the EU could adopt a neutral stance towards Northern Ireland when the UK and the Republic of Ireland were both member states, it now must support the Republic of Ireland in any dispute regarding the future of Northern Ireland. Additionally, Irish nationalism could garner support from the US. President Elect Joe Biden, who has Irish heritage, has consistently suggested encouragement for Irish nationalism against any attempt by the Conservative government to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Given a strong identity with Irish nationalism amongst many Irish Americans, it is conceivable that future presidents could adopt similar stances.

Scottish independence could act to accelerate the process of a United Ireland. Firstly, the identification with Britain for many Unionists is actually ingrained in ancestral ties to Scotland. Should Scotland remove itself from London’s political control, political identity with London could weaken within Northern Ireland. Furthermore, Scottish independence would leave the remainder of the UK with greater political imbalance and enhance London’s dominance, benefiting the case for a United Ireland. 

Despite these considerations, there are still political barriers to a United Ireland that would need to be overcome. Unionist parties form a considerable part of the power sharing agreement within the Northern Ireland Assembly, while certain factions of the Conservative Party remain deeply oppose to Irish unity. Moreover, any reunification process risks the emergence of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.   

However, in principle, aftermath of Brexit alters the political dynamic within Northern Ireland and, when combined with coinciding factors, increases the eventual likelihood of the reunification of Ireland. A United Ireland is by a mean inevitable, as there remains a complex conundrum of domestic political factors and economic or geopolitical relationships, nor is it an immediate reality, but Brexit appears to propel Northern Ireland in that direction.