Brexit Has Northern Ireland's Very Future Hanging in the Balance | Opinion

Politics in Northern Ireland is never about technicalities. 'Being'—the very existence of the place—is always on the ballot. Exactly a century ago, the British government, seeking a way out of the bitter quagmire that Irish politics had become at the end of World War I legislated a new internal boundary between 'Northern Ireland' with its armed loyalist majority and the rest of the island. What few foresaw was that the new division would harden into an international frontier within a year, institutionalising the division in hard territorial terms. An internal crisis within the Empire was frozen into a permanent international dispute but the worst of the toxin of British-Irish confrontation was corralled into the remnant Northern Ireland that, for the first fifty years, allowed British governments to turn their back on Ireland.

But not far below the surface, Northern Ireland remained dangerously volatile. When tensions rose dramatically in the late 1960s, both Britain and Ireland found themselves dragged back into history. It took thirty years of continuous political violence before they could extricate themselves. The Good Friday Agreement signed by both U.K. and Irish governments and most parties in Northern Ireland in 1998 was by far the most inventive and comprehensive effort at a reset yet. In return for stability of existence and explicit agreement on how a united Ireland might come about, the internal systems of Northern Ireland were comprehensively redesigned and the main protagonists of violence agreed to "exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues."

The Agreement had the active backing of a remarkable international coalition. The Clinton administration played a crucial role in arbitrating disputes between the parties and governments and continuing support for the reforms when their future looked uncertain. The European Union, on the other hand, provided much of the finance for underpinning efforts at reconciliation and reconstruction. Crucially but largely unnoticed, they also provided the institutional frameworks allowing the British and Irish governments to evolve a unique degree of informal co-operation and collaboration, enabling the border to dissolve and reduce in salience, even as it continued to exist. Northern Irish people could be "Irish or British or both, as they may choose," the Irish government had a recognised role within the structures of the Agreement (the so called North-South bodies) and the President of Ireland travelled at will and often without ceremony into the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom. Above all, the four freedoms of the EU—freedom of movement for people, goods, services and capital—allowed for unfettered movement while the spine of European law, including equality and human rights, provided for a framework for mutual co-operation. Until the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Only a few saw it coming. Most probably hoped that the result would go the other way. But over the last four and half years Brexit has gradually eaten into the fabric of limited stability in Northern Ireland in a way that leaves everybody uncertain and the way forward obscure. Within months of the referendum, the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed amidst republican anger at Unionist attitudes. Not long after, the largest Unionist party (DUP) was unexpectedly gifted the balance of power in the House of Commons at the very point Brexit was being negotiated. Instead of seeking a workable inter-community consensus, DUP MPs placed themselves at the core of the hard Brexit campaign. With no Assembly sitting in Belfast, they gave every appearance of commanding the majority in Northern Ireland. Except that it was always a mirage. In the referendum of 2016, Assembly elections in 2017 and in three separate elections in 2019, the majority in Northern Ireland favoured voted first to remain within the EU, and then to support the softest possible exit.

In the end, Boris Johnson dramatically abandoned the DUP. The last minute 'Ireland/ Northern Ireland Protocol' negotiated with Irish Taoiseach (Premier) Leo Varadkar last October paved the way to a binding Withdrawal Agreement and confirmed that any future customs frontier would run within the United Kingdom in the Irish Sea rather than on the land frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland would in theory be part of the United Kingdom customs territory. But, for trade in goods, its standards and rules remained aligned to those of the EU. While Johnson promised Northern Ireland companies "unfettered access" to the U.K. market, the inevitable bureaucratic "fetters" were all too obvious.

Probably only a global pandemic could divert attention from the potential for crisis. But until last week, Brexit has seemed like an unexploded bomb buried out of sight for most of 2020. Its explosive potential was not reduced. When the U.K. government announced in September that it intended to unilaterally break the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement "in a specific and limited way," and thereby break international law, it drew the ire not only of Brussels but of the Biden team and others in Washington.

Biden's explicit focus was on Ireland. Faced with the potential for Northern Ireland to escalate an increasingly polarised confrontation with the EU into wider diplomatic isolation, the U.K. government ultimately moved within weeks of Biden's election to restore a degree of predictability by agreeing to arrangements for implementation of the Protocol and transition last week. Hopes that this presaged a wider willingness to negotiate Brexit in general have not materialised. But the harder the Brexit, the tougher the controls, the greater the psychological shock of Brexit is likely to be for Unionists. Not only that: the greater the chaos of Brexit the more likely it is that the primary beneficiary will be the Scottish National Party, sworn enemies of the Union and currently well ahead in the polls.

Between protocols, customs borders, Scottish Independence and Irish unity referenda, and between Biden, Barnier and Boris, the stability, constitution and existence of Northern Ireland are all back on to the ballot. The Good Friday Agreement remains formally intact. Indeed every actor feels obliged to cast their policy, no matter how divergent, in terms of compliance with its letter or spirit. But few are fooled. The easy co-operation between Ireland and Britain which gave certainty even while the domestic politics of Northern Ireland wobbled is not what it was. Unionists have antagonised their internal partners and lost any external allies. Nationalists in Northern Ireland are increasingly open in their demands for a referendum on the possibility of uniting Ireland. And nobody is certain of the outcome, which dominoes will fall in which way or even of when or whether the whole process can be kept peaceful.

On the morning after the NI/Ireland protocol, Belfast Harbour woke up to a spectacular red dawn. Beyond the "terrible beauty," there seemed to be a warning of difficulties to come.

Duncan Morrow is Professor of Politics and Director of Community Engagement at Ulster University, and the former CEO of the NI Community Relations Council.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.