How Brexit is Turning into a Disaster for Ireland

As the British government fumbles and a hard border looms, the specter of violence has risen once again.

A week ago, European parliamentary sources leaked the deal that British Prime Minister Theresa May was hoping to conclude with the European Union, and which would mean Northern Ireland remaining in “continued regulatory alignment” with the EU after Brexit. The obvious interpretation was that the UK was planning to cut Northern Ireland loose and effect a social, economic, and administrative merger of the whole island of Ireland. Ulster’s main Protestant grouping, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), duly screamed, and the proposed deal collapsed. After a week of further negotiations led by May, culminating in a early morning press conference on Friday in Brussels, the UK-EU deal was revived. But its present form is essentially a decision not to decide. No new regulatory barriers will exist between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom unless and until the (Protestant/Unionist-dominated) Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly “agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland.” But that is never going to happen. A large Orange Protestant can has been vigorously kicked down the road.

The island of Ireland consists of both an independent republic of 26 counties, as well a six-county province—Northern Ireland, or Ulster—that is part of the United Kingdom. That division has through the years produced bitter conflicts, as the existence of the North remains offensive its Catholic minority who want a united Ireland. That both Great Britain and the Irish Republic were members of the European Union proved immensely beneficial at soothing tensions and effectively eliminating the internal border.

But what will happen when Great Britain leaves the EU while Ireland remains? There will have to be some frontier between northern and southern Ireland to check goods and/or migrants entering “Europe.” This can be done in two ways, each one desperately unpalatable to a major constituency. If there is to be a border, the obvious solution is to restore the long frontier across Ireland, with all its checkpoints and search controls, which the Republic finds utterly unacceptable (so also do most of Ulster’s Catholic minority).

Alternatively, Northern Ireland could be harmonized with the Republic and the rest of Europe, so that the de facto frontier would lie between the two islands, Britain and Ireland. Attractive as it sounds, it’s toxic for the province’s Protestant minority, as it would de facto unite the entire island under the control of Dublin and the Republic, and require some kind of border or checks between Northern Ireland and what we still notionally call “the rest of” the United Kingdom.


So there will and must be a border, either on land or in the Irish Sea, and choosing between the two is virtually impossible. Yet EU negotiators demanded that this quandary be resolved before Britain could even begin formal negotiations with Europe over its future trade relationship. (Those are also impossible but that’s a different story). Unlike other diplomatic issues, moreover, this particular nightmare had the potential to reignite actual violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland, a threat most people had believed solved after the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

One would think, then, that the British government would be hyper-cautious in proceeding in this area above all. Yet they’ve fallen far short of this standard, as was best demonstrated back in 2016 when the British Brexit minister David Davis referred to the border between Ulster and the Republic as an “internal” border, suggesting he did not know that the Republic is an independent state.

That is a bare narrative of events, one that admittedly ignores the real depth of the British policy disaster when it comes to Ireland and Brexit. Let’s examine the DUP, the Democratic Unionists, and pay particular attention to that latter word, which summarizes their whole raison d’être. They exist to preserve, protect, and defend the union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to which all other causes and beliefs are subsidiary. Yet Theresa May somehow hoped to slip Northern Ireland’s “continued regulatory alignment” with the EU past these Unionists as a fait accompli, without prior consultation, presumably on the assumption that they would happily go along with their near-severance from the UK.

But wait, there is more. From the 1920s, the dominant Protestant force in Northern Ireland was the Ulster Unionist Party (UU), which British observers used to think of as incomprehensibly extreme and implacable in its beliefs. Yet as the terror crisis grew worse in the 1970s, even the UU became too moderate, and support shifted to a much harder-line and more explicitly religious movement inspired by the Reverend Ian Paisley. That grouping became the DUP, which is not merely unionist, but extremely, extremely unwilling to accept anything smacking of compromise. Today, the DUP is by far the most powerful party in Ulster, holding 10 seats in the UK parliament.

