international analysis and commentary

Johnson’s six-year Brexit fantasy erodes unionism in Northern Ireland


The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was an ardent supporter of Brexit during and after the 2016 referendum. The expectation was that Brexit would strengthen unionism. The reality is that the decision to leave the EU on the hardest possible exit deal – as advocated by the DUP – is now challenging unionism at its core. The unintended consequence is the prospect of a united Ireland looming on the horizon.

The party leadership appears blind to the forces that created this outcome. The party backed “Leave” in the 2016 referendum, then gained disproportionate power following the 2017 UK general elections: the votes of its ten MPs in Westminster propped up Theresa May’s government after she lost the Conservatives’ majority. But the DUP then refused to support her withdrawal deal – even though it would have treated Northern Ireland the same as Great Britain – and backed May’s successor Boris Johnson.

DUP’s Arlene Foster with UK prime minister Boris Johnson


It is becoming more and more evident that the DUP’s support for Brexit has been a seismic error. Brexit has severely weakened its future electoral prospects and it is threatening the future of Northern Ireland as it has led to a border in the Irish Sea. Believing anything Boris Johnson has promised over the last few years has left the DUP disappointed. Johnson told the 2018 DUP party conference that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any […] agreement” requiring custom checks in the Irish Sea – a year before he was in Downing Street and then proceeded to do exactly that.

On May 5, 2022, nationalist Sinn Féin won 27 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, with the DUP coming in with 25 seats. The Alliance party performed strongly, winning 17 of the assembly’s 90 seats, up from eight in 2017. Based on that result, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill is now in line to be the North’s first minister. Sinn Féin also won the most first-preference votes. This is the first time any Irish republican political party has achieved this.

The system of government in the North is such that Irish republicans and British unionists must work together. However, the DUP refuses to commit to entering government with Sinn Féin, despite the historic and democratic result. Its position is not at all surprising. While the DUP may try to use the fallout from Brexit as an excuse for not entering government, its thinly veiled sectarianism is the main reason.

Sinn Féin winning the most seats means that the DUP would be its junior partner in government. This is unacceptable to a unionist mindset that is used to having the upper hand in a profoundly sectarian state that has been anti-Catholic from its very foundation. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s plan to stop Sinn Féin failed miserably. Not only did the two main unionist parties not make gains, they, in fact, suffered losses. The DUP lost three seats, while the other mainstream unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), lost one. The DUP’s first-preference vote dropped by almost 7%, while Sinn Féin’s increased by more than 1%.

On May 17th, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss made a statement in the House of Commons on the UK government’s intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which forms part of the UK’s exit agreement with the EU. The Foreign Secretary said her preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU and has invited European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič to a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. The Foreign Secretary said the government is clear that the bill is consistent with international law and that they will set out the legal position in due course. The House of Lords will test the legal case provided by the government. Business groups in Northern Ireland have said that “anything other than a negotiated outcome is sub-optimal.”


Read also: Britain’s new relationship with the EU: politics of resentment


Liz Truss has become more active in opposing the Protocol like former Brexit minister Lord Frost. Remember that Lord Frost wrote on Twitter in December 2020: “I’m very pleased and proud to have led a great UK team to secure today’s excellent deal with the EU. Both sides worked tirelessly day after day in challenging conditions to get the biggest and broadest trade deal in the world, in record time. Thank you all who made it happen.” Despite this celebratory statement, Lord Frost is now strongly advocating ripping up the Protocol and starting a trade war with the EU. This is clearly reckless because the UK would suffer more than the EU without any real benefit. Lord Frost has the unfortunate knack of being a student of the art of burning bridges. Not satisfied with just attacking the EU, he has now attacked the Biden administration. In the US, the Biden administration and the Irish American lobby on Capitol Hill are deeply unhappy about the Johnson government’s moves to undermine the Protocol and have made that clear to both the British and the DUP.

Passing legislation will take time, leaving both sides the option to negotiate in the meantime. If that fails and the legislation is adopted, the EU could start legal proceedings against the UK. The EU has three key retaliatory weapons available through the trade agreement. The most damaging of the three would be ending the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) using articles 770 and 779.

Mary Lou McDonald, who serves as Sinn Féin’s leader of the opposition in the Republic of Ireland, argues that the country is reaching “the end days of partition” and that a border poll could happen in the next decade. Likewise, unionists campaigning against a referendum suggests those on all sides of the debate are aware it is a not-so-distant possibility. The Johnson government says the Assembly elections has indicated that a majority in Northern Ireland is against the Protocol. Exactly the contrary is the case. Judging by both first preference votes and seats, the majority that favors a functional Protocol has increased compared to the previous Assembly. Furthermore, unionists are not of one mind on the Protocol: many in the UUP favor a more moderate approach, reform rather than abolition.

There is little evidence that the checks imposed to protect the EU’s single market are hurting businesses. Instead, many businesses in Northern Ireland are now in a privileged position compared to competitors, to sell both to the EU and the UK. Northern Irish unionists, however, have said they want to scrap the Protocol, because they fear it separates them from Great Britain. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, warned on May 18, 2022 that the British government’s untrustworthy handling of Brexit is pushing majority opinion in Northern Ireland closer to a united Ireland.

Although the Northern Ireland Assembly has no legislative power over the Protocol, the MLAs just elected would have a vote at the end of 2024 on whether to discontinue key elements of the Protocol. The unionist parties are strongly opposed to the Protocol, but their combined seat share is significantly short of the Assembly majority needed to discontinue the relevant Protocol articles: just 37 MLAs out of 90.

Johnson insists that he must act because the Protocol is harming Northern Ireland’s economy. The evidence says otherwise. A recent report by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research points out that the province’s economy has outperformed the rest of the UK since Brexit. It specifically credits “the Northern Irish Protocol and its special status in the Brexit arrangements, including better trade and investment conditions as part of the EU’s single market and customs union.”


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


Separately, a survey of manufacturers in Northern Ireland has found that two-thirds of them now expect the Protocol to have either a neutral or positive impact, and that by three-to-one, they want it improved, not replaced.

Sinn Féin is the largest party in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, the DUP and Boris Johnson are making a mockery out of democracy. If Sinn Féin is refused the opportunity to take the office of first minister, will it have a legitimate reason to reject future power sharing on that basis? Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney commented that the EU is negotiating with a partner it “simply cannot trust”. Whether the UK wants to reach a deal at all is doubtful. Even if member states were to grant the Commission a new mandate, there is no guarantee that the UK government would stick to what is agreed.

A man walks past a Sinn Féin mural calling for Irish unity.


Conservative cabinet ministers and the DUP keep mentioning that they are challenging to Protocol to protect the Good Friday agreement. This is a rewriting of facts and history. The DUP opposed the Good Friday agreement at the time of creation, as did some Conservative ministers, including Michael Gove. If Boris Johnson triggers Article 16, it will backfire on the conservative government that misled the UK population about the benefits of Brexit and be another step in the country’s decline in international standing.

Pro-Brexit/anti-Good Friday agreement unionism is now facing two motivated groups of voters in the form of Northern Ireland nationalists and anti-Brexit/pro Good Friday Agreement non-nationalists. The more the DUP allies itself with Boris Johnson’s Brexit fantasy and avoid engaging with the Northern Ireland Parliament and Executive, the more the unionist bloc share will decline and the greater the share of seats for pro-EU Protocol parties will become. Boris Johnson bangs the Brexit drum to distract voters from his long record of failures, which is weakening democracy and the UK economy. Unionists back him at their peril.