Conor J Kelly and Etain Tannam examine the UK government’s Northern Ireland policy since 2016 and the process of “De-Europeanisation” it has undergone in this period. They argue that while EU membership did not cause the peace process, the EU model did influence John Hume, a key architect of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It also oiled the wheels of British-Irish cooperation. Since Brexit, that cooperation has given way to unilateralism and growing hostility towards devolution, particularly within elements of the Conservative Party.
This article is part of our series on policymaking in the UK after Brexit. For more analysis, visit the focus page.
In the first 5 months of 2023, Northern Ireland was rarely far from our front pages as the Windsor Framework was negotiated between the UK government and European Commission in February, and the world’s media descended on Belfast for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement’s 25th-anniversary celebrations in April. Yet, the Stormont institutions remain suspended, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has thus far refused to accept the Windsor Framework as the basis for returning to power-sharing.
To understand Brexit’s impact on the government’s policy, one must examine if joint UK-Irish EU membership between 1973 and 2016 impacted UK policy to Northern Ireland. We argue that while the “Europeanisation” of UK government policy towards Northern Ireland can be overstated, it had an indirect impact on the peace process by influencing the strategy of its key architect, former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume. In particular the EU’s model of institutionalised cooperation and consensual policy-making has echoes in the 1998 Agreement. Thus, the process of de-Europeanisation since 2016 has had a severely negative effect on political stability within Northern Ireland and UK-Irish relations.
The EU Model and Northern Ireland
The EU model of deep institutionalisation to help build reconciliation on the basis of common economic interests became part of John Hume’s model for Northern Ireland and British-Irish relations. For Hume, British-Irish intergovernmental cooperation was essential to guarantee to nationalists that their rights and interests would be protected, just as the UK government was regarded by unionists as their kinship state. The failure of the UK government’s security-led unilateralism from partition in 1921 and during the Troubles, as well as the impact of that failure on its international reputation, particularly in the US, led to Hume’s logic informing the British approach from the 1980s until 2016.
The basis of this approach was that devising policy in consultation with the Irish government did not erode British sovereignty because sovereignty in the modern interdependent world was not absolute: the UK, like any state, did not have complete control over policy outcomes. Indeed, by cooperating with the Irish government it could achieve its aims more successfully. Therefore institutionalised bilateralism did not imply a loss of parliamentary sovereignty. Thus, although there were persistent claims that EU membership eroded parliamentary sovereignty long before Brexit, from the 1980s to 2016 the UK government adopted elements of a non-absolutist approach to Northern Ireland, embracing post-war concepts of sovereignty that echoed the EU model.
Hume’s emphasis on bilateralism and on the EU model was evident in the 1998 Agreement itself. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (B-IIGC) in Strand Three provided for regular formalised meetings between the governments for non-devolved areas, including wider matters of concern for both governments. The North South Ministerial Council comprising ministers from both Northern Ireland and Ireland for designated areas, resembled the idea of the Council of Ministers in the EU.
Hume’s application of EU ideas proved to be a successful tool to achieve both governments’ aims.
However, the UK government’s policy shift was interest-based – to stop the conflict. It was not an embrace of post-sovereign EU norms. Hume’s application of EU ideas proved to be a successful tool to achieve both governments’ aims. Brexit and later the choice of a hard Brexit signalled an end to that British approach. It also revealed a relative disengagement from Northern Ireland by both governments, but particularly by the UK government in the early 2010s, including a notable absence of meetings of the B-IIGC from 2007 to 2018.
From institutionalised consensus building to zero-sum unilateralism
From 2016, the UK government quickly reversed a core foundation of policy towards Northern Ireland by engaging in a succession of unilateral policy shifts and by pursuing a hard Brexit. Overall, from 2016 to Autumn 2022, Brexit precipitated a regressive zero-sum UK policy approach to Northern Ireland that prioritised traditional sovereignty, not the pooled and consensus-building approaches of the peace process and the 1998 Agreement. This was particularly apparent after the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement in early 2020, when there were three key examples of unilateralism: the Internal Market Bill, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and the proposal to renege on the legacy agreement made with the Irish government and political parties in Northern Ireland in 2014.
