Debate: Northern Ireland and Brexit



One curious thing about the sea border that has now been established within the UK between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is that no equivalent sea border has been established between the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe. One might have thought that if the European Union has the right to examine goods coming from Great Britain that might enter the EU market across the Irish land border, Britain would claim the right to examine goods coming from the EU that might, through same the Irish land border, enter the UK. British customs could of course be using the NI/GB sea border to check on  goods coming from the EU, but it’s difficult to see why all the inconvenience should be piled on the British side, especially given that it is the EU, not the UK that has insisted on the need for a border. The inconvenience is considerable, not just measured in the unavailability of goods in the shops. According to the Irish economist David McWilliams (Irish Times, 21st August 2021): ‘An unexpected consequence of Brexit has been the dramatic increase in trade between the Republic and the North. In the past six months, trade has increased by €800 million, as supply chains adapt to the new realities.’ One can assume that that means something like €800 million lost to NI/GB trade.

If the idea of a complementary Ireland/EU sea border seems absurd, it is worth asking why. Why is it more absurd than the present arrangement in which the EU is present with a right to oversee goods coming in from one part of a sovereign country to another and stopping them at will? This has interesting implications. Most obviously it reveals the weakness of the British bargaining position. The EU had something the British wanted (access to the single market on the most favourable terms possible); Britain had nothing very much that the EU wanted. The fact that it was the EU, not Britain, that insisted on the need for a border also implies that whereas the EU is worried about the possibility of unfair competition from the UK, the UK is not worried about the possibility of unfair competition from the EU. That in turn might imply an assumption that Britain’s regulatory standards will always be lower than those of the EU, and this of course was the ambition of many of the ideologically motivated champions of Brexit – ‘global Britain’ as a low wage, low regulation economy unafraid of competition with anyone. And the establishment of a sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in defiance of solemn pledges to the contrary (made in a brief period when a Northern Ireland ‘Unionist’ party held the balance of power in Westminster) implies an indifference to the interests of a part of the UK that has long been excluded from active participation in the serious politics of the UK.

Given the relative UK indifference to the problem of goods coming in from the EU, there is, however, a third possibility, briefly mentioned at the beginning of the negotiations by the former Taoiseach, John Bruton (he wasn’t advocating it). This would be a sea border between the Republic of Ireland and the EU policed by the EU to prevent the free flow of goods from the UK into the EU (the free flow of goods from the EU to the UK not being a problem). That would have the advantage that, since Ireland is part of the EU it could be done in a relatively friendly manner.

It used to be thought that the present arrangement – a sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – would be advantageous to Northern Ireland, giving it the best of both worlds – free access to both the UK and EU markets – but it is now clear that this is not the case. Northern Ireland cannot import from Great Britain without paperwork convincingly demonstrating either that the imports are compliant with EU regulations or that there is no possibility of them being passed into the EU across the Irish border. At present, while UK legislation is still broadly in line with its own previous membership of the EU, that might not appear too burdensome but the assumption is that the overall frameworks will drift further apart – otherwise what was the point of Brexit? One wonders also about goods produced in Northern Ireland. How can they be checked for compliance and allowed to pass into the EU/Republic of Ireland if there is no land border? And all the time, it seems, there is no restriction on goods from the EU passing into Northern Ireland and (one assumes) no restriction on goods (from the EU or locally produced) passing from Northern Ireland into Great Britain.


At present the problem of NI importing from GB largely turns on meat, a problem that will certainly be exacerbated if the UK makes free trade deals with New Zealand and Australia. Since such free trade deals pose a serious threat to the British agricultural sector one might be glad of the Northern Ireland problem as a further argument against them. But there are other problems further down the line. One of the potential benefits of Brexit lies in the ability of the British government to support British industry beyond the levels permitted by the EU. In an article in the Irish Times, the ‘liberal unionist’ commentator, Newton Emerson pointed out that not only would industry in NI not be able to benefit from such largesse but NI would not be able to import from firms in GB that had benefited from such largesse:

‘Any British manufacturer merely selling into Northern Ireland will be affected: subsidising a car factory in England will count if its cars end up on forecourts in Belfast.

‘Beneath the level of consumer goods, this becomes increasingly difficult to assess on a regional basis. If a steel plant in Wales is subsidised, its output will certainly cross the Irish Sea in a myriad of ways.

‘Businesses not selling into Northern Ireland will be caught as well. If subsidising an English car factory makes the entire UK automotive market more challenging for EU competitors, a complaint can be made via the impact in Northern Ireland.

‘EU case law permits this and the Withdrawal Agreement is specific that where a matter relates to trade between the EU and Northern Ireland, the EU’s state aid rules must be applied across the UK. This obviously also catches any UK-wide subsidy programmes. It bleeds into the tax system if grants are delivered via tax breaks and into the financial system if banks are used to provide cheap credit.

‘As a final headache, EU state aid is a “standstill” regime, meaning new subsidy schemes must be notified to the European Commission for approval in advance. The Withdrawal Agreement presumes the UK will report all state aid decisions to Europe to judge their impact on Northern Ireland. The British government now indicates it will not do so.

