Making social science accessible

20 Sep 2018

Devolution and the Union

For Ireland, the Brexit discussion has focused heavily on the Irish issue. This has meant an unrelenting emphasis on securing a Brexit deal which ensures no border on the island of Ireland, and achieving a backstop provision which guarantees this scenario.

The expectation is that this will be achieved in the context of the Withdrawal Agreement, and before the transition phase begins. The Irish government supported a status quo, time bound transition period.

This was seen as an important means of ensuring stability for Irish business and citizens. However, beyond the mechanics of the transition arrangement, there has been little public discussion of the risks and concerns which may transpire during the transition period.

As a remaining EU member state, these risks and concerns are less acute for Ireland, than are for the UK as a whole. However, they are important to Irish interests insofar as they pose difficulties for Northern Ireland and impact on Irish business and citizens.


Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions collapsed in January 2017 following a serious breakdown in relations between the two main political parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.

The political vacuum there since then has meant that Northern Ireland has been unable to contribute to the Brexit process in any sort of determined or unified way.

There is no functioning Northern Ireland Assembly; the North-South Ministerial Council (which facilitates dialogue between Northern Ireland and Ireland) has been in abeyance; and Northern Ireland has not participated politically in meetings of the British-Irish Council or the various Joint Ministerial Councils (JMCs).

Since June 2017, Northern Ireland representation in Westminster is filtered solely through the DUP and one Independent unionist MP, as the seven Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats in Westminster): No nationalist SDLP or unionist UUP MP was returned.

The DUP supports Brexit and also supports the Conservative Party through the Confidence and Supply Agreement which was agreed following the 2017 general election.

The DUP position on Brexit is at odds with that of other political parties in Northern Ireland, and out of step with public opinion which voted in favour of Remain in 2016. Northern Ireland governance is currently overseen by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and local civil servants are charged with maintaining public services.

Even before the transition period commences, the question of legitimacy is a highly charged one in Northern Ireland, as the principles of representation and accountability are already challenged by the unique political situation.

The prospect of a further assault would risk alienating Northern Ireland even more from democratic norms and practices, and potentially unsettle an already under represented and increasingly disaffected population.

One means to improve legitimacy and representation for Northern Ireland during (and after) the transition period, is to confer voting rights for European Parliament (EP) elections on those in Northern Ireland with an Irish passport.

Sinn Féin has also proposed that the two additional EP seats which Ireland is set to receive as the UK leaves the EU should be elected from a new Northern Ireland constituency. The DUP is strongly opposed to this proposal, and other Irish political parties have expressed only limited support.

In Northern Ireland, even proposals to plug the legitimacy gap demonstrate and expose differences and disagreements between the two political blocs.


The most troublesome of Brexit issues is the Irish issue. It is intended that the issue will be dealt with in the context of the Withdrawal Agreement. The Irish government and the EU are adamant that there will be no Withdrawal Agreement without agreement on the backstop.

However, there is no hard and fast guarantee that this will necessarily transpire.

If the only impediment to reaching agreement in October/November 2018 is the Irish issue, it may be fudged in some way, and then dealt with more substantially during the transition phase in the context of the future UK-EU relationship.

This would effectively mean that the Irish issue remains live during the transition period.

Importantly, the UK would be negotiating this issue as a non-member state, and so the ability of the EU to leverage its preferences in the way it has been able to within Article 50 talks would decrease.

There are risks associated with prolonging ambiguity on the Irish issue. It is troublesome for the Irish government in that it fails to provide clarity for business and citizens, and it limits the extent to which British-Irish relations can return to ‘normal’ following a bruising period in the bilateral relationship.

Unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland conceive Brexit contrarily, and favour differing ways of resolving the Irish issue. The resulting politicisation of Brexit has complicated the relationship between the two communities, and added to the mix of factors preventing longer-term accommodation.

A protracted period where Brexit and the Irish issue remains sentient limits the extent to which political relationships can evolve beyond the current stalemate.

This poses challenges for political stability in Northern Ireland at a time when the need for stability is paramount in the context of cementing peace and reconciliation.


The Irish government is not averse to the extension of the transition period, but is bound by the broader EU political, economic and legal reluctance to string out the transition process. The maintenance of stability for Irish businesses and citizens is considered vital.

For Ireland, the Brexit stakes are especially high. There is a sense that if adjustment to the timetable is needed to avoid a no deal scenario, then this should be considered. A prolonged UK ‘membership minus’ status delivers a status quo situation for Ireland which facilitates ‘business as usual’ and protects key Irish interests.

A Brexit transition process with the potential to undermine democratic ideals of representation, accountability and legitimacy is likely to be felt and experienced more acutely in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK.

Adding an additional layer of ambiguity to Northern Ireland’s already democratically deficient political situation may exacerbate lingering tensions and produce destabilising effects.

For a region such as Northern Ireland, which is still in the process of transitioning away from conflict, the need for clarity, certainty and stability is critical. A Brexit transition period which does not deliver on these fronts poses potentially troubling challenges and difficulties.

By Dr Mary C. Murphy, Lecturer at University College Cork. This piece originally appeared in our report ‘The challenges of transition.’


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