Brexit Has Undermined the Good Friday Agreement and Reignited Questions of Irish Unity

World Politics Review, 25.04.2019
Nathan Heath, graduado de la Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University)

Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest at the Irish border, Carrickcarnon, Ireland, March 30, 2019 (AP/Peter Morrison).

While the recent six-month extension of the deadline for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has delayed any Brexit fallout, for now, it has not alleviated renewed tensions in Northern Ireland over the possible return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. The EU’s recent receptiveness to a so-called Irish backstop in any Brexit agreement that would prevent the reintroduction of a hard border was nevertheless a good sign for Belfast, given that during the 2016 Brexit referendum, 56 percent of Northern Irish voters opted to remain in the EU. Irrespective of whether that Irish backstop is implemented if an eventual deal is struck between London and Brussels, Brexit has had an unintended impact in Ireland, reigniting discussions of Irish reunification. With demographic shifts in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, along with increasing frustrations with the entire Brexit process, the stage could be set for a future referendum on Irish unity.

In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, formally ended the longstanding ethnoreligious conflict between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland, as well as between paramilitary and British government forces. Nearly 30 years of fighting during “the Troubles” claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people, saw the rise of the Irish Republican Army as a leading international terrorist organization, and resulted in a massive struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, particularly in Ulster. The Good Friday Agreement provided for the removal of British troops from conflict zones, lifted border checkpoints, and created a power-sharing arrangement allowing for direct rule from Westminster in conjunction with a Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast and a North-South Ministerial Council reinforcing relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Among other terms, the agreement also allowed for the possibility of a referendum on the reunification of Ireland.

Since its passage, the Good Friday Agreement has generally kept the peace. Violence has decreased substantially, although both nationalist and unionist extremist groups have carried out intermittent attacks. Power-sharing arrangements were slow to take root and resulted in a suspended Northern Ireland Assembly and direct rule from Westminster until 2007, when Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Ian Paisley, finally agreed to put aside their differences.

Brexit has threatened to undermine the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement by raising the possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, since it is a member of the EU. A return to hard borders could lead to recurring violence. Northern Irish citizens already lacking the EU rights of Irish citizens, such as family reunification, fear that their liberties would be further restricted. Rifts have also reappeared in the Northern Irish Assembly, where the DUP leadership, allied with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s narrow parliamentary majority in Westminster, have repeatedly clashed with Sinn Fein over Britain taking Northern Ireland out of the EU. It is within this context of Irish frustration with Brexit that discussions of Irish unification have reemerged, driven by two primary forces: demography and conflict fatigue.

The Irish conflict itself is rooted in demographic divides: Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist. The 1921 partition of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was made with the mindset that the north would be mostly Protestant and the south would be mostly Catholic. But the struggle for minority rights, particularly in Northern Ireland, ultimately resulted in the prolonged violence of the Troubles and, eventually, the Good Friday Agreement itself. Because of the peace deal, family and friends long divided by the British-imposed border were immediately freer to move between the two Irelands, lessening the feeling of demographic division imposed by a hard border. Similarly, greater integration of the two Irelands within the EU decreased political and religious divides. The looming possibility of hard borders returning under a no-deal Brexit is raising old specters in a society where demographic divides were thought to be fading.


Northern Ireland is becoming more Catholic and more nationalist, and this demographic shift is driving much of the discussion on reunification.

Northern Ireland is becoming more Catholic and more nationalist, and this demographic shift is driving much of the discussion on reunification. The 2011 census in Northern Ireland showed that 45 percent of the population was Catholic, while 48 percent was Protestant, and the country could see a Catholic majority by 2021. More importantly, 44 percent of the working-age population was found to be Catholic, with only 40 percent Protestant. Within Northern Ireland itself, a BBC/RTE survey this year found that as many as 62 percent of citizens believed a reunified Ireland was more likely if Brexit occurred. Irish sentiment as a whole is also increasingly nationalist: A recent survey from the Irish Mirror indicated that 7 in 10 Irish adults favored reunification, with 80 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed wanting a united Ireland.

Many of these younger, pro-unification Irish citizens are also increasingly liberal, mobilizing not only in favor of civil and human rights but also pushing for the repeal of abortion laws in the Republic of Ireland and resisting DUP-backed abortion restrictions in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein’s new, younger leaders, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, have repeatedly emphasized Brexit’s role in changing the Irish-British relationship and pointed to it as justification for discussions of Irish unity.

But Northern Ireland isn’t just experiencing demographic change—it’s also experiencing conflict fatigue. Part of this fatigue is directed at Brexit. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are heavily pro-EU. Not only did 56 percent of Northern Irish vote Remain in the Brexit referendum, a 2017 study found that 77 percent of respondents in the Republic of Ireland were optimistic about the future of the EU, the highest percentage of any EU country population surveyed.

Irish and Northern Irish leadership alike are frustrated with May’s government. Sinn Fein members still refuse to speak in Parliament, and the Republic of Ireland’s leadership insists that it will not be “steamrolled” by Westminster. Large-scale anti-Brexit protests have taken place along the Irish border, with Sinn Fein leadership taking part. On both sides of the Irish border, there is deep disillusionment with the U.K. and how Brexit has fomented resurgent divisions, especially with rhetoric about hard borders that recalls the divisions that defined the Irish people’s darkest times.

The other part of the conflict fatigue the Irish are experiencing is with their own longstanding struggle. The prospect of a hard border has opened old wounds from centuries of Irish subservience to British rule, as well as years of struggle between Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists. Memories of kneecappings, car bombs, Bloody Sunday, the Royal Constabulary patrolling the streets of Londonderry, walls, and the dreaded border checkpoints still haunt people across Ireland.

The British government still controls the calling of any referendum on reunification, and it currently has no intention of doing so. Yet support for Irish unity is steadily growing, and May’s shaky government coalition, heavily dependent on the alliance of an increasingly unpopular DUP and generally disliked by the British people, may not be long in power, especially if Britain exits the EU without a deal. Could all the uncertainty of the Brexit saga create the right moment for Ireland, after centuries of struggle, to be made truly whole again?

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