The European Union and the United Kingdom have reportedly reached a technical agreement on the post-Brexit future of Northern Ireland. Now the drama really begins. The details of the deal announced yesterday are still unclear, and the agreement is by no means final. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet will vote on the deal later today; if approved, it will go to the House of Commons for a vote. The prospects in both bodies are dim. The Republic of Ireland’s cabinet will hold an emergency session today, and even after news of the deal broke, its foreign minister said that “negotiators are still engaged.” For the EU, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – which means everything thus far is provisional.
The breakthrough came over the issue that most bedevils negotiators on all sides: Northern Ireland. To avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the EU wants Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and single market until a new trade deal is established between the EU and the U.K. – a deal the EU won’t begin to negotiate until there is a Brexit agreement. The U.K. is willing to temporarily remain in the customs union only as a united kingdom – not a divided one. While the squabbling continues, Northern Ireland simmers with economic resentment and political divides.
500 Years of Discontent
The border disagreement is the latest manifestation of the 477-year-old Anglo-Irish conflict and has the power to reignite the dormant Troubles – the civil-military conflict in Ireland that, in the latter half of the 20th century, claimed over 3,600 lives and traumatized generations.
In 1541, King Henry VIII, like many British monarchs and governments that followed, was concerned that Ireland would become a springboard from where continental enemies could attack Britain. He neutralized the threat by conquering Ireland and becoming its sovereign. For centuries, England (and later the United Kingdom) brutalized the Emerald Isle, putting down occasional rebellions with well-documented cruelty. The U.K. also established Protestant plantations in the predominantly Catholic country, the better to assimilate it into the empire.
For all of Britain’s ruthlessness, it never succeeding at obliterating the Irish nation. In that sense, Britain’s colonization of Ireland was unlike its colonization of America, Australia or New Zealand, where native populations were eliminated by sword, musket and disease. Like in India, the native population of Ireland endured and eventually sought its independence. In 1922, after a three-year war for independence, the Irish Free State was established and recognized by the British government. However, the Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated that the Irish Free State would not rule the entire island. The Protestant plantations were hived off and became what is now Northern Ireland, one of the United Kingdom’s four countries and a lasting monument to British rule over the island.
At the time, this arrangement made sense. British rule had been more formative of Northern Ireland’s makeup than geography, and by almost any measure – religious, political, economic, cultural or even linguistic – Southern and Northern Ireland were worlds apart. The British had gone from a minority as settlers to being firmly entrenched in the six counties of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, due in no small part to British economic policies that favored Protestant British (primarily Scottish) settlers, the economies of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State were poorly integrated. Belfast became a major British industrial hub, especially in the key sectors of linen and shipbuilding, while Southern Ireland had an agriculture-based economy. By the early 20th century, Belfast’s population exceeded Dublin’s by nearly 100,000 people.
Further, the settlers’ descendants had no desire to join an Irish Free State in which they would be a religious minority. (In 1911, the population of Northern Ireland was still less than 30 percent of the total population of the island.) And while there were radical Irish nationalists on the other side who dreamed of uniting the island under Irish rule, it made little sense to integrate a population that was hostile to that very notion. The Irish Free State had neither the capability nor the will to retake Northern Ireland from the British.
Demographic shifts mean that the current arrangement makes less and less sense. 2011 census results showed that Protestants now make up just 48 percent of Northern Ireland’s population, while Catholics make up 45 percent. Experts expect that by the 2021 census, Catholics will have overtaken Protestants in part because they are younger: In 2011, 51 percent of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren were Catholic and just 37 percent were Protestant. A recent BBC survey showed that only 47 percent of people in Northern Ireland identify as British. In Northern Ireland’s March 2017 elections, unionist parties – those that prioritize remaining part of the United Kingdom – garnered less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history. Its Protestant population was a transplant, and British imperial rule suppressed the natural demographics of the island. In the absence of total British domination of Ireland, the patient is slowly rejecting the transplant.
Ironically, the United Kingdom is at best ambivalent about Northern Ireland’s future. Since World War II, Northern Ireland’s manufacturing-based economy has been in steady decline. In 2016-17, the U.K. government brought in 11.7 billion pounds ($15.2 billion) in tax receipts from Northern Ireland but spent 20.5 billion pounds there. While a century ago, the Republic of Ireland was relatively impoverished, its gross domestic product per capita is now more than twice Northern Ireland’s (53,000 euros to 23,000 euros, or $60,000 to $26,000). Considering the importance of foreign investment in Ireland’s economy, real net disposable income is a better indicator; here too, Northern Ireland lags far behind, with 18,000 euros of disposable income per head compared to 23,000 euros for Ireland. Where Northern Ireland was once a dynamic contributor to the British economy, today it’s a net drag.