That same DUP is also critical to the survival of Theresa May’s government. Last June, May suffered a disastrous election disappointment, when she lost her parliamentary majority and was forced to rely on those suddenly precious 10 DUP votes. By the way, May’s own party is called the Conservative and Unionist Party, and many of her pro-Brexit allies take that latter element very seriously.

What did May think was going to happen? Could anyone with the slightest knowledge of Northern Ireland have failed to tell her that what she was planning would be condemned as treason, and that it would assuredly provoke the DUP into moving towards resolute opposition, bringing down her government? Did nobody tell her what the “U” stood for?

Around the world, governments fall, careers are destroyed, but nobody actually gets hurt. This is not the case in Northern Ireland, where political disaster could yet raise some truly frightening ghosts. Most foreign observers are very familiar with Catholic/nationalist groups like the Irish Republican Army and its offshoots, but few know much about the deadly Protestant/unionist tradition associated with names like the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando. From the 1960s through the 1990s, the UVF and other Protestant terror groups fought viciously against Catholics and nationalists, claiming some 600 lives—fewer than the IRA, but still a dreadful record of violence. Some of these actions were uniquely hideous even in the context of a terror war. One legendary group, nicknamed the Shankill Butchers, murdered dozens of Catholic civilians, torturing, mutilating, and in some cases killing their victims with hundreds of stab wounds.

Like the IRA, the Protestant terror groups largely disarmed or went underground after the 1998 peace settlement. As with the IRA, though, diehards remain, and they await only the opportunity to kill and maim once more for the cause of union. If a British government erected its EU border in the Irish Sea, the militants would very likely resurface. The DUP knows this particularly well, having itself benefited from its own hardline history. If the DUP compromised today, it senses acutely that other more extreme movements wait in the wings. And if the DUP replaced the UU, why could it not eventually be supplanted by the still more right-wing Popular Unionist Party or some equivalent successor?

That is the peril May and Davis were playing with—and seemingly without a clue as to the catastrophic dangers they faced. This is unforgivable.

On a whole different level of seriousness, David Davis has just revealed details of the planning that his government has undertaken about the likely economic impact of Brexit on various sectors of the British economy—automotive, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and so on. He has now explicitly stated that because economic models are largely unreliable, no impact analysis statements have occurred, nor will they. Nothing, nada, none. Nor has he announced an intention to resign.

Theresa May’s latest visit to Brussels is being celebrated as a breakthrough—but it still doesn’t address the fundamental issues that have the potential to make Brexit a disaster for Britain. And with the specter of the Troubles looming again in Ireland, her government is guilty of gross negligence.

Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University. He is the author of Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.

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21 Responses to How Brexit is Turning into a Disaster for Ireland

  1. Deasun says:

    You might find this interesting-
    Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB)
    07/12/2017, 17:47
    Northern Ireland’s top pollster finds by small margin more people saying they’d prefer to join the Republic to stay in EU than to leave EU and stay in UK

    Download the Twitter app

    Sent from my iPad

  2. ben madigan says:

    excellent article. Compliments mr jenkins

  3. Hound of Ulster says:

    My ancestral province throws a spanner in the works.

    My prediction: the U.K. will not actually leave the EU, almost entirely because of incompetence on the part of the Tories. And Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Prime Minister.

  4. William Dalton says:

    How is this for an even-handed solution to the problems posed for Ireland by Brexit, one that should keep the peace in Ireland and give it an advantageous position vis-a-vis the remainder of the United Kingdom and the European Union:

    The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain open, with a free flow of goods and persons. Likewise, goods, services and citizens of Northern Ireland will continue to move freely in and out of Great Britain, while those same goods, services and citizens of the Republic will continue to have access to the markets of the EU, as they do today. Now both UK and EU authorities will want to take steps to see those goods and persons coming over to each from Ireland are in fact Irish, but both the UK and the EU should resolve to accept any Irishman, and goods from Ireland, from either end of the island, as they do goods and persons from any other member of their respective unions. If the UK and the EU finally come to agreement about a general regime of free trade, many of these problems may be obviated, but, in the meantime, the people of Ireland need not bear the burden of Brexit.

