Brexit inflames North’s identity politics

Economic advantages of NI’s new trading arrangement overlooked by rejectionist rhetoric

The 1998 Belfast Agreement never resolved the Northern Ireland conflict, it merely sidelined it. It shifted the zero-sum politics to an accommodation of difference. Neither side won, neither side lost. Unionists had to share power, nationalists had to sign up to an internal settlement.

Critics say it has delivered peace without reconciliation. Simmering community tensions; ongoing segregation and/or the fact that the North’s devolved government has been inoperable for three of the last five years feed into that viewpoint.

But it undervalues what has been achieved: the equality of political, social and cultural rights; the emergence of centre-ground politics; and, of course, peace itself, perhaps the most undervalued commodity.

Brexit, however, runs counter to the politics of the Belfast Agreement. With its binary equations – soft/hard, inside/outside, deal/no deal – it reapplies the zero-sum dynamic.



The avoidance of a hard border on the island can, in many ways, be seen as an extension of the compact afforded Northern nationalists under the Belfast Agreement, namely that their relationship with Dublin be recognised.

And if you concede that, then the DUP’s complaint that a border in the Irish Sea breaches the compact afforded unionists – in terms of their political affiliation with London – is logical.

It’s an irony then that the most sane attempt to circumvent the border issue - former UK prime minister Theresa May’s backstop arrangement – which would have placed the whole of the UK in the EU customs union – was torpedoed by the DUP. The party may have gambled on a no-deal and an ensuing land border. Either way it was politically outmanoeuvred and is now backed into a corner on the issue.

From an EU perspective, the sea border solution was the only practical one – a porous 500km land border would have threatened the integrity of the single market.

Brexit was always going to be a difficult, some say impossible, circle to square. The politics of a borderless Brexit – trumpeted by Brexiteers – was, in the end, just bombast.

Arguments around whether Northern Ireland’s economic and political status within the UK has been diminished by Brexit, or its corollary that the North’s possible reunification with the South has moved closer, will run.

The post-Brexit trade flows feed into it. North-South trade is flourishing. Central Statistics Office (CSO) show the value of goods imported from Northern Ireland to the Republic increased by 60 per cent during the first four months of 2021, while exports from the Republic to the North rose by 40 per cent.

In contrast GB-Northern Ireland trade has fallen off a cliff. The increased paperwork combined with the stringent application of EU “rules of origin” have hampered trade and in some instances alienated firms on the British side from exporting to the North altogether.


There’s anecdotal evidence that buyers in the Republic in several sectors are substituting what they originally got from Britain with imports from Northern Ireland.

There is one definite in the debate: the Northern Ireland protocol – the rules governing how the sea border works –won’t be scrapped. There is zero appetite on either side to revisit it and that political reality maybe dawning on the DUP.

Amid the rejectionist rhetoric, the party’s line on the protocol has softened in recent weeks. It has shifted from calling for it to be scrapped, to calling for “fundamental change”, and more recently to simply calling for “changes”. It was once a fierce opponent of the Belfast Agreement: loudly protesting before quietly acquiescing.

The party must first de-escalate the constitutional issues - the identity politics - surrounding the new arrangements. A tricky climb down given it has done most to fuel them.

After being elected leader on Saturday, Jeffrey Donaldson talked of righting the wrongs of the protocol and "that Northern Ireland is given the right under the act of union to trade freely with the rest of our own country".

These are not unreasonable demands and stand in stark contrast to his previous scrap the protocol mantra.

Legally speaking, Northern Ireland is not in the EU’s single market; the protocol is merely a set of rules that removes the need for physical customs infrastructure on the island.

"Nobody in Northern Ireland will be less British as a result of the protocol. Where you get your sausages from doesn't define your identity," Alliance leader Naomi Long said on a recent episode of the BBC show, Spotlight.


The advantage of being simultaneously inside the EU and outside it – the “having your cake and eating it” option as it was dubbed at the start of the Brexit negotiations – is being championed in certain quarters, but quietly, because of the fractious politics involved.

Invest Northern Ireland has been marketing the advantages to prospective investors and is understood to be receiving dozens of enquiries from interested companies.

“Following the EU exit, market access to both GB and the EU from a Northern Ireland base may present additional benefits to potential investors,” it says.

It’s a question of seeing Northern Ireland as a bridge between the UK and the EU rather than a border.