Making social science accessible

22 Jun 2021

Devolution and the Union

This Reflecting on Brexit piece is part of our #EUref5yrsOn series. 

Borders became a major preoccupation of the long, tortuous Brexit negotiations beginning five years ago. Once the preserve of a small band of eccentric academics, Brexit filled the air with border talk, focused mainly on the island of Ireland and the possibility of an Irish border.

Brexit threatened to reestablish a hard border on the island, a border that had been effectively softened for two decades. During the negotiations process the UK Government appeared to concede that a hard Irish border was unacceptable. Since bordering was a likely outcome of Brexit an Irish Sea Border emerged as the negotiated alternative.

However, the recalcitrance of the UK Government on the Northern Ireland Protocol attached to the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement (of October 2019) – which delivered the ‘Irish Sea Border’ – gives rise to the possibility of a Celtic Sea Border between Ireland and mainland Europe as a forced alternative.

The end of this saga may well be borderlessness on the island of Ireland and a ‘united Ireland’, in some form or other.

Act 1: Irish Border

Debordering denotes the dismantling of physical border infrastructure, the dispersal of border security personnel, and the upscaling of intergovernmental and cross-border cooperation.

The introduction of the European Single Market in 1992 and the north-south dimension of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 debordered the Irish border, rendering it open and almost imperceptible. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement established north-south cooperation institutionally.

Additionally, EU Interreg and Peace programmes improved cross-border infrastructure and helped foment an Irish cultural borderscape. In that borderscape, cross-border, cross-community contact, communication and cooperation for peacebuilding thrived.

The 2019 EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement (and its Northern Ireland Protocol) maintained the debordering thrust of European integration and the Good Friday Agreement as it pertained to the Irish border.

To do so, however, the Protocol positioned Northern Ireland as a part of two diverging unions, the UK and the EU, with Northern Ireland, for all intents and purposes, remaining in the EU Single Market and Customs Union.

Act 2: Irish Sea border

Though the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (30 December 2020) delivered tariff free trade between the EU and the UK, the Protocol established an Irish Sea Border for goods, particularly agri-food products, with checkpoints becoming operational at Northern Ireland ports.

Ulster unionists of various shades interpret this outcome as a loss of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland and an existential threat to their identity.

While constitutional sovereignty was not compromised by the Protocol, it may be argued that the Protocol has deleterious consequences for British economic sovereignty over Northern Ireland, and, therefore, the idea of sovereignty in a holistic sense. This sovereignty belongs to British unionists generally, and to a bygone era in Europe.

The Prime Minister (and titular Minister for the Union), Boris Johnson, has blustered that ‘sandpaper’ has been taken to the Protocol to smooth away its ‘barnacles’. The pugnacious Lord David Frost, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, has been deployed to undertake the task.

If those ‘barnacles’ prove to be resistant to Frost’s elbow grease then Johnson will be tempted to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol, which calls a halt to the operation of the border in the Irish Sea in whole or in part. What then?

Act 3: Celtic Sea border

The Groucho Marx quip ‘those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well I have others’ apply to Boris Johnson like no other politician. He has a proven track record of being less than resolute on points of principle.

Commitments can be reneged upon with ease, agreements may be tossed aside without a qualm. In contrast, the integrity of the Single Market is a raison d’être of the EU.

Should Boris Johnson call a halt to the effective operation of the Irish Sea border for an unspecified duration it would be interpreted in Brussels and in member state capitals as a threat to the integrity of the Single Market, and, therefore, to the EU.

In response the European Commission would be forced to consider establishing a Celtic Sea border between Ireland and the European mainland with the possibility of customs and inspection checks on Irish freight at the seaports of Cherbourg, Dunkirk, Roscoff and Saint-Malo. A nightmare scenario for the Irish government, resulting in Ireland being shoved onto the window ledge of the European Union.

Act 4: Borderlessness

Such an eventuality would further energise the push for a Border Poll on a ‘united Ireland’ and borderlessness on the island of Ireland, supported not just by Sinn Féin but also by other mainstream political parties in Ireland.

It would also be supported, north of the (current) border, by the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the ascendant Alliance Party – not least because that would be the only way back to full EU membership for the island of Ireland.

Should borderlessness on the island and a ‘united Ireland’ become a reality – and it is one that opinion polls already indicate to be a close run thing – it would be the end of a nightmare Brexit journey for Ulster unionism.

Discussions and proposals for their accommodation in a ‘united Ireland’ have begun. However, unionist politicians have, thus far, run a mile from such an endeavour shouting ‘we are unionists’, ‘we are British’, ‘scrap the Protocol’.

There is no doubt that a ‘united Ireland’ in any form would be the beginning of the long dark night of the Ulster British soul. However, a comfort blanket would be supplied by shared power, weighty British-Irish institutions, shared symbols, and a shared peace.

By Cathal McCall, Professor of European Politics and Borders, Queen’s University Belfast, and author of Border Ireland: From Partition to Brexit.


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