Brexit scrabble

Why Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit

Published: 1 July 2019

Professor Feargal Cochrane (University of Kent) outlines how Brexit itself has transformed in a way that is likely to jeopardise the future of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process more broadly. 

Whether you are a Leaver or a Remainer, Brexit is the most divisive political issue in the UK in living memory. In Britain, it has ended the political careers of two Prime Ministers since 2016 and defined their legacies as tenures of abject failure. More urgently, it is shaping the terms for the appointment of the next incumbent of Downing Street and doing so in a way that saw most of the  candidates trying to out-Brexit one another in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the party membership who will appoint the next leader and Prime Minister. As a consequence of this process –and against the backdrop of failure to construct a viable policy to leave the EU, Brexit itself has transformed in a way that is likely to jeopardise the future of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process more broadly. 

Former Prime Minister Theresa May famously declared that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. This empty phrase is even more vacuous now than when it was first uttered. Essentially Brexit has been dominated by an internal negotiation within the Conservative Party not an external one with the European Union. This has been vividly illustrated in the Tory leadership election. Here Brexit has been morphed to the point where ‘No Deal’ is defined, not as a failure to find a political settlement with the EU, but as the purest form of Brexit. Leaving the EU on 31 October –‘with or without a deal’ - is now being defined as the ultimate exercise of national self-determination; a ‘clean Brexit’ where the UK will finally ‘take back control’ of its laws and borders from the EU. While most of the contenders for the Tory leadership made clear that they want a deal with the EU, their insistence of the acceptability of a No Deal outcome represented a political virility test for the majority of the candidates, especially Boris Johnson

Viewed from Ireland, this is all very destabilising and disturbing. A no deal outcome will necessitate a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic which is likely to cause public disorder and economic chaos. This is not scare-mongering from ‘Remoaners’, but the view of the outgoing Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, and leading business organisations such as the CBIRetail Northern Ireland, the Ulster Farmers Union and a litany of other stakeholders, including the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling. Sterlinghas written an open letter to the political parties in Northern Ireland pointing out that a No Deal scenario would be immensely problematic and produce problems that were beyond the scope of the Secretary of State’s remit, requiring a return to direct rule in the province. 

None of these issues are currently being taken seriously during the Tory leadership contest. Rory Stewart was an honourable exception.  The two remaining contenders, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, brush off the calamitous impacts that leaving without a deal would have on Northern Ireland. They are complicit in a fantasy they know is shared by the electorate within the Conservative Party – namely that an alternative deal (with the Irish backstop removed) can be negotiated with the EU before 31 October 2019.  They persist in the collective fallacy that the EU is prepared to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and remove the backstop. The EU has said repeatedly that they will not do so and the Irish government has also said that it will not accept this. The belief that this is just the EU playing hardball in negotiations that can be turned over by Boris Johnson ‘knocking some plaster off the ceiling’ in Brussels, is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the EU and an unwillingness to admit publicly that the price for a deal with the EU is the Irish backstop. 

All of this is hugely destabilising for political agreement in Northern Ireland which now holds the world record for a parliament that remains suspended. Two years and counting and it is very difficult to envisage the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, signing up to a programme for government, when they hold such diametrically opposed view over Brexit and its effect on the political, economic and cultural fabric of the region.   

Much depends on the type of Brexit we end up with. A deal with the EU that incorporates the Irish backstop, with a long transition period and no need for a physical infrastructure at the Irish border, is likely to minimise disruption. A hard Brexit, with no deal, no transition and continued polarisation between the political parties, is likely to have more radical consequences – up to and including a return to high visibility public order policing, civil disobedience and devolved institutions that remain in suspended animation. 


Feargal Cochrane is Professor of International Conflict Analysis in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and Vice Chair of the Political Studies Association (PSA) in the UK. His forthcoming book, Brexit and Northern Ireland – Breaking Peace will be published by Manchester University Press at the end of the year. 

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