‘There had been debate about how much any of this would matter. All trade deals impose state aid restrictions, as does the World Trade Organisation. EU law has ample exemptions and the UK has a long history of ideological opposition to subsidy.

‘However, it has become clear Johnson and his immediate circle see massive state aid as essential to giving the UK the world-class firms it will need to survive outside the EU. The subsidised English car factories of the 1970s are not seen as a bad omen.The government also believes, rightly or wrongly, that EU rules would frustrate its plans. To control this key new policy, London intends to recentralise state aid powers currently devolved around the UK, much to the annoyance of Scottish and Welsh nationalists. Whatever it says in public, the logic of the British government’s position is to push Northern Ireland as far away from all this as possible, to try to keep EU rules at bay.

‘It is easy to imagine a “state aid sea border” emerging, either by agreement with Brussels or by court cases brought against the UK. This might consist of surcharges and restrictions applied to subsidised goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, enforced by declarations and inspections.

‘The North would be largely locked out of the UK’s new industrial policy and might find the logic of this pointed to co-ordination with the Republic.’ (Irish Times, 11th September, 2020)


These problems would not have arisen – at least to anything like the same extent – had Theresa May’s deal, with its famous ‘backstop’, gone through. Under the terms of the backstop, the UK as a whole (Great Britain and Northern Ireland) would remain within the EU regulatory framework until such a time as the Republic of Ireland thought it safe for them to leave. From the point of view of serious brexiteers this, of course, was intolerable. It was worse than full participation in the EU, since Britain would be subject to EU legislation without any say in framing it. But May calculated that it was the only way a deal could be struck with the EU that would maintain the unity of the United Kingdom while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. This, and the failure to propose a sea border between the Republic and mainland Europe, indicates the weakness of the UK’s bargaining position, desperate to get some sort of deal. Had they gone for a no deal Brexit the EU would have been forced either to set up a land border in Ireland – the UK wouldn’t have felt the need for it – or its own sea border with the Republic.

May’s deal was defeated by the Labour Party which – since they favoured a ‘soft brexit’ that would have kept the UK in the customs union – had no serious grounds for objecting to it. The rejection of May’s deal was possibly the stupidest decision ever made by the Labour Party in its entire history. While Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell can’t be absolved of blame, it should never be forgotten that the main spokesman for the Labour Party on the subject of Brexit was Keir Starmer.

What I’ve been outlining here is the logic of the present situation. It may be that that logic can be tempered by reasonable discussion between civilised people. But political logic has a way of asserting itself.


What are the consequences for politics in Northern Ireland? The system of local government in Northern Ireland is structured round the ‘three relationships’ defined by John Hume and baked into the Good Friday Agreement – the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and Ireland as a whole and Great Britain. It beggars belief that the Unionists accepted this as an adequate framework for discussion when it leaves out of account (and Hume, Northern Ireland’s most intelligent political thinker, certainly knew what he was doing) what for the Unionists – and for the wellbeing of everyone in Northern Ireland – should have been regarded as the most important relationship, the relationship between Northern Ireland and its sovereign government at Westminster. From the start, NI was excluded from the politics of the state of which it was a part, first of all by the establishment of a totally unnecessary subordinate pseudo-parliament, and then by the refusal of the political parties capable of forming a government in Westminster to take members or contest elections in Northern Ireland. The result was Protestants, formed through a struggle against the politics of the Catholic population in Ireland, ruling directly over Catholics. It was a poisonous arrangement and the proof of this lies in the remarkable – though largely unremarked – development that followed the ‘prorogation’ of Stormont in 1972.

Catholics in large numbers entered the administrative structure of Northern Ireland. Previously, under the old Stormont, they had been inhibited both by outright discrimination and by their own reluctance to serve under an anti-Catholic Orange government. But they had no objection to serving under a British government which, whether they liked it or not (I don’t think anyone actually likes the British government) was not prejudiced against them. In the natural order of things the new Catholic administrators entered the lower ranks in the 1970s, but by the 1980s and 1990s they had reached positions of power, influence and patronage. This, together with the skill with which the IRA and Sinn Fein handled the ‘peace process’ has utterly transformed the position of Catholics within Northern Ireland, with the result that among Catholics there is an optimism and self confidence that seem to be utterly and depressingly lacking among Protestants.


This being the case, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the solution to the problem Northern Ireland poses to British/EU relations is a united Ireland. Looked at from a hard brexiteer point of view, May’s attempt to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom almost resulted in the UK remaining in the EU Customs Union. They were only saved from this fate through the foolishness of Keir Starmer. Then they accepted the sea border, throwing their supposed allies, the DUP, under the bus without much of a second thought. An article on the website of the Left Wing pro-Brexit group, The Full Brexit, has argued for a border referendum, with Westminster declaring its preference for the expulsion of Northern Ireland from the UK. Although a little nod was made in the direction of repairing a historic wrong done to the Irish people, the whole argument was framed on the basis of the British interest . The anomalous position of Northern Ireland was, and had already proved to be, a means by which the EU could subvert the newly won independence of Great Britain. The author, Peter Ramsay, Professor of Law in the London School of Economics, is not an advocate of the ‘break-up of Britain’. He has also written in favour of maintaining the union between England and Scotland.

