Brexit and reunification

James Harvey considers the consequences in the Six Counties if the United Kingdom really does leave the EU

In these dying days of Theresa May’s Tory government leading ministers have been queuing up to warn of the dangers a ‘no-deal Brexit’ poses for the future of the United Kingdom.

In contrast to the insouciance of the two leadership contenders, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, about the possible impact of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland, the prime minister’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, has argued that Northern Ireland’s place in the union was under threat.1 He suggested that demands for a border poll could grow as a result of the serious economic impact a hard Brexit would have on the Six Counties. As reported in The Financial Times, Lidington told the cabinet:

There is a real and genuine conversation going on the island of Ireland about a future border poll … A no-deal exit, in which direct rule must necessarily be introduced, would sharpen this further.2

He went on to stress that the narrow unionist majority amongst Northern Ireland’s electorate could not be taken for granted: one outcome of a border poll could be Irish reunification, as “moderates attracted by social liberalisation in the republic” and others fearful of the economic damage unleashed by Brexit might choose to vote to stay within the European Union by reuniting with the Irish Republic.3 Lidington’s warnings not only echo those of Theresa May in relation to the impact of Brexit on Scotland, but also reflect an assessment widely held in Ireland on the ways that Brexit could result in the disintegration of the UK and begin the process of the reunification of Ireland.4

In my previous articles I considered how the political and economic development of the Irish Republic since the 1950s has shaped the 26 counties’ relationship to the European Union and its response to Brexit. In my conclusion I will look at the political impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and whether the possible future scenario outlined by Lidington has any validity.


The 2016 Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland was conducted in a highly polarised atmosphere. Although the power-sharing institutions established by the Good Friday agreement were still up and running, signs of tension within the executive between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, which were to result in the suspension of devolution in January 2017, were already evident. Thus the referendum campaign in the Six Counties reflected these underlying political and communal divisions, making it rather different in form and content from the debates in the rest of the United Kingdom .

The DUP, as unionists who wanted to maintain both the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within it, were naturally strong advocates of ‘leave’. The chauvinistic rhetoric of the ‘leave’ campaign, and its calls to ‘take back control’ and assert British independence as a global economic power, chimed well with unionist politics.5 In contrast the parties that drew support from the nationalist electorate, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, called for a ‘remain’ vote. Sinn Féin argued that “the island of Ireland had benefited greatly through peace and structural funding from the EU”. Martin McGuinness in particular linked the EU to the peace process and argued during the campaign that “the future of Ireland, north and south, is within the European Union”.6

The campaign’s focus on the constitutional status of the Six Counties after Brexit and the eventual result largely reflected these communal divisions, with most unionists voting ‘leave’ and most nationalists ‘remain’.7 However, the final outcome - ‘remain’ 55.8%, ‘leave’ 44.2% - was not a simple mapping of existing unionist and nationalist constituencies. Whilst nationalist areas voted heavily to remain, they were joined by some unionist areas in Belfast and North Down to give ‘remain’ a majority.

Since 2016 the significance of this result and what it portends have been endlessly debated.8 Two quite contradictory tendencies seemed to be at work following the referendum. One was the continued polarisation of Northern Ireland’s politics, heightened by the DUP’s support for the May government following the 2017 general election. This brought unionist concerns about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to the heart of the British government and provided a useful red line for hard-line Brexiteers on the Tory back benches to rein in the compromising tendencies in the May government.9 The nature of the border and ‘the backstop’ increasingly became central questions during the protracted Brexit process, moving both DUP concerns and political influence seemingly to the centre of the debate.10

This linking of unionist interests with Tory politics produced a predictable response from Sinn Féin and other nationalists, who argued that this was a revival of an historical coalition that was inimical to the interests of nationalists in the Six Counties and could fatally undermine the ‘peace process’.11 Sinn Féin’s argument that the DUP was calling the shots was reinforced by a prolonged political hiatus following the suspension of Stormont in January 2017.12 Consequently during the various negotiations to re-establish devolved government, Brexit increasingly became a symbol of the basic constitutional conflict which lay at the heart of Northern Irish politics.13 These deeper political and communal tensions were revealed by the assembly elections held in March 2017: whilst remaining the largest party, the DUP ended only one seat and 0.2% of the vote ahead of Sinn Féin.14