The Brexit Dilemma
Although Northern Ireland has become an economic albatross, the U.K. cannot afford to jettison Northern Ireland so quickly. In pushing it away, London could unintentionally empower secessionist forces in Scotland and Wales. More important, in a world where the EU’s future is uncertain at best, Ireland’s previous status as a potential threat to the U.K. could become relevant again. Centuries of British geopolitical experience suggest the U.K. will hesitate to give up its foothold in a country that, if hostile to Britain, could pose a major threat. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was genuine optimism in the British Isles that the EU’s rise meant the end of nationalism and great power competition in Europe, and that real Irish integration that transcended sectarian lines and security threats might be possible. In hindsight, that dream was wishful, if noble, thinking.
Northern Ireland, then, is in an exceedingly difficult position. Its society is transforming, and while the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has kept sectarian conflict in check, paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have not been dissolved, and the obsolescence of the unionists (or the ambitions of nationalists) might lead to those groups’ desperation or aggression. The Republic of Ireland views Northern Ireland with suspicion, much as West Germany viewed East Germany, and South Korea views North Korea. After all, Ireland’s economy is not on stable ground itself, dependent as it is on foreign investment for 24 percent of its GDP on average since 2008. The current British government has had to pay even closer attention to Northern Ireland after Theresa May’s 2017 election gambit backfired and left her dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party for a parliamentary majority. Practically, however, Northern Ireland comprises roughly 3 percent of the U.K.’s population and 2 percent of the U.K.’s GDP. Remaining in the United Kingdom means doing whatever it is told, and an increasing number of residents of Northern Ireland chafe under that bridle.
If there is a ray of light here, it is that the Good Friday Agreement details what should happen when Northern Ireland’s demographics complete their inversion. The secretary of state is required to hold a poll if it appears that “a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the U.K. and form part of a united Ireland.” In other words, all parties involved have agreed that eventually, the Republic of Ireland will be ready to rule the entire island, and Northern Ireland will be willing to be ruled from Dublin. The problem is that this reality was supposed to come decades down the road, so that all sides could slowly acclimate and prepare themselves for it. Brexit threatens to expedite that process (and in some ways already has). The Anglo-Irish conflict has taken many forms, most notably sectarian, but the primary issue has never been religion. Rather, it is that Britain took part of Ireland for itself and is responsible for centuries of Irish suffering. By withdrawing from the EU, it might be responsible for Irish suffering once more.
This all comes down to whether the Anglo-Irish conflict can still animate these powerful dynamics, and whether Brexit will give them new expression. A majority of Northern Ireland’s population (56 percent) voted to remain in the European Union, and those votes align almost exactly with those who identify as Catholic or as Northern Irish. Seven of Northern Ireland’s 18 assembly areas actually voted “leave” – and by substantial margins, which means that while the demographic transformation of Northern Ireland is in process, it is far from complete, and Northern Ireland itself is divided on Brexit. As for the Irish and Catholic “remain” voters, the very fact that Britain is reaching out once more to control Northern Ireland’s fate without the consent of the majority, and in the 21st century no less, might be interpreted as another chapter in a long story of British despotism. In response, where once Ulster unionists were suspicious of Irish papists, their mistrust now falls on Irish europhiles. The pope has simply been substituted with the European commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker.
As for the EU, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The forward march of human progress that the EU embodied was meant to eliminate such conflicts, not inflame them. The EU could hardly imagine a member state wanting to leave (although neither could the British government that called the Brexit referendum), and now that one is threatening to, the EU feels it must demonstrate to other skeptics that they are better off in the EU than out of it. In doing so, the bloc is fanning the flames of a smoldering conflict and doing what generations of British leaders came to fear: using Ireland to weaken the United Kingdom. It is entirely possible that all this might go away, that the U.K. and the EU will come to a final deal that will satisfy all parties – that is, after all, in their interests. But opposite to those interests is half a millennium of distrust, anger, resentment and memory. Recent history has taught us that such deeply held national sentiments are most dangerous when dismissed.