  5. Fazal Majid says:


    Catholics outnumber Protestants in Ulster now, so those poll numbers are not surprising. They are more geographically concentrated and thus under-represented in the devolved legislature. In any case, the cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement is that no substantial changes to Northern Ireland can be made without the agreement of both communities. From a purely rational point of view, Ireland’s per capital GDP is 50% higher than the UK’s, but they are in no hurry to take the economically stricken North under their wing.

  6. RP_McMurphy says:

    @ William Dalton:

    “The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain open, with a free flow of goods and persons. Likewise, goods, services and citizens of Northern Ireland will continue to move freely in and out of Great Britain”

    No border = No Brexit

  7. JEinCA says:

    Interestingly enough in this post modern multicultural UK the Fenian and the Orangemen have much more in common with each other than they ever have before. I would go so far as to say although he may never admit it the Ulster Protestant is more like his historical foe the Catholic Irishman than he is like a contemporary Englishman.

  8. James Rule says:

    When you wrote the IRA is a mere “Catholic/nationalist” group while labelling the UVF etc as terror groups your credibility on the ethics and morality of the subject evapourated.
    But your desire for Protestant Ulster to either disappear or its “implacable” leaders to water down their own desire for a nation as to make the former easier to achieve is quite clear.

  9. Don N says:

    William Dalton:. The EU has no interest in helping Britain out of its Irish problem. The EU negotiating position is going to be open markets open borders take it or leave it. Anything less makes it easier for other countries to leave. Brexit was a stupid idea from the start.

  10. Rob Ramsey says:

    Why don’t American’s sort there own problems out and leave the United Kingdom & Eire to solve their own issue’. United Kingdom doesn’t stick there noses into American policy.

  11. Smithborough says:

    Currently Northern Ireland enjoys tariff free and customs free trade with both Great Britain and Ireland. After Brexit, if the UK does not have such access to EU markets, it is likely that a choice will have to be made.

    Northern Ireland does 60% of its trade with Great Britain and only 15% with Ireland. Putting the customs border on the Irish Sea will subject 60% of the region’s trade to tariffs. It will be an economic disaster.

    While Irish nationalism may want a border at the Irish Sea, this is a political not an economic choice.

  12. Frank says:

    It almost sounds like the Trump administration had a hand in this.

  13. Michael Kenny says:

    The unionist parties are now in a minority in Northern Ireland (40 seats out of 90 in a PR election). The demographics are also against the Protestants. The split is now about 50 – 50 and the next British census will probably reveal a Catholic majority. The economic basis of Ulster Protestantism, the shipyard and the textile mills, have gone. The extremist Protestant working class, the DUP’s core electorate, is quite simply dying off. Having pushed the Catholic population into the arms of the IRA, the British Government has had to operate a positive action programme to win them back. An increasing number of the top positions in the province are held by Catholics. The NI judge on the UK Supreme Court is Catholic. The Lord Chief Justice of NI is Catholic. Half the High Court judges are Catholic. The majority of voters in NI voted to remain in the EU, which means that part of the Protestant middle class had abandoned the traditional unionist anti-EU hardline. You read more and more articles arguing that NI is unviable other than in the context of an all-Ireland economy and in the EU. The DUP has effectively torpedoed the power-sharing Executive by supporting May’s government. I would guess that Sinn Fein, the SDLP and probably the Alliance Party as well will not agree to any deal in NI unless the DUP commits to a referendum on the exit package, which the Tory anti-EU backwoodsmen are desperate to prevent, believing, probably correctly, that they will lose. Thus, if Britain actually leaves, there will certainly be a demand for a border poll, which, given the Brexit result, could easily lead to the re-unification of Ireland. With the influence of the Catholic Church greatly weakened, that it nothing like as grim a prospect for Ulster Protestants as is would have seemed even a few years ago. The old scenario of narrow-minded Catholic bigots confronting narrow-minded Protestant (and mainly Presbyterian) bigots is gone.
    Thus, to maintain NI in the UK, the DUP has to prevent the UK from leaving the EU! This is just one part of the enormous mess that the Brexiteers, the Ukippers and their American backers have created. Ultimately, I think the DUP will cave in. Assuming that Brexit actually happens, they will accept literally anything which maintains NI in the UK, even if it is purely formal and legalistic. They might even accept an Isle of Man-type status: British sovereign territory but not part of the UK, linked to both the UK and the Republic by treaties. Since all persons born on the island of Ireland are automatically entitled to Irish nationality, those who wish to remain EU citizens can easily do so.
    I wouldn’t see the risk of violence as very great. The nationalist side see themselves as winning in the relatively short term, so they will just sit tight and wait for thee ripe fruit to fall into their laps. The unionists are so numbed by the seemingly inexorable decline of their position that they are likely to see resistance as futile. Paisley is dead and there is no similar leader to take his place.

