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Brexit and Beyond: Northern Ireland

Published: 1 February 2021

Katy Hayward, Queen's University Belfast discusses the implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol and what this might mean for Northern Ireland's place in the Union. 

Where have we come from? 

When the UK and EU agreed that the 1998 Agreement and the Irish border would be among their top three priorities for the first phase of the Withdrawal negotiations, only those who hadn’t given Northern Ireland a second thought for years were bewildered. Resolving the contradictions in the desire for a hard Brexit and the need to avoid a hard UK/Irish border required ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’. The backstop negotiated by Theresa May was one such solution but the inability of the UK to unilaterally walk away from it made it anathema to many Tory MPs. Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU was more straightforward: distinct arrangements for Northern Ireland through the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. A hard Irish land border was avoided, and the extent to which this meant a ‘hard’ Irish Sea border was to be determined by the next round of UK-EU negotiations.

Where are we now?

The Protocol proved a source of resentment. Unionists resented Northern Ireland being ‘cut adrift’ from Britain; Remainers resented having been cut out of the EU.

The transition period involved 11 months of particularly acute uncertainty for Northern Ireland. The large Conservative majority and the House of Common’s then-gleeful support for what unionists in Northern Ireland describe as the ‘Betrayal [Withdrawal] Act’ helped to focus the minds of political parties closer to home. The New Decade New Approach agreement saw the formation by five parties of a mandatory coalition in the Northern Ireland Executive in mid-January but the future of NI now depended heavily on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Where are we heading?

The transition period has given us some indication of what the future might hold for Northern Ireland. First, it is at the hard edge of tensions in the UK and EU relationship — and indeed, to differences in the two sides’ interpretation of legal agreements. By asserting in the Internal Market Bill that it could take unilateral action — and thus breach the Protocol — the UK Government was implicitly acknowledging unionist fears that it had conceded too much to the EU in the first place. Although the controversial clauses would have done very little in practice to mitigate the impact of the Protocol, they were a symbolic act of defiance to the EU. Although this threat was removed after the mid-December decisions in the UK-EU Joint Committee, its negative impact on UK-EU trust will linger.

Secondly, Northern Ireland is all too easily in the blind spot of the UK Government when it comes to post-Brexit planning. Given its peripheral position, devolved institutions and small size, Northern Ireland was quite used to being far from the centre of decision making in Westminster. But the risks of this marginality are now exacerbated by the fact that the impact of UK Government policy could potentially be so different for Northern Ireland.

Related to this, the UK’s decision not to extend the transition period went against clear requests from NI MLAs and business, conscious that 1 January would see a new regime come into operation for trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. Prospects for the post-Brexit NI economy have been further damaged by the lack of information and decisions from the Government regarding the implementation of the Protocol. Systems and schemes for customs declarations, for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls and checks, for rebate of tariffs, etc. were still in the process of design, testing and development as Northern Ireland exited the transition period.

Finally, there is growing polarisation along two dimensions within Northern Ireland. First, Leave and Remain identities are very strong: nearly two thirds of respondents to the NI Life and Times Survey in 2019 say that they hold one or another of these identities, with around six out of ten on both sides saying these are very strong identities. (This compares to 56% of respondents who claim to hold Unionist and Nationalist identities, with around three in ten of them on both sides saying that these are very strong identities.)

Even if Remaining is hopeless, the means of rejoining the EU is quite clear for some — that is, via irish unification. This relates to the other point of polarisation within NI. Over the course of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we have seen a steady growth in the proportion of people in NI saying that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, and that it makes them more favourable to the idea. The overall trend is that nationalists are coming to (more than hope for) expect a united Ireland, and they are increasingly keen to see it. The unionist response, in contrast, is to see the Brexit debate as entirely separate from the debate on Irish unity.

The Consequences of Decisions

Northern Ireland had to follow two sets of UK-EU negotiations during the transition period: those on the implementation of the Protocol, and those on the future relationship. Progress on the former became increasingly tied to progress on the latter. The UK-EU Joint Committee decisions on 17 December offered a few essential but highly limited mitigations for the movement of goods across the Irish Sea after 1 January. When the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was revealed, the reason for this strict interpretation of the EU’s customs and regulatory rules became clear. The hard Irish Sea border reflects the ‘hardness’ of the Brexit that the UK Government has negotiated.

What this means for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union will depend less on the potency of Irish nationalism than on the priorities of the British Government. Johnson saw a hard Irish Sea border as a price worth paying for ‘restoring national sovereignty’. The TCA contains means and opportunities for future development and movement in the UK-EU relationship. If this is in a direction of further divergence, then the strain on Northern Ireland’s place in the Union will inevitably grow.


This was originally posted in 'Brexit and Beyond', a report by UK in Changing Europe examining the opportunities and challenges that have resulted from the UK's decision to leave the European Union. 

Photo by Joel Nevius on Unsplash

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