The second tendency, it was suggested by a number of commentators, was that Brexit produced dynamics that might facilitate Irish reunification. A series of post-referendum opinion polls seemed to suggest that “Brexit made a united Ireland a more likely prospect” because, it was argued, some unionists were now “thinking the unthinkable” about reunification if it meant Northern Ireland staying in the EU.15 Much of this type of analysis turned on the existence and nature of so-called ‘liberal unionists’ and the growth of a new segment of the population and electorate who eschewed the old ‘sectarian labels’ and looked instead towards a new ‘Northern Irish’ identity.16 This “new and potentially inclusive national category in a divided society” was identified with the young and socially mobile and seemed to explain the recent growth of electoral support for the ‘non-sectarian’/liberal unionist Alliance Party and the Greens.17

Whilst it may be true that amongst sections of the petty bourgeoisie “the two tribes are receding in the wake of Brexit”, it is, however, far from clear whether this development will give any real impetus towards reunification. Likewise, although there are serious concerns about the Tory government’s handling of Brexit and the severe economic impact a ‘no deal’ would have on the Six Counties, it seems very unlikely this could translate into support for a border poll - much less a majority for reuniting with the south. Opinion polls and electoral evidence suggests that whilst ‘liberal unionists’ are strongly anti-Brexit, their preferred option overwhelmingly remains the constitutional status quo and power-sharing rather than any form of united Ireland.18

Underpinning much of this debate about the impact of Brexit are a number of demographic and political assumptions about identity and constitutional preferences. Put crudely - and it is a very crude form of demographic determinism - unionist fears and nationalist hopes for the future turn on the likely communal balance within the population of the Six Counties. If the Catholic population continues to grow at its historic rate, then, within the foreseeable future, nationalists will secure a majority and vote to reunite Ireland.19 This simple sectarian equation of ‘Catholic’ and ‘nationalist’ is further complicated by evidence that not all ‘nationalists’ favour immediate or even eventual reunification in the long term.20 The 2019 local government elections saw a small fall in the Sinn Féin vote and a loss of seats, both to independent republicans and the SDLP.21 Has the seemingly inexorable forward march of the Shinners been halted?

The political and economic success of the Catholic middle class, first noted during the 1980s and consolidated in the post-1998 new dispensation, has created a social group whose political and economic interests have been met by power-sharing and the end of the most obvious unionist discrimination.22 Although many of them are Sinn Féin voters, backing the most effective ‘ethnic tribunes’ who defend their interests in the communalised polity of post-1998 Northern Ireland, the current status quo suits them very well: they do not want real change - much less the “32-county socialist republic”.23


As my previous articles showed, Brexit is not in the interests of either the Irish or British capitalist classes. Given the degree of economic integration, supply chains and cross-border trade, a no-deal or hard-border Brexit is not in the interests of capitalists in Northern Ireland either.

Commercial and manufacturing groups, along with agri-business interests in the Six Counties, have loudly declared against Brexit and lobbied for the status quo or the softest of borders after October 31. Farmers and rural business - traditionally a strong base for the DUP - have described a no-deal Brexit as “a calamity for Northern Irish agriculture”.24 Similar alarms have been raised by retailers and hauliers about the impact of customs checks on cross-border trade.25 Likewise, official estimates talk of 40,000 job losses north of the border and a contraction of the Six County economy across all sectors.26 Although the chorus of opposition to a no-deal Brexit grows louder, the nearer we approach Halloween, the DUP’s position of support for the hardest of Brexits has not shifted. If a no-deal Brexit happens, it will not be a Boris Johnson-led Tory government, but Dublin, that will be to blame, according to the DUP.27

For Sinn Féin the growing integration of the economy in both jurisdictions, combined with what could be presented as ‘the withering away of the border’, were important dynamics for the reunification strategy they sold to many of their supporters in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even many capitalists believed that the border would become irrelevant, as the dynamism of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and strengthening partnership of the Irish and British states within the EU brought north and south together.28 Combined with the arguments that the Good Friday agreement opened up the possibilities for a period of transition towards a united Ireland, the Sinn Féin leadership invested a lot of electoral capital in these political and economic mystifications.29

