Breached or Protected? The ‘principle’ of consent in Northern Ireland and the UK government’s Brexit proposals
A long read from Prof David Phinnemore and Dr Katy Hayward following the government's publishing of its policy paper that attempts to counter unionist concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement and its potential impact on Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
The policy paper on UK government commitments to Northern Ireland and its integral place in the United Kingdom (published 9 January 2019) is a remarkable document. On the one hand, it is a direct assurance to unionists that Brexit, and specifically the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement, poses no threat to the Union. On the other hand, it at least implies that the Union is not to be taken for granted. For, it notes, ‘the Union’ of the United Kingdom ‘will only endure’ with the ‘consent of the people of Northern Ireland’ – and if the government does not listen to ‘the people and communities there who do not want a return to a hard border’ then, to put it bluntly, they are less likely to support the Union (paragraph 4).
This is particularly interesting because the principle of consent has traditionally been seen as a tenet of the 1998 Agreement intended to reassure unionists, the assumption being that the unionist view in Northern Ireland was firmly that of the majority. The UK policy paper hints at an interesting alternative prospect in light of Brexit: that this unionist majority is likely to dissipate if Brexit results in a hard Irish border or severe disruption to daily life in Northern Ireland. As such, the policy paper is intended to show that the best possible protection of the Union is to be found in the Withdrawal Agreement, with its Protocol that seeks to both avoid a hard border and uphold the principle of consent.
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David Phinnemore is Professor of European Politics in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.
Article originally appeared on the LSE Brexit blog.