Analysis & Opinions - Brookings Institution

Explaining Brexit and the Northern Ireland Question

| Oct. 15, 2018

There was a flurry of diplomatic activity in Brussels and London over the weekend, as the European Union and British government tried but ultimately failed to reach a deal on Brexit before this week’s European Council meeting. The main obstacle: differing opinions on how best to handle the Irish border. Although Northern Ireland was rarely mentioned during the Brexit referendum campaign, it has become the central challenge to withdrawal negotiations. In a new paper—“Divided kingdom: How Brexit is remaking the UK’s constitutional order”—I examine the background to this dispute and the consequences of failing to resolve it. Here are five key takeaways.

1. Why are people arguing about the Irish border?

In a June 2016 referendum, British voters chose to leave the EU by a narrow margin of 51.9 to 48.1 percent. Since March 2017, the U.K. and EU have been engaged in messy negotiations about the terms of divorce and the future relationship. The challenge of satisfactorily meeting the requirements of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances has thus far precluded agreement on a final deal.

The U.K. is currently part of the EU’s customs union and single market. After Brexit, it will leave both: This will raise the status of the Irish border to that of a customs border, with associated checks and controls. In addition to creating practical and economic challenges, this is politically and psychologically unimaginable for many who live there.

At the December 2017 European Council meeting, the U.K. and EU adopted a joint report in which the U.K. pledged to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland. Given the lack of formal British proposals for achieving this aim and uncertainty about whether it could be addressed within the future U.K.-EU relationship, Brussels insisted on adding a “backstop” provision to the withdrawal agreement. If London is unable to devise alternative arrangements, the backstop says that Northern Ireland will remain in the EU customs union and in “full regulatory alignment” (at least for goods) with the single market. This essentially eliminates the need for checks and controls at the Irish land border, pushing them to sea and air entry points to the island of Ireland.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government relies on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to maintain a majority in the U.K. parliament, which has given the party an outsized role in Brexit negotiations. The DUP balked at the creation of an economic frontier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so London added a clause preventing “new regulatory barriers” to trade within the U.K. The EU later legally codified this political agreement in a Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which prompted objections from the U.K. government. Despite months of negotiations, the U.K. and EU have failed to agree on a workable solution.

The British government’s stated aims—leaving the EU single market and customs union, preventing a hard border with Ireland, and ensuring a countrywide approach to Brexit—have proven impossible to reconcile. May is running out of time in this high-stakes standoff, as Brexit takes effect on March 29, 2019. As the sides will almost certainly fail to finalize the withdrawal agreement and declaration on the future U.K.-EU relationship this week, there will likely be a special Council meeting in November (possibly without the U.K.). If a deal is reached, the question will then become whether the fractious U.K. parliament ratifies it. If it does not, there could be new elections, another referendum, or a plea for more time to renegotiate. Preparations are already underway for a no-deal scenario. In the worst case, the U.K. could crash out of the EU: This would mean no trade arrangement with the EU, a return to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and the imposition of a hard border with Ireland.

2. Does Brexit affect the Good Friday Agreement?

The island of Ireland was divided in 1921: The Republic of Ireland gained independence from the U.K., while the six northern counties comprising Northern Ireland remained part of the union. The region’s constitutional status has been contested between the Protestant and predominantly unionist community, and the Catholic and largely nationalist community. This dispute led to decades of political turmoil and violence, often known as the Troubles, which cost over 3,600 lives.

The April 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement enabled a comprehensive approach to governance and security. It took constitutional debates off the table by declaring that Northern Ireland will remain part of the U.K. unless there is “the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll.” On the security side, the U.K. government reduced its military presence (including dismantling army posts, watchtowers, and checkpoints) and paramilitary groups decommissioned their weapons. The creation of an assembly with a power-sharing executive ensured representation of both communities in policymaking. The EU membership of both countries made this fragile peace more viable by enabling connections and removing physical, economic, and psychological barriers.

The Agreement, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary this April, did not fully resolve past tensions. There were no peace commissions or reconciliation efforts, nor has there been a durable answer to the constitutional question. Yet Northern Ireland slowly began moving in the right direction: Its new assembly focused on routine issues of governance; there was an influx of foreign investors; and relations improved between the U.K. and Ireland.