David McWilliams – not known either as a particularly fervent nationalist or enthusiast for the EU – has argued that, as a result of Brexit, a united Ireland is now inevitable or at least a lot more likely:

‘The majority of people in Northern Ireland didn’t and still don’t want Brexit; they want to stay in the EU. As a result, middle-of-the-road Northerners have been pushed towards contemplating a united Ireland in Europe. Brexit was championed exclusively in Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), a party implacably opposed to Irish reunification. That is looking increasingly like an own goal: latest polls indicate that 60 per cent of Northerners favour entering a political and economic alliance with the Republic if it would help the economy.’  (Financial Times, 30th Nov, 2018)


There are, however, a number of obstacles along the way. The first is the fact already discussed in this article that, owing largely to the success of the IRA, Catholics are now feeling more at home in Northern Ireland than they have ever done in the past. It is by no means certain that in the event of a referendum the Catholic vote would be solidly in favour of Irish unity. That having been said it is also by no means certain that the Protestant vote would be solidly in favour of maintaining the union with Great Britain for the reasons given by David McWilliams. But if there is a majority in favour of a united Ireland it is likely to be small and here we could run into a problem of strength of feeling. It is likely that the popular Protestant feeling against a united Ireland is stronger than the popular Catholic, or Protestant middle class support for it. It is likely that the opposition would take a violent turn. Ramsay, in his Full Brexit article says that this could be handled by the British army, and he is probably right. Although the British army couldn’t beat the IRA and was kicked out of Helmand in Afghanistan and Basra in Iraq, they probably could cope with the Protestant paramilitaries who, with little prospect of remaining in the UK and without the support in British politics the UVF had in 1912, would be very disheartened and would have no realistic end to be fighting for. But we may doubt if people in the Republic would relish the prospect of receiving this sulky and embittered population under its wing. To quote McWilliams again:

‘While the South’s economic resurgence may make the prospect of a united Ireland financially more do-able, that very wealth means that the Irish middle class has much more to lose, given the political risks involved. A significant proportion of people in the Republic might not want unification because of the financial cost or the medium-term threat of civil war if loyalism decides to fight. Ultimately, it may be the case that the biggest enemy of unification is not unionism but soft-focus southern patriots, who are in no mood to risk their comforts to pay for the dole of unemployed Rangers fans from east Belfast.’

There is also the problem of the financial and administrative adjustments that would be necessary to absorb the Northern Ireland economy, heavily subsidised as it is by the UK. McWilliams, very moralistic about the uses of public money and budget deficits, is sanguine about the prospects:

‘Over the years, the dependent nature of Northern Ireland’s economy has become endemic, with handouts from London replacing the urge to pay for itself. More subsidies have made the Northern economy more, not less, fragile. Economic supplicants rarely stand on their own two feet. If the North had to pay for itself now, its budget deficit would be about 27 per cent of its GDP.

‘The UK’s annual subvention is just over €10bn annually. When seen from the perspective of the North, with its total GDP of under €50bn, it looks like a significant figure — but when seen from the perspective of Dublin, it is not insurmountable. The usual way financial markets assess whether national expenditure and debts are sustainable is the debt/GDP ratio. Northern Ireland would cost less than 4 per cent of the Irish Republic’s GDP annually. Of course, even this manageable figure would end up lower because the combined Irish GDP of the Republic combined with the North would be well over €300 billion, reducing the subvention as a percentage of income yet more. In pure budgetary terms, there is little doubt that the Republic’s economy could absorb the North and this is before the commercial dynamism of unification [? – PB] kicks in.’

But if a united Ireland is being contemplated as a serious possibility it will need a great deal of willpower and very careful planning and for the moment that doesn’t seem to be happening, indicating that it is not at present something anyone wants very badly – certainly neither of the traditional ruling parties in the Republic but perhaps not even Sinn Fein given the privileged position they occupy in Northern Ireland as it presently exists.

It is, however, difficult to imagine the present situation continuing indefinitely. The subordinate government with its institutional confrontation between Protestants and Catholics keeps breaking down. Continuity of government is maintained by the sovereign government at Westminster but Westminster is wholly unaccountable to the Northern Ireland electorate. There is a possibility that Stormont will become less unstable if the competently led Alliance Party continues to advance at the expense of the incompetently led DUP but this risks the further marginalisation of the Protestant working class (so reminiscent of the ‘red wall’ in the North of England). It would be a wonderful thing if an idea could be found that would fire the political imaginations simultaneously of both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. There was a time when ‘Socialism’ might have done the trick but that time seems to be past. It might be possible to imagine a revival of the ideas of full employment and industrial regeneration if the possibilities available to a government possessing currency sovereignty were recognised – possibilities that have been recognised and championed by Labour Affairs. But that happy prospect still seems a long way off in the future. It would point unequivocally in favour of maintaining the union with Britain but alas, Unionist politicians are even further removed from a possibility of understanding or knowing how to make use of it than the government-forming parties at Westminster.  

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