Brexit or UKExit? Twelve predictions about Northern Ireland’s future

Will the peace hold? Will the UK fragment and Ireland reunite?

UKExit, which is to say the departure of the whole of the United Kingdom, rather than of just Great Britain, from the European Union, is a mode of "Brits out" that few who might have to plan for it had taken seriously. But it has divided the two sovereign governments in the Isles, as well as the Northern parties: the DUP's enthusiastic leavers are ranged against the rest.

Unfolding events confirm that no one knows the political future, both because it is usually impossible to assign credible probabilities to the counterfactual and because predictions may be self-refuting: forewarned agents can prevent their materialisation. But we still have to make plans, basing them on reasonable predictions, just as civil servants in Dublin, Brussels, London, Belfast and the capitals of the other 26 European Union states are currently doing.

The short term, and the future of the United Kingdom

Prediction 1: There may be trouble ahead, but peace will continue – a dirty peace, perhaps, but an acceptable level of peace. That is partly because all major authorities are determined to protect the Belfast Agreement "in all its parts" and to avoid re-creating "the borders of the past", to recall recent but important cliches.

Prediction 2: The planned exit of the UK from the EU – and "planned" is scarcely the right adjective – will damage the legitimacy of two unions: that of Great Britain, and that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Scotland and Northern Ireland are being forced from the EU against their majority preferences in the Brexit referendum of 2016, and the UK supreme court failed to protect their constitutional settlements, including the convention that legislative consent motions should precede any changes in the powers of the Edinburgh and Belfast legislatures.


Prediction 3: There will be another referendum on Scotland's independence, and likely before a referendum on Irish reunification. Differently put, the union of England, Scotland and Wales may break up first. Whether Albion is perfidious or merely criminally negligent need not be decided before issuing prediction 4: the Conservative and DUP decisions to modify the terms of the two unions will weaken all parties' commitments to the institutions negotiated between 1997-98 and 2007.

One may revive, however. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which subsumes both the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council and the Intergovernmental Conference established under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, should recover its importance.

The conference’s possible agenda is best understood as “the totality of relationships minus the exclusively devolved powers of the Assembly”. The conference must review the international treaty and the machinery and institutions “established under it”, and all-island and cross-Border aspects of rights, justice, prisons and policing are part of its remit.

European questions

The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 followed the formation of the EU in the Maastricht Treaty. The treaty of 1999 between the UK and Ireland, which enacted the agreement reached in Belfast the previous Good Friday, referred to the two governments’ goal to “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union”.

The North South Ministerial Council is mandated to address "EU issues", and the Northern Ireland Assembly must follow EU law according to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Belfast Agreement is peppered with references to the European Convention and to anti-discrimination rights under EU law. All that is now jeopardised.

But two matters have been clarified since Theresa May triggered article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. First, Northern Ireland will be unique in its citizenship provisions. Its people will continue to be Irish citizens, British citizens, or both, and through Irish citizenship they will retain EU citizenship. Second, on reunification Northern Ireland would automatically become part of the European Union.

These clarifications matter. Those keen on returning to the EU, or who are adversely affected by UKExit, have incentives to vote for Irish reunification.

Prediction 5: No immediate dismantling of the institutions established in 1998 is likely, but EU-related matters will have to be renegotiated to amend the Belfast Agreement beyond the two sovereign governments' total control: the EU 26 have a stake.

Such negotiations may occur without a functioning Northern executive, and that may damage all the institutions, especially under continuing Conservative governments in London.

The bulk of the DUP wants a hard exit, to restore the UK's differences from Ireland; its cadres privately want a hard border, despite the hardships their voters would incur

No prediction will be made about which party, if any, blinks first in negotiations to restore the Belfast Executive. The elements of a possible deal are known: a return to a Fresh Start (which aimed to implement many parts of the Stormont House Agreement, including those on flags and parades); spending the unexpected booty the DUP has obtained from the UK treasury; an Irish-language Act to be passed at Westminster if not in Belfast, or a general languages act to be passed in Belfast; changing the titles of the First and Deputy First Ministers to Joint First Ministers, to acknowledge reality and soften any future loss to the DUP; leaving Arlene Foster's status to be decided by the outcome of the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry into "cash for ash"; and agreement on how to navigate the complex issues attached to UKExit.

The major party leaders cannot, however, openly discuss key underlying tensions. The bulk of the DUP wants a hard exit, to restore the UK’s differences from Ireland; its cadres privately want a hard border, despite the hardships their voters would incur. But the party will publicly accept a soft exit, provided Northern Ireland is not treated differently from Great Britain.

Sinn Féin wants the remain vote respected, but, if UKExit occurs, it wants special status for Northern Ireland. Its cadres privately want Northern Ireland to fail to strengthen the case for reunification, and may prefer to polarise choices between direct rule under the Conservatives and a reunited Ireland within the European Union.

Prediction 6 follows: there will be further electoral polarisation in the North; competition will intensify between the DUP and Sinn Féin, weakening further the SDLP and the UUP.

The longer term, and Irish reunification

Will 2017 be seen as a tipping point, in which the Northern nationalist vote stopped flatlining at just about 40 per cent, and resumed the upward trajectory it was on between 1969 and 2001? For that to happen three processes have to consolidate.

First, existing cultural Catholics have to become more nationalist, turn out more, and vote for the SDLP, Sinn Féin or another other all-island party.