The very idea of Brexit has destabilized politics by forcing people to choose sides between the British and Irish governments. The clever compromise at the heart of the Agreement enabled people to take a break from identity politics: unionists remained part of the U.K. and felt reassured that the province’s status could only be changed at the ballot box, while nationalists felt Irish and had a greater say in local affairs. Brexit has brought back the old polarization between “orange” (unionists) and “green” (nationalists).

3. What do the people of Northern Ireland want?

There is currently no functioning government in Northern Ireland to articulate the will of the people. The power-sharing executive collapsed in January 2017 amid a domestic political scandal, with the resurgence of identity politics making it impossible to reconstitute.

In the Brexit referendum, 55.8 percent of voters in Northern Ireland preferred to remain in the EU. Yet there were divisions within the two communities. Many unionists supported Brexit. The DUP rejects borders with Great Britain as well as Ireland, decrying the backstop proposal that would give the region a “special status.” (In reality, Northern Ireland has always been treated differently: It is heavily subsidized by the British state, the only part of the U.K. where gay marriage and abortion remain illegal, and its economy is heavily integrated with Ireland’s in the agri-food sector.) In contrast, the overwhelming majority of nationalists voted to remain in the EU. They view a hardening border as a political defeat given progress on demilitarization, a single economic market, and free movement. Sinn Féin has renewed calls for a “border poll” on the region’s constitutional status.

Attitudes have sharpened during protracted Brexit negotiations. A May 2018 survey found growing support for the EU in Northern Ireland, with 69 percent now backing Remain. Brexit has increased Catholic support for Irish unification: While only 28 percent would vote for a united Ireland if the U.K. remained in the EU, 53 percent would support unification if the U.K. left the customs union and single market in a hard Brexit. On the other side, an October 2018 poll found the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland who voted to leave the EU (87 percent) would be willing to see the peace process collapse to deliver Brexit.

4. What does Brexit mean in concrete terms for Northern Ireland?

Apart from raising sensitive questions, Brexit will affect daily life in many practical ways. Here are several examples:

  • Agriculture: The agriculture sector comprises 35 percent of the region’s exports. As it operates on an all-island basis, U.K. withdrawal from the EU’s single market will affect supply chains and processing as well as migrant labor.
  • Business: A special status for the region could give businesses a unique advantage, enabling them to operate as part of the U.K. yet within the EU’s single market. Neither nationalists nor unionists are advocating this approach, as it does not fit their political narratives. There are also concerns about future access to markets, delays at the border, supply chain disruption, and extra paperwork.
  • Citizens’ rights: Brexit will adversely affect numerous rights, including equality rights enshrined in the Agreement, fundamental rights deriving from EU membership, and labor and employment rights. The most prominent concern is the handling of the Agreement’s provision that allows those born in Northern Ireland to hold British passports, Irish passports, or both.
  • Health: There has been a growth in all-island healthcare since the Agreement; for example, the closure of children’s heart surgery services at a Belfast hospital in 2015 led to the creation of an all-island pediatric cardiology service in Dublin. Brexit raises questions about access to specialist medical services, free movement of doctors, and mutual recognition of professional qualifications.
  • Security: Despite the heightened tension, a return to large-scale violence is unlikely. But many warn any customs-related infrastructure on the border would be attacked. Police are also worried about loss of access to the European Arrest Warrant, which simplified politically sensitive extradition requests.

5. Has the United States been involved in Brexit negotiations?

The United States has been largely absent from Brexit debates. Then-President Barack Obama visited London two months before the 2016 referendum to support “a strong U.K. in a strong EU.” President Donald Trump is skeptical of the EU, called Brexit a “great thing,” and criticized May’s negotiations in a press interview during his July 2018 London visit.

The United States has focused primarily on achieving an advantageous free trade agreement. Yet this may not produce a good deal for the U.K, given disagreements on issues such as agriculture (e.g., genetically modified foods) and limits to future EU trade if there are regulatory divergences. The State Department, which assessed it was in the U.S. interest to have a constructive deal rather than a geo-economically damaging crash, has encouraged progress in negotiations. Yet despite its past engagement in Northern Ireland, the United States has refrained from helping resolve what it views as a domestic matter.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sloat, Amanda.“Explaining Brexit and the Northern Ireland Question.” Brookings Institution, October 15, 2018.