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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.