Second, the Others – those who refuse to register as nationalists or unionists – have to follow that trend, to keep their appeal among cultural Catholics, whose transfers go more often to nationalist parties, boosting their seat shares. That is, the Others would shift towards being soft nationalists. One can imagine that occurring in the Alliance and the Green Party, both of which have become neutral on the union.

Lastly, cultural Catholics are practically a demographic majority in four counties, the two largest cities, and primary schools, and as that kicks in electorally, in the late 2020s, nationalist success may breed on continuing electoral success.

In the period immediately ahead voters who support the Others, and those who answer None to questions related to religious identity, may be decisive in a reunification referendum – including Poles and Lithuanians who may stay and become citizens under the draft withdrawal agreement. Will they coalesce more behind one bloc than another? They were remainers.

Prediction 7: UKExit will affect alignments in the North, but not by making unionists into nationalists. Cultural Catholics will become keener on Irish reunification, to return to the EU and, more significantly, because they will believe that reunification will improve their life chances.

Current trends portend an alliance among Northern nationalists and most of the Others – and some liberal unionists – on most major policy questions, ranging from the EU to gay marriage, an alliance that jointly represents an emergent social-liberal majority, and regards the DUP as the party of a reactionary minority.

The new normal argument in estimating the economic consequences of reunification will be that Irish unity will be better for both nationalists and unionists

As the unionist Alex Kane has written, a referendum on Irish reunification will ask: "Do you support a united Ireland (inside the European Union, protective of a multiplicity of identities and supported by the Republic's political/business establishment) or do you support the union (outside the EU, possibly diminished by the departure of Scotland, and with the rise of a new form of English nationalism . . . )?"

Amid the ironies, one merits emphasis. The DUP opposed the power-sharing design of the Belfast Agreement, but in the decade ahead it will become the most ardent defender of its veto powers.

Prediction 8 is longer term. As electoral change unfolds over the next decade three forms of Irish reunification will be promoted as that prospect appears likelier: a centralised unitary Irish state; a decentralised Irish unitary state that would preserve Northern Ireland with a devolved legislature, with its existing internal power-sharing; and an Irish confederation of two states that will allow the formation of a unitary state.

All these options would be reviewable by a subsequent constitutional convention. The relevant negotiations will be between Belfast and Dublin after approval by referendum in both jurisdictions, or incorporation will follow Ireland’s existing constitutional provisions if there is no Northern Ireland Executive.

Prediction 9 is related. The new normal argument in estimating the economic consequences of reunification will be that Irish unity will be better in the long term both for Northern nationalists and for Ulster unionists, and of benefit to Ireland as a whole.

In 1921 the Irish Free State’s GDP per capita was 45 per cent of what became Northern Ireland. Until 2000 it was said that reunification just could not happen: “the South” could not afford it. In 2012, however, even before Ireland’s recovery, GDP per capita was higher in Ireland than it was in the UK.

The old unionist case against reunification had three major components: an independent Ireland meant Rome rule; the Republic was monocultural, and unattractive, compared to the multinational UK; and the Republic was poorer, pursuing an isolationist and irrational economic policy.

Ireland's Government has to continue to seek special status for the North. Whether it is expressly called that is immaterial

Whatever their past truth, these arguments no longer pass muster. Ireland is de-Catholicising, and it is multicultural and prosperous – multicultural because it is prosperous, and vice versa. It is richer than Northern Ireland, absolutely and per capita, before and after the subvention by the UK treasury is added to the North’s ledger. And sovereign Ireland is staying in the world’s largest market, which all gravity-weighted models of international trade suggest is the wiser bet.

Updated unionist arguments suggest that unifying with Northern Ireland would be so expensive that the South – and its mean-minded, pocket-conscious voters – would refuse the responsibility; that exiting the EU will be better for all the British, especially the less well-off; and that membership of the euro guarantees that Ireland will be in a slow-growth zone compared with the larger neighbouring island (chock-full of inveterate and enthusiastic global traders).

The older arguments were clearly stronger.

Back to the present

Prediction 10: The EU will not collapse in the face of its current crises, and Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, the right, centre and left of Ireland's reconfigured party system, will remain strongly committed to the EU, although not to strongly Euro-federalist positions.

Even if Ireland’s political class were inclined to imitate the English adventurers, they know that most of us think Ireland should remain in the EU, a view shared by no less than 99 per cent of full-time students.

Prediction 11 is that Northern Ireland's political class will remain divided on UKExit.

A hard exit that takes Northern Ireland out of the single market and the customs union and restores a hard border will damage the Northern economy (more than its neighbour). This vista remains possible.

Yet countervailing forces – currently embedded in the draft protocol of the draft withdrawal agreement – may prevail.

Prediction 12 is simply that Ireland's Government has to continue to seek special status for the North. Whether it is expressly called that is immaterial. Such special status may be confined to longer membership for the North within the single market and the customs union than for Great Britain; the first reunification referendum could take place 10 years later.

How long the Conservative-DUP marriage survives cannot be known, but Lord Palmerston’s maxim may still apply: Great Britain has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

There is, however, yet to be a withdrawal agreement, and the Westminster and European parliaments are yet to vote on it. This political scientist is sufficiently wise not to predict anything that may be wrong within months.

Brendan O'Leary, an Irish, EU and US citizen, is Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and visiting professor at Queen's University Belfast. He was a political adviser during the making of the Belfast Agreement and a power-sharing adviser to the United Nations. His next book, the three-volume A Treatise on Northern Ireland, will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2019. This article is based on Prof O'Leary's contribution to Ireland 1916-2016: The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty, edited by Tom Boylan, Nicholas Canny and Mary Harris (Four Courts Press, 2017)