Queen's Policy Engagement

Ensnared in the ‘Brexit’ Trap: reflections on the future of Northern Ireland

As the Brexit negotiations continue and there's still no sign of a deal at Stormont, Professor Lee McGowan reflects on what lies ahead for Northern Ireland and its main parties.

Ensnared in the ‘Brexit’ Trap: reflections on the future of Northern Ireland

The confidence and supply arrangement reached between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on 27 June 2017 was hailed by both as a major success. In the short term it provided much needed support for Theresa May’s minority government in the form of 10 DUP votes – as staunch Brexiteers, they could be relied upon to help the EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament.

In return, the DUP secured extra cash – to the tune of £1 billion – for Northern Ireland, and so the arrangement has enabled the party to portray itself at home as being an influential voice in government. Viewed over a more medium term perspective, however, this arrangement may actually come to weaken the DUP‘s appeal as a partner and raise further issues over the Prime Minister’s judgement. Perhaps, alternatively, it will reveal how the DUP have been duped by a much more skilful and manipulative Theresa May.

Political Unionism in Northern Ireland has always held the union with Great Britain as its core mantra. In March 2017, in a seismic political change, this force (comprising the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) lost its majority in the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time since 1921.  The DUP may have emerged as the largest party, but it was only some 1,100 votes ahead of Sinn Fein. Politics in the region has become ever more polarised, and the parties are coming under increasing public pressure to negotiate a deal to establish a working government in Stormont.

Brexit has been an added and unwelcome complication to the efforts to return to power-sharing, as the DUP and Sinn Fein hold divergent views. The shock result of the 2017 general election may have brought the DUP both hope and potential influence – but now it might find that it has been ensnared in a Brexit trap, which might actually begin to untangle the bonds between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The DUP has unwittingly placed itself directly in the full glare of the London media’s spotlight. Questions are now, for the first time, being asked about who the DUP MPs are, what political views they hold, and about Northern Ireland in general. The DUP’s socially conservative stance – on topics like same sex marriage, alcohol, and Sunday trading – may not sit comfortably with many within the modern Conservative party. Is there a danger that the DUP’s Weltanschauung will illustrate more differences than commonality with the leading parties in Great Britain? And does this damage the DUP’s credibility as a partner, or even weaken the affinity between the peoples of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

More intriguingly, the DUP may also have inadvertently created new conditions that could raise some questions about Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK. Many observers and parliamentarians may dismiss such suggestions as both far-fetched and fanciful, but greater discussion and analysis are needed.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement includes a provision for a ‘border poll’ to be called on the issue of Irish unification – subject to the permission of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein has made repeated calls for such a poll following the EU referendum, and although opinion polls continue to show that there is insufficient support for unification through this route at the present time, the percentage has been steadily increasing.

Any border poll at any time will stir up political tensions and generate animosities between the two main communities. Given the lack of public support, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has rejected calls for a border poll for any time in the immediate future. But the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP makes the situation tricky.

There are several issues for the DUP to recognise. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that Northern Ireland as a region voted to remain in the EU. Its decision to endorse (for cash) the Conservative government’s Brexit strategy might come to benefit all in Northern Ireland, but it should still be seen as a risky course of action in the medium term. With over 90% of the nationalist community opposing Brexit, the DUP risks alienating almost half of Northern Ireland’s electorate.

Secondly, not all unionist voters voted for Brexit. With some 20% of this group opting to ‘remain’, the DUP cannot claim to represent all unionist opinion. With the demographic map changing and a younger generation of Catholic voters now increasingly expressing an Irish identity, there is a danger that by supporting Brexit, the DUP may inadvertently increase support for a border poll, and so, perhaps, the chance of Irish unification.

Much will depend on the final shape of Brexit. To date there has been no sign yet of any of the monies promised by Theresa May arriving in Northern Ireland, and this has fuelled doubts about the confidence and supply arrangement. Much is expected of Philip Hammond’s November budget.

The constitutional question is the fundamental cornerstone of all shades of unionism in Northern Ireland. In public, and following the Good Friday Agreement, the union is portrayed as being more secure than ever, but in private there are growing doubts about the medium term future of Northern Ireland and the UK government’s commitment to the region. These are not new: in 1991 Peter Robinson, then deputy leader of the DUP, warned that ‘all British governments had made it clear that the union was finished.’

Twenty-six years later, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom is now coming under the microscope across the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland has been something of a headache in the Brexit discussions to date for the UK government, as it has been challenged by the EU and the Irish government to come up with a solution to the Irish border question. Keeping the border as ‘frictionless’ as possible necessitates some unique arrangement and solution to effectively prevent any political reaction morphing into renewed political animosity and conflict. Until very recently it seemed that few in Whitehall fully understood the politics and the identities of the people living in this region of the UK.

Can a situation arise where the UK government re-considers its connections to Northern Ireland, and calls a border poll itself?

Most politicians would be reluctant to countenance such a scenario in public but a recent public opinion survey makes uncomfortable reading for all supporters of the union. The findings indicate that some 87% of Conservative supporters (and some 67% of Labour supporters) in England would be prepared to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland to ensure that Brexit is a success. The Conservative Party for most of Northern Ireland’s existence has been a vocal supporter of the region’s place in the UK, but times have changed.

As part of the arrangement with the DUP, the issue will remain firmly parked, but the prospects for such a poll might be a greater bet under a Jeremy Corbyn led administration.

Is it only a matter of time before Northern Ireland leaves the UK?


Article originally appeared in the UK in a Changing Europe site.

The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Professor Lee McGowan
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Lee McGowan is Professor of Contemporary European Politics in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include EU institutions, policy making in the EU, Northern Ireland as a region of the EU, European integration history and theory, political populism and the rise of the far right in Europe, and antitrust policy. Lee has more than 25 years’ experience teaching and researching on the politics of the EU, as well as engaging in high level, indepth discussions about the EU and how it works, with specific reference to Northern Ireland. Lee’s expertise was recognised by the European Union when he was awarded a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration.

1 Comment


Interesting reading. Yes a border poll may be just down the road. A sobering thought but something we must all be prepared for. For some they might think they are being
pushed further out into the Atlantic if unity is the result. Not in my case. I am a loyalist but my loyalty extends to everyone on these islands: from Lerwick down to the scillies and from lindisfarne across to the blaskets. My mother was born in offaly and was a gaelic speaker. Through her I have a link to old Ireland. My father came from planter stock but his mother WAS a cornish woman. Need I say more.

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