However, Brexit is just the latest event that has thrown these strategic calculations into disarray. Sinn Féin’s response has been to identify strongly as a ‘remain’ party and to argue that the only way that both the political and economic gains of the peace process on both sides of the border can be preserved is to stop Brexit through a border poll.30 The leadership hopes this strategy will consolidate its northern electoral support, whilst helping to rebuild its shattered base in the 26 counties.31 The recent local government elections and the European elections in the south were a major political setback for the party and refocusing on the Six Counties and Brexit might allow it to reassert its republican credentials in a ‘new site of struggle’ for reunification. However, given the political dynamics created in Ireland by Brexit these hopes are unlikely to be realised.

For both governments and other political actors in Ireland and Britain, the imminence of Brexit has upset a common desire to maintain the political and economic status quo in the Six Counties. Dublin does not want reunification, Sinn Féin can only posture in demanding it, whilst the British appear to press on towards no deal and a hard border.

What nobody seems to want looks like it will happen - and with a final outcome nobody can yet predict l

  1. www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/hunt-and-johnson-backstop-is-dead-and-can-t-be-in-any-eu-deal-1.3957994.↩︎

  2. www.ft.com/content/2d8d3a54-a25b-11e9-a282-2df48f366f7d.↩︎

  3. Ibid.↩︎

  4. www.ft.com/content/9e8a39ca-98c7-11e9-8cfb-30c211dcd229.↩︎

  5. https://brexitcentral.com/dup-manifesto-said-brexit.↩︎

  6. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/dup-confirms-it-will-campaign-for-brexit-in-leaveremain-referendum-34470806.html.↩︎

  7. www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36615507/eu-referendum-ni-remain-vote-declared.↩︎

  8. www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2019/02/united-ireland-now-looks-increasing-possibility.↩︎

  9. www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/27/may-faces-uphill-battle-as-dup-and-ergs-spartans-will-vote-against-deal.↩︎

  10. www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/brexit-no-vote-on-deal-this-week-without-dup-and-erg-support-1.3829665.↩︎

  11. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/16/dup-tory-pact-ireland-good-friday-agreement-sinn-fein.↩︎

  12. For further details of this rather convoluted series of events see www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/rhi-scandal.↩︎

  13. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/efforts-intensified-to-restore-northern-ireland-powersharing-at-stormont-38164470.html.↩︎

  14. www.ark.ac.uk/elections.↩︎

  15. www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/62-in-north-believe-brexit-makes-united-ireland-a-more-likely-prospect-884923.html; www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/some-unionists-are-thinking-the-unthinkable-about-living-in-a-united-ireland-1.3725241.↩︎

  16. www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/12/brexit-own-goal-changes-politics-northern-ireland.↩︎

  17. www.research.ed.ac.uk/portal/files/75749094/McNichollEtalPP2018HowTheNorthernIrish
    NationalIdentity.pdf; www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/local-elections-2019.↩︎

  18. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/irish-times-poll-northern-ireland-voters-do-not-want-dup-tory-brexit-1.3818264.↩︎

  19. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/new-light-

  20. www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/

  21. www.ark.ac.uk/elections.↩︎

  22. E McCann War and peace in Northern Ireland Dublin 1999; K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007.↩︎

  23. www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01402380903065157.↩︎

  24. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/18/northern-irish-farmers-brexit-calamity-eu.↩︎

  25. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jun/12/

  26. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/brexit-report-suggests-40-000-job-losses-in-north-in-event-of-no-deal-1.3952958.↩︎

  27. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-13/dublin-risks-driving-u-k-into-no-deal-brexit-dup-says.↩︎

  28. G Quigley A time to speak: a selection of speeches made during the period 1989 to 2013 reflecting on economic, social and other issues Belfast 2015.↩︎

  29. K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007.↩︎

  30. www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/13/no-deal-brexit-would-lead-to-vote-on-united-ireland-says-sinn-fein.↩︎

  31. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/voters-reject-sinn-fein-the-party-that-likes-to-say-no-k56ppffvz.↩︎