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Northern Ireland

How Brexit Is Threatening Northern Ireland's Peace Agreement

There are unsettling parallels between what Conservative and DUP as many believe it is worth risking the peace process for Brexit.
Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: Benjamin Wareing / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the central tenets of conservatism is the inability to detect the irony in any sentiment you’ve ever expressed. Jeremy Hunt rigidly adhered to this rule when he warned the EU that if they "put a country like Britain in the corner, we don't crumble – we fight". One of the major stumbling blocks during the Brexit negotiations has been Northern Ireland, and concerns that imposing a hard border could see a return to conflict – but the resonance didn't seem to click with the Foreign Secretary.


Various Tories used their recent party conference to lay out their visions for Northern Ireland, but most of the ideas floated were nothing but DUP designs on tape delay; be it Theresa May’s 2022 Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which was originally suggested by former DUP MP Nelson McCausland to mark the North’s centenary in 2021, or Boris Johnson’s bridge between Scotland and Ireland, an idea that the DUP have been touting since at least 2015, and which was backed by Arlene Foster in January of this year.

The most unsettling parallel between Tory and DUP lines came after Foster had aired her frustration with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – the deal that brought 30 years of fighting in Northern Ireland to an end – railing against its perception as "sacrosanct" and insisting it could be changed to accommodate Brexit.

Theresa May's pledge that Tories would "never accept" the carving off of the North was a warning shot to anyone looking to safeguard the protections and peace that the agreement put in place. The GFA explicitly guarantees the right of an EU state, the Republic of Ireland, to carve off the North and dissolve it into one Irish state, should the majority vote for reunification in a border poll. "Never" is not a word that should be applied when discussing Northern Ireland as a member of the UK.

To say "never" in the face of Brexit is to set what sounds like a dangerous precedent that could violate the spirit of the paper on which northern peace was built. Writing in April of this year, Stephen Farry and Sorcha Eastwood of the Alliance Party said that Brexit "must be seen as an existential threat to the entire concept of a shared Northern Ireland". The concept of a shared Northern Ireland was brought into law by the GFA. They wrote that the continuation of DUP obstinance over Brexit had two likely outcomes: "Northern Ireland shackled to the rest of the UK in a hard Brexit," or "a united Ireland emerging on the basis of a majoritarian outcome within a border poll".


If the Tories are beholden to the DUP over Brexit then surely they could never be trusted to uphold a vote to reunify Ireland that unionists of all party persuasions would oppose. Sinn Féin (SF) stepped up their campaign for a border poll after the Brexit vote. SF president Mary Lou McDonald said in July that while a poll should not be held in the midst of Brexit uncertainty, one must be held within the next five years. She has since called for an immediate referendum in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which becomes more likely every time Theresa May doubles down on there being no backstop for Northern Ireland, as she did this Monday.

Tories don’t particularly care about treating the North well, but it’s not for nothing that their full title is the Conservative and Unionist Party. Colonialism is at the core of the party’s identity. To give up on Ireland would represent the last great defeat of the Empire. An Irish governmental report, compiled by Senator Mark Daly, said that a referendum after Brexit is "inevitable". While polling predominantly still predicts that Northern Ireland would choose to remain in the UK, the margin has narrowed since the Brexit vote. The most recent poll, conducted by LucidTalk, had a united Ireland one point ahead of the maintenance of the union.

The prospect of majority support for Irish unity is realer than it ever has been, and the only way for the Tories to avoid losing the last morsel of Britain’s oldest colony is to, one day, undermine the GFA. It’s fitting that through a nationalist house fire like Brexit, as well as their alliance with the DUP, the Tories have stumbled upon one more pesky agreement to destroy. If Brexit was a campaign to “Take Back Control”, to grab hold of the UK’s destiny, then it’s all the better for Brexiteers that the process would allow them to almost accidentally reclaim exclusive control of Northern Ireland’s future.


Other Tory figures have been undermining the agreement in recent weeks, too; Jacob Rees-Mogg and Philip Hammond’s comments about hard borders don’t specifically call for the stripping away of any GFA guarantees, but a hard border is generally accepted as the biggest threat to peace, short of declaring war on the Republic.

Foster is half right when she says the GFA is "sacrosanct" – a good chunk of the populace that voted for its implementation understandably refuse to criticise the agreement that put an official end to the horrors of the Troubles. There is also a romanticisation of the agreement that stems from it being one of the few lasting political successes of the 1990s, a decade we now point to as the beginning of the 2008 recession. The agreement took bipartisanship to a new level, being supported by every major party north and south of Ireland other than the DUP, every party in Britain, and Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party.

There are real issues with the GFA. Most pressingly, given that it has been 20 months now since the North’s Assembly collapsed, is that the institutional power sharing enshrined in the agreement could only last for a certain amount of time; truly successful republicanism requires the death of unionism and vice-versa. Parties from such backgrounds can only work together for so long. Foster’s criticisms, of course, don’t address these concerns, and instead focus on how the agreement gets in the way of whatever expression of British nationalism is currently en vogue.

A recent poll in the predominantly unionist NewsLetter showed support for alterations to the GFA to allow for Brexit to be minuscule, but new research done jointly by the universities of Cardiff and Edinburgh shows that 87 percent of northern Leave voters believe it is worth risking the peace process for Brexit. An impasse is approaching.

Twenty years after the agreement, the violence of the Troubles is still too fresh in some people’s minds to take a chance on something as shambolic as Brexit. When the push for reunification comes – and it will – then we will truly see just how committed to the Good Friday Agreement these politicians and citizens are.