15 January 2021

Northern Ireland’s future isn’t set in stone – but London has plenty of work to do


Boris Johnson won the contest to succeed Theresa May in part through his unrelenting attacks on her proposals for Northern Ireland. No self-respecting Prime Minister, he said, could possibly tolerate introducing an internal border between the Province and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Upon getting into office, however, the Prime Minister acquiesced to exactly such a thing. The new Protocol wasn’t the same as his predecessor’s infamous Backstop, but it nonetheless consigned Ulster to the European Union’s regulatory orbit. All the grand speeches – including to the Democratic Unionist conference – were set aside without any apparent difficulty.

Now the Government has finally ‘got Brexit done’ and almost at once the reality of what the Prime Minister signed up to is sinking in. Northern Irish shelves stand empty as supply chains jam, and British citizens across the water face pet passports and capital controls just to move around within what remains, for now, their own country.

Given that trade between the Province and the mainland was always vastly larger than that with either Ireland or the rest of the EU, the scale of this disruption should not come as a surprise. 

On the ministerial side, Johnsonian shamelessness remains the order of the day. The Prime Minister squirmed in front of the Liaison Committee on Wednesday as he tried to downplay the disruption (whilst parroting lines about the ‘best of both worlds’ which will delight Scottish Nationalists). Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, invited ridicule when he denied the existence of the new Irish Sea border.

Meanwhile Michael Gove, whose concessionary attitude towards nationalism has already got some in Whitehall worried, could offer only glib bromides to angry Ulster MPs asking pointed questions about the future of GB-to-NI supply chains under the deal he had negotiated with Brussels.

Yet other parts of the Brexit movement are starting, far too late, to ask questions. Kate Hoey set the stall out quite plainly in a scathing piece for the Daily Telegraph in which she bluntly accuses the Government of “betraying” Northern Ireland.

Yet right and important as it is to try and hold Johnson and his confederates accountable for the border they’re currently erecting inside our country, to scapegoat them too heavily means letting other guilty parties off the hook.

Take May’s deal, which sympathetic commentators like to hold up as better protecting the Union than Johnson’s. In fact, it would merely have better concealed (by keeping Great Britain more closely aligned to Brussels) the same underlying capitulation. May, like Johnson, conceded that Northern Ireland should not depart the EU on the same terms as the rest of the country.

We might therefore add David Cameron’s name to the list of the guilty, then, for failing to establish the status of Northern Ireland when making the preparations for the referendum. Certainly, all those in Ulster who voted for Brexit, including a majority of Unionists, should have been told if they were really voting for only the mainland to leave. As Hoey notes:

“The 44 per cent of people in Northern Ireland who voted for Brexit voted for the UK to leave as it stated on the ballot paper, not for some of the UK to leave and certainly not to find the Province left to the diktats of Brussels.”

In truth, one can find similar incidents all the way back to the formation of Northern Ireland, which is itself a strange reflection of the current crisis. For although the north-eastern counties of Ireland managed to avoid being forced out of the UK, they were not permitted to stay within it on equal terms to their counterparts on the mainland. Instead, against the vociferous objections of their leader, Sir Edward Carson, an extensive (and toxic) devolution settlement was imposed.

Ever since, and just as intended – although likely slower than some of Stormont’s architects would have liked or expected – Northern Ireland has been growing apart from the rest of the UK. Developments in recent decades have only accelerated this trend. As I noted in my last piece, Dublin is now stepping up to provide goodies to Ulster’s citizens even whilst London is too timid to put our flag on its driving licences.

It is not for nothing that Carson said, in a House of Commons debate in 1918, that there was “nothing Ireland – north, south, east, and west – has suffered so much in its history as the broken pledges of British statesmen”.

Barring the unlikely event of a unionist majority at Stormont repudiating the Protocol, Brexit now seems to have set a precedent that the UK cannot make policy with respect to Northern Ireland that places any new distance between it and the Republic. Since nowhere is it  suggested that Ireland should be restricted by alignment with the Province, this seems to imply that Ulster has now moved into Dublin’s regulatory slipstream.

That this has happened without the referendum that is supposed to be required for a significant change to Northern Ireland’s status is possible because Dublin and its outriders have left their London counterparts standing when it comes to selling an interpretation of the Belfast Agreement which maximises their entitlements whilst interpreting those of unionists as narrowly as possible.

Contra some of the doom-mongering, none of this means that the loss of the Province to Ireland is inevitable. We should be wary of the ‘heads we win, tails you lose’ analysis peddled by some nationalists. It seems likely that as long as the Irish plan for annexation involves asking the UK to continue to fully subsidise Northern Ireland for decades after the fact, there is still a case for the Union to be made.

But as I keep saying, a union cannot survive on fiscal transfers alone. If the UK is to endure, the foundations of the state need to rest on shared identity and experiences, as well as interests. And any Government that wishes not only to secure Northern Ireland’s formal position as part of the Union, but to see it play a full role in British political, economic, and cultural life, has a lot of work to do. 

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.