Brexit and the Irish Nationalist Reaction

Brexit has called into question Britain’s relationship with Northern Ireland. Whilst the possibility of sporadic inter-communal violence in Northern Ireland is small, the Brexit vote has certainly placed a strain upon the hard-won stability of British-Irish relations.


Whilst the full implications of so-called ‘Brexit’ for the future of the United Kingdom (UK)’s relationship (if any) with the European Union (EU) remain profoundly uncertain, it is also the case that the UK-wide vote to Leave has exacerbated the already existing sense of fluidity regarding the future constitutional relationships between the constituent parts of the multi-national UK state. Of course, the majority votes to Remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland do not, of themselves, create a new constitutional arrangement, but if the new Conservative administration of Theresa May were to decide to push on with a UK-wide ‘hard Brexit’, perhaps involving leaving the single market in a bid to establish control over the free movement of persons, then it is difficult to see how the stability of the UK’s constitutional status quo could be guaranteed. As Brendan O’Leary has argued, ‘those who insist that a 52-48 vote is good enough to take the entire UK out of the EU would trigger a serious legitimacy crisis.’  A key lesson that needs to be understood by Westminster in the coming months or years of negotiation (with Brussels and the EU member states, particularly the Republic of Ireland, but also within the divided UK) is that, as O’Leary puts it, multi-national states are not usually ‘destroyed by secessionists alone’ (Ibid.). It is the ‘unilateral adjustment of the terms of the union by the centre’ that can provoke such an outcome. This may be an unintended consequence of such unilateralism, even if some at the centre profess the view (as David Cameron did after the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014) that the multi-national union is ‘precious beyond words’.

Great Britain and Northern Ireland: A ‘Place Apart’

unionist mural

Image by Miss Copenhagen via Flickr

It is unsurprising that during the campaign neither the public nor the political class in Great Britain (GB) appeared to give much serious consideration to the effect of a Brexit vote upon three crucial interlocking relationships: the fragile state of communal relations within Northern Ireland in the post-Good Friday Agreement (GFA) era; the North-South relationships on the island of Ireland, and the questions Brexit was likely to raise concerning the 300-mile land border; the wider UK relationship with its closest neighbour. This ‘reflexive forgetfulness’ of the GB public with regard to the unloved province of Northern Ireland may have been unsurprising, but it was lamentable, and possibly destabilising, nonetheless. If there was engagement with the potential repercussions of a Leave vote on the internal, already fragile, relations between the constituent parts of the UK, the focus tended to be on Scotland, rather than Northern Ireland. This neglect, by no means benign, reflects a deep-rooted sense that Northern Ireland is, in Dervla Murphy’s phrase, a ‘place apart’.  In the short and medium-term the ‘peace process’ has not been jeopardised directly, and there is no immediate prospect of a return to widespread violent confrontation between Irish nationalists and British unionists in Northern Ireland. Aside from a number of weak and fragmented ‘dissident’ republican groups, there is no appetite for the resumption of an armed campaign among ‘mainstream’ republicans. There is always a possibility of sporadic inter-communal violence in Northern Ireland, but this looks remote at present. Nevertheless the Brexit vote has certainly placed a strain upon the hard-won stability of these relationships since 1998.

The Republic of Ireland and ‘Brexit’

For the Dublin government of Fine Gael (supported by several independent TDs), there was a fear that the critically important trading relationships with the UK would be damaged, and that any imposition of a ‘hard’ border (involving customs posts and possibly restrictions upon free movement) would further complicate and hamper economic activity. Allied to this hard-nosed economic concern, Dublin was also anxious that Northern Ireland’s fragile community relations and the institutional balance reflected in the GFA could be under threat, as ‘the border’ and potential constitutional change were placed, once again, on the agenda. Related to this anxiety was, perhaps, the unspoken fear of Taoiseach Enda Kenny that Dublin’s sense of being an equal partner with the UK in the lengthy years of the peace process might be compromised. The harmonious co-operation between the Dublin and London governments, built up over several decades stretching back to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, might begin to unravel, if London took the Brexit vote as a green light to marginalise the concerns of the Irish. Those concerns were three-fold: maintaining the open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland; keeping the ‘common travel area’ between Ireland and the UK (first agreed in the aftermath of partition in 1922); and, safeguarding the trading relationships (worth approximately £1 billion a week). As Pat Leahy argued in the Irish Times, ‘underpinning all these was the need above all else to protect the peace process.’

