international analysis and commentary

How Johnson’s Brexit is accelerating the path to a United Ireland


Northern Ireland was largely ignored by Boris Johnson’s government when it pursued its Brexit deal. That neglect continues now. One of the worst mistakes was sacking Julian Smith on 13 February 2020, a strong Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who successfully restored power-sharing after a three-year impasse and was admired across the political and national divide. It seems that one of reasons for his removal was his evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in October 2019 that a no-deal Brexit was “a very, very bad idea for Northern Ireland”.


Johnson never had an honest conversation about the fact that he was going to place a border between Britain and Northern Ireland. “I want to make it absolutely clear, that under no circumstances, whatever happens, will I allow the EU or anyone else to create any kind of division down the Irish Sea,” he said. He nevertheless negotiated just that without securing any consent from the people it would affect. He lied about the sea border, he pretended it did not exist, and now it is real. This has lost him any credibility in addressing the people of Northern Ireland. It also left businesses and citizens unprepared for the consequences of a sea border and the Johnson government was quick to point the finger at Brussels.

For many, such behavior provided reasonable evidence that Johnson signed the Northern Ireland Protocol in bad faith – with no intention of ever properly respecting it, just biding time for an excuse to reopen talks. The public debate tends to lay too much blame on the Protocol and forgets the fundamental problems that Brexit was always due to cause in Northern Ireland. EU membership was decisive specifically for the hybrid status of Northern Ireland and its people, and the promotion of economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, both demanded by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.


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Tensions within unionism, which incorporates a hard pro-Brexit stance, have arisen as a self-confident nationalism in Northern Ireland has become more successful electorally. For example, during the 2019 UK election, Unionists suffered notable losses in Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose ten members at the Westminster Parliament (MPs) had propped up Theresa May’s government, lost its leverage at Westminster. This includes the loss of two seats to nationalists, including its parliamentary leader’s seat to pro-independence Sinn Féin. Support increased for the cross-community Alliance Party, which won one seat. The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) won two seats, one from the DUP and one from Sinn Féin. Notably, there are now more nationalist MPs from Northern Ireland (9) than Unionists (8) — a reverse from the 7-to-11 ratio in 2017.

The Northern Ireland elections on May 5, 2022 may provide a further shift in that direction and the census survey results will show whether there is now a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland. Politics have turned sour for the Unionists culminating in the DUP’s ultimate incompetence over Brexit and other policies have been affected negatively. Arlene Foster was an Ulster Unionist party member until it signed the Good Friday Agreement. She left to join the DUP, which formed the first government with Sinn Féin. The DUP agreed to support hardline Brexiteers in destroying Theresa May’s “Customs Union” deal – believing this would lead to greater separation from the Republic of Ireland. But it ended up instead with greater separation from Britain.

The DUP continually refuses to accept any responsibility for its mistakes and frequently blames others instead. Foster was unable to deal with the complexity of Brexit and its effect on the Union. She seemed to believe Boris Johnson’s and the hard Brexiteers’ promises, which in retrospect was naïve. Her judgement was poor as she led the DUP to campaign to leave the EU, only for Northern Ireland to vote to remain. Foster held the balance of power after the 2017 UK election and overplayed her hand opposing Theresa May’s withdrawal deal and failed in her opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday year sees its main Unionist parties in turmoil. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Steve Aiken resigned, and Doug Beattie succeeded him. For the DUP, Edwin Poots was elected as new leader but was forced to resign after just 21 chaotic days. The new DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said people should not be talking about Irish unity. It seems that his ill-advised electoral strategy is based on re-igniting sectarianism, which has been the backdrop of the state of Northern Ireland for most of its hundred years of existence.

Unfortunately, the situation has descended into farce in mainland UK as well. Former Labour MP and hard Brexit supporter Baroness Kate Hoey made some ill-advised deeply sectarian remarks in a  preface to a report by a Unionist blogger, published in the Belfast Newsletter, which was promptly supported by Jeffrey Donaldson as well.

Hoey claimed there were “very justified concerns that many professional vocations have become dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion, and this positioning of activists is then used to exert influence on those in power.” Professions mentioned included journalism, law and the public service.

During the Troubles loyalist paramilitaries often singled out for murder those Catholics who were doing well for themselves. Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson were killed, in 1989 and 1999 respectively, for being solicitors. When David Trimble and John Hume shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, the Ulster Unionist leader admitted Unionists had built in Northern Ireland “a cold house for Catholics”.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss now also holds the Brexit portfolio following the resignation of Lord Frost. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, days before she met the EU’s Maroš Šefčovič for face-to-face talks, Truss made clear that she would continue the government’s hard stance on the Protocol, saying: “My priority is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. I want a negotiated solution but if we must use legitimate provisions including Article 16, I am willing to do that. “This safeguard clause was explicitly designed — and agreed to by all sides — to ease acute problems because of the sensitivity of the issues at play,” she said. Truss, widely seen as a future Conservative leadership contender who will want to win over the right-wing of the party, also said she wanted to “end the role of the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter of disputes.”

All Brexit ministers have faithfully if unsuccessfully adhered to that choice of words or strategy with the aim of appearing strong for the domestic audience. This stance, however, also limits the scope of negotiations with the EU. The EU negotiators, as well, as the member states have supported the Irish position throughout and this will not change. If the UK government was to trigger Article 16, the EU can restart the infringement procedure before the European Court of Justice and start the arbitration process of the Withdrawal Agreement. There would probably be economic sanctions on the UK.


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Boris Johnson is having a torrid time in the UK and might consider a trade war as a distraction. This could lead him to invoke Article 16, but in a way that it was not intended to be used when negotiated. As it is now, the Protocol is being used as a political football – used by politicians for their own advancement.

Under the line, the UK government is losing trust and credibility among businesses and the people of Northern Ireland. The political landscape has shifted. A poll of more than 3,000 voters by Lord Ashcroft, published on December 13, 2021, shows the Irish Nationalists, Sinn Féin, winning the next Northern Irish election at a canter — and most people in Ulster believing that a border poll in 10 years’ time would deliver a united Ireland.


A billboard near the Ulster border


The position of Northern Ireland is unique because of its history and cannot be legally copied by other parts of the UK. It depends on the Protocol. The constant negotiating conflict or war of words with the EU is a motivating factor for Johnson and many Brexiteers. They need an enemy. The way Lord Frost attacked the very protocol he negotiated himself was illogical and caused a significant loss of good will and trust. The key issue was to be seen to threaten and abuse the EU.

The economy of truth among Brexiteers that the EU was preventing the UK from being a world trading power was delusional. Actions by the Johnson government instead weaken the Union and the Brexit project as they had sold it to the electorate. The reality as we see from Northern Ireland is that part of the UK is doing very well with its special status. A successful economy in Northern Ireland that avoids the real pitfalls of Brexit and strengthens its ties with the Republic of Ireland is therefore making a united Ireland more likely on a timescale few could have foreseen just a few years ago.