  14. TurboFurbo says:

    Good article thank you.

    The only solution is a Reunited Ireland
    The Partition of Ireland was totally undemocratic and opposed by the vast majority of people in Ireland when forced upon Ireland in 1920.

  15. alison says:

    I’m American but lived in Ireland and Northern Ireland between 1988 and 1994.

    That the Northern Irish situation is a perpetual after-thought has always been the case. That “her government is guilty of gross negligence” is par for the course, in other words.

    Ask anyone in the Republic of Ireland, as I did on a visit there this spring, and they will tell you that during the Brexit debate no consideration was given to the economic complexities that would be created at the Irish border. I think it would be safe to assert that no one wants a hard border re-established that would impede trade.

    I personally think the government needs to look beyond the ranting of the Protestant minority who — for all their understandable “cultural” concerns — probably don’t want to suffer economic loss.

  16. bacon says:

    For not close to the first time, religion leaves this non-believer bewildered. Catholics and protestants, as I understand it, are all Christians, just have different liturgies, yet have been at one another’s throats in what is now the UK and in Ireland for hundreds of years. I keep thinking there must be other reasons, more connected to real life, but apparently not. Beyond strange.

  17. collin says:

    Well, it is almost like the Brexit vote was not well thought out and everybody had a different vision of Brexit. My guess is Ireland in the 1990s learned to accept a peace (and Good Friday Agreement) because the increased access and interaction to both UK and EU was creating an economic boom. Better economics convinced Ireland citizens to settle for peace and prosperity. And now with the clunky Brexit negotiations, North Ireland feels their voices aren’t heard and would like access to both markets.

  18. David McDowell says:

    Rather a scaremongering piece, and not entirely accurate. The Popular Unionist Party is in fact a very small left wing party linked to the UVF and has completely failed to replace the DUP. Similar failure has marked the Traditional Unionist Voice party, which challenges the DUP from the right. The DUP may not be attractive to the modern English liberal but they are the main party there and represent a substantial body of opinion.

  19. Thaomas says:

    It really is not hard. The UK maintains “full regulatory alignment” with the EU, avoiding the problems of a border with Ireland (and down the road succession of Scotland) and preserving the beneficial freedom of movement of goods, services and (with some minor restrictions) people with the EU.

  20. Jeeves says:

    James Rule:
    When you wrote the IRA is a mere “Catholic/nationalist” group while labelling the UVF etc as terror groups your credibility on the ethics and morality of the subject evapourated.

    Yes, I noticed that too. But he tries to cover this embarrassment by noting that the IRA murdered and tortured more people.

  21. alison says:


    The situation in Northern Ireland does not simply boil down to Catholics vs. Protestants as clashing religious identities that shouldn’t clash because they’re both “Christian.” Trust me lots of folks living there aren’t even religious, per se.

    Rather Protestant and Catholic tribal signifiers for national identities British vs Irish that carry with them clashing interpretations of history to be debated ad nauseam. Added to that are complex socio-economics factors. Lots of academic ink has been spilt trying to sort it all out with limited success.

    To me the thing that both sides living in the North share is their status as political step-children. The British aren’t all the keen on the Prods and the folks in the Republic aren’t that warm toward the Catholic community despite what they may say publicly.

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