Kenny was keen to confirm that this bilateralism, and the ‘special relationship’ between the two states would survive Brexit, and his meeting with Theresa May in late July assuaged these doubts somewhat. But, as with that other fabled ‘special relationship’ between London and Washington, this one is also fundamentally asymmetrical, intrinsically of more significance for one side than the other. When it comes to tackling the enormous fallout from the Brexit decision, neither the relationship with Dublin, nor indeed the impact upon Northern Ireland, are at the top of London’s to-do list. It may even be the case that these issues are closer to the bottom of that list. Having said this, the new Prime Minister’s willingness to meet with Kenny, and her declaration in Belfast that ‘no-one wants to return to the borders of the past’ have calmed these fears to at least some extent.

However, hard choices remain to be made, and there is no guarantee that May’s government will be able to square the circle between impatient Conservative back-benchers and pragmatists in Whitehall who are concerned about softening the impact of the decision, both economically and diplomatically. The former group, buoyed by the momentum of victory, believe that Brexit should be swift, complete and irrevocable; they are watching hawkishly for any signs of back-tracking. This is the context in which Enda Kenny made a speech at the MacGill summer school in Co. Donegal, which speculated on the prospect, at some time in the indeterminate future (perhaps ‘10, 15 or 20 years from now’), that Northern Ireland might vote to join with the Republic. Of course, this was ‘controversial’, but almost certainly was designed to ensure that others, in the UK and Europe, take seriously the concerns of the Dublin administration. More parochially, Kenny perhaps felt that he needed to respond to the pressure being applied by opposition parties Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin (SF).

Sinn Féin and ‘Brexit’

Having campaigned for a Remain vote, on the basis of its ‘critical engagement’ position with respect to the EU, SF’s first response to the referendum result was to demand a border poll in Northern Ireland, as provided for in the GFA, if there is a realistic prospect of a majority vote in favour of constitutional change. Gerry Adams, SF President, claimed that the result meant that the ‘British government had forfeited the claim to represent the North at an EU level. Its policy has been rejected by the people.’ When this demand was predictably dismissed by the outgoing Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, SF quietly moved on, instead focusing its attention on a mooted ‘national forum’ (modelled on the New Ireland Forum of the early 1980s and the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation of the early years of the peace process) to discuss how ‘the vote of the clear majority of citizens in the North who want to remain in the EU can be respected and defended.’ Although this proposal was effectively adopted by the Dublin government, it was also immediately rejected by Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist First Minister of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, SF senses that Brexit could present republicans with a real opportunity to break out of the sterile impasse that had threatened its ‘project of transformation’ in Northern Ireland. SF has always characterised the GFA as ‘transitional’ and the peace process as ‘dynamic’, reflecting the party’s teleological belief that the ‘natural’ end-point of the process will be a united Ireland. It remains to be seen whether or not Brexit helps to make this vision any more realistic, but for the moment it has certainly breathed new life into the notion that the ‘border’ continues to be a key issue for the peoples of the island.

Since June 23rd, there have been emollient words and symbolic gestures from Theresa May, but sooner or later some difficult and potentially painful choices will have to be taken. In a joint letter on August 10th to Theresa May, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, the First and Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, argued that the UK government should take into full account four issues of particular significance for Northern Ireland: the border should not become an impediment to the movement of goods, people and services; both private and public sectors need to retain access to unskilled as well as skilled labour; the energy requirements of Northern Ireland should not be affected; the potential loss of EU funds (over 3.5 billion Euros during 2014-2020) needs to be addressed.  The Dublin government, and the parties in Northern Ireland, will be hoping to have a genuine input into this decision-making, but it looks highly improbable that all the political forces in play will, or can, be satisfied simultaneously. Despite the constructive initial discussions, the Foster/McGuinness letter recognises that ‘it cannot be guaranteed that outcomes that suit our common interests are ultimately deliverable.’ Will the centre hold, and if so, how?

Stephen Hopkins is Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK. His book, The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict, was published in 2013 by Liverpool University Press.