By 2022, it was clear that the partnership between both governments that underpinned the peace process had collapsed. The Irish government made clear its frustration and anger. Megaphone diplomacy, that echoed a darker era, dominated relations and led to a spiralling blame game. A more nationalist and emotional tone was evident in some Irish government rhetoric, particularly from 2017 to 2019. This breakdown in relations had highly negative consequences for stability in Northern Ireland and the prioritisation of an open land border at the expense of an open sea trade border in the final protocol damaged relations between unionists and the Irish government.
Brexit has had several clearly negative effects on Northern Ireland’s internal politics as well. The 2016 referendum result mapped onto existing ethnonational voting lines to a large extent. Nationalist voters overwhelmingly backed Remain (around 88 per cent), whilst unionist voters backed Leave, albeit more narrowly (around 66 per cent). Trust between the British government and the local political parties has been severely knocked, first with nationalism through inadvertently raising the issue of a post-Brexit customs border on the island of Ireland, then with unionism via the Protocol agreement which moved the focal point of the customs issue to the Irish Sea (between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK).
In the post-2016 period, there has been a noticeable increase in campaigning by pro-Irish unification groups, and Sinn Féin has become the largest party, capitalising on an increasingly destabilised unionism. In this way the UK government’s Brexit policy has contributed to the renaissance of more traditional approaches to sovereignty in Northern Ireland too.
This retreat to unilateralism and the general destabilisation of the political settlement in Northern Ireland has also coincided with changes in how elements of the Conservative government in London have viewed Northern Ireland and the wider Union. Several academics and commentators have noted a growing “muscular unionist” ideology within the Tory party, which is clearly distinct from unionism elsewhere (including in Northern Ireland). This strand of thought increasingly views devolution in hostile terms and seeks to re-centralise parliamentary authority, wrestling control away from Stormont, Holyrood, and Cardiff in tandem with “taking back control” from Brussels.
In Northern Ireland, this approach has further undermined many peoples’ trust in the government’s ability to govern, given the aforementioned polarisation of the Brexit debate and the general support for devolution across the political spectrum (notwithstanding the DUP’s current tactic of refusing to allow the Assembly and Executive to function). It is also clearly at odds with the vision of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which sought to blunt the sharper edges of debates around national sovereignty and foster closer cross-border cooperation across these islands.
The Windsor Framework – a fresh start?
Since coming into office, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has appeared to return to an approach more familiar to the pre-2016 period. The government’s successful negotiation of the Windsor Framework with Brussels occurred against the backdrop of a significant improvement in bilateral UK-Irish relations. Both governments have agreed to hold regular B-IIGC meetings, implying a return to the institutionalisation deemed essential by Hume. Seemingly positive meetings have also occurred between Irish government figures and Northern Ireland Office Ministers Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker. The fact that this thawing of relations between Dublin and London has occurred under these two European Research Group (ERG) veterans is certainly noteworthy.
It is possible that the new era of cooperation could well be short-term crisis management to secure an agreement with the EU on the Protocol.
Despite this recent progress, the period from 2016 to 2022 created a deep mistrust between London and Dublin that will take time to rebuild. It is possible that the new era of cooperation could well be short-term crisis management to secure an agreement with the EU on the Protocol, allowing Sunak to return to his growing list of other priorities. The B-IIGC meeting on June 20th 2023 did not resolve the legacy row and the UK government has stated it will proceed with the bill. What’s more, the influence of muscular unionism remains in the wider Conservative Party.
What the DUP decide to do next will be crucial for the medium and long-term functioning of the devolved institutions at Stormont. Equally important though is how London engages with Northern Ireland and the Irish government in the coming years, and indeed the configuration of future Irish governments and what policy is pursued. Northern Ireland faces a myriad of important socio-economic challenges that are not currently being dealt with. There seems to be a realisation that it is in the UK’s interest to return to bilateralism, given the need to re-build relations with the EU (which supported Ireland during the negotiations) and given pressure from the US administration.
Brexit has reversed much of the progress of past decades by signifying a return by the UK government to a unilateral approach that prioritised traditional sovereignty in both its relations with the Irish government and with devolved governments. In short, Brexit has deeply destabilised the political settlement in Northern Ireland.
This article draws on a publication by the same authors in a special edition of the European Journal of Public Policy.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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