By Brennan Steele
In 1921, partition ended the Irish War of Independence, creating an independent South and unionist North. It is looking increasingly possible that by 2021, partition will be a thing of the past. The fallout over Brexit, coupled with the collapse of the power-sharing government in Stormont, the seat of government in Northern Ireland, is exacerbating tensions that threaten the unity of the United Kingdom.
The conflict stems largely from the Troubles, the period of instability and terrorist activity in the North that began in 1966 with a civil rights movement and ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This agreement disarmed the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force, two conflicting paramilitary groups. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, but a soft border was created between the Republic of Ireland and the North and a power sharing government was established in which both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (SF), the Irish nationalist party, participated on more or less equal terms. After a rocky start, the 2006 St. Andrews’ Agreement hashed out a functioning system within which two massively influential Northern Irish politicians, Ian Paisley (DUP) and Martin McGuinness (SF), would serve as the First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively.
In January 2017, the government fell apart when McGuinness resigned, citing continued abstinence, scandals, and disrespect from DUP politicians towards SF (one DUP minister was quoted as saying “We’ll hold our noses and do business with you”). A series of deadlines to restart the government came and went, and the process was only further complicated by McGuinness’s death in March (Paisley died in 2014). Thirteen months later, the government is still suspended, with the British government supervising daily governance. The damage that this extended suspension has done to the already flagging authority of the government in Stormont is significant. The DUP has been hit especially hard, as demonstrated by the drop in support by 3% in recent polls, now within one point of SF.
Added to this already critical situation is the trouble that Brexit has engendered. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU 56%-44%, behind only Scotland and London. Crucially, the votes were largely along confessional lines, with predominantly Catholic areas voting to remain and Protestant areas favoring leaving. To clarify, confession in Ireland has become a marker of nationality, as the republican South is overwhelmingly Catholic and the unionist North majority Protestant. In many ways, religion in Ireland has as much to do with political loyalty as belief. The Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were not the determining factors, but rather demonstrate the political leanings of their members. Unionists largely favored staying with Great Britain, while Nationalists hoped to strengthen ties with the Republic of Ireland and the EU in general. The DUP campaigned in favor of Brexit, and SF against it, prompting conflicting accounts of what the Brexit vote actually meant for residents of Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP and First Minister of the Northern Irish Assembly, called the referendum a UK-wide decision, emphasizing the equality of all votes. On the other side, Declan Kearney, a SF representative, emphasized the “huge democratic deficit” that allowed English votes to overwhelm Northern Ireland and Scotland.
In response to the Brexit referendum, some members of SF pushed for a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should seek to re-unify with the Republic. This referendum has a precedent in the Good Friday Agreement, which recognizes partition insofar as it is chosen by the majority of people in Northern Ireland (Constitutional Issues I). However, DUP leaders refused to allow the referendum, stating that sufficient support for a border poll had not been reached. It is unlikely that a majority of people in Northern Ireland favor re-unification, but that may very well change as Brexit negotiations continue and Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is unable to provide a clear picture of what Britain will look like outside of the EU.
The 10 Members of Parliament (MP) are holding May’s government in place from the DUP in Westminster, who are supplying the Conservative Party with a one-seat majority in exchange for an additional £1 billion going to Northern Ireland. This is not a formal coalition but an alliance of common interest, as the DUP has long been a Eurosceptic party. This alliance became dramatically more important when Parliament passed an amendment to the withdrawal bill, establishing Parliamentary supremacy over the deal. Any deal negotiated by May’s government is now subject to a vote. Prior to the referendum, the majority of UK MPs expressed opposition to leaving, but an unwillingness to mutiny may flip their votes.
However, the DUP faces a significant problem. They are opposed to a soft border with Ireland following Brexit, and have already threatened in December to drop support of May’s government over the border issue. This border would effectively keep them in the EU customs union, possibly without Britain’s inclusion. This separation will not fly for the DUP, who will certainly do anything in their power to remain as close to Britain as possible. However, a hard border creates even more issues, greatly damaging relations and economic ties with the South and greatly reducing the traffic across the border, which is estimated at 110 million trips annually. Critically, a recent poll claims that, in the case of a hard Brexit, the majority of people in Northern Ireland would prefer to join Ireland and remain in the EU rather than leave with the UK. This decision would trigger a set of constitutional issues going back to the Good Friday Agreement. The Northern Irish Assembly would be forced either to hold a referendum on re-unification or place them in opposition to the Agreement, opening the door to more aggressive negotiations.
None of the options open to the UK are ideal. Each has the potential to lead to economic harm as well as domestic and diplomatic crises. The starting point for Northern Ireland should be to reform the Assembly, preferably with a snap election to let voters punish those they feel are most responsible for suspending the government for over a year. Blame certainly falls on both the DUP and SF, and other parties have seen a consequent surge of support in polls. A temporary budget should be negotiated under the purview of mediators from Parliament. This action would certainly be a blow to the Northern Irish government’s prestige, but not more so than suspending itself for 13 months.
Once a temporary budget is in place, a referendum on reunification should be offered to SF as a gesture of good faith on the part of the DUP, providing that they still hold a majority. If SF has overtaken the DUP, a referendum will likely be held regardless. In the unlikely event that the majority votes to reunify, negotiations must begin immediately and the Brexit deal would likely have to be pushed back to reflect the change. If the referendum shows support for staying in the UK, then all sides can begin attempting to come to an agreement over the border with Ireland. This border must remain somewhat open, even if it is at the cost of a soft Brexit. The last fifty years of Irish history have caused too much suffering for political games to be played over legal issues.
Both Nationalists and Unionists are guilty of trying to gain political points with empty appeals to tradition. This problem is not unique to Northern Ireland, but is especially relevant when bullet holes are still visible in the side of buildings. Massive gains have been made towards a real and lasting peace since the ’90s, but Brexit now threatens to further tear apart the fragile order that years of negotiations have put in place. Now is not the time for ideological pandering, but for some difficult compromises.