An expert's point of view on a current event.

Will Brexit Be the End of the United Kingdom?

The prospect of a hard border is making many Irish on both sides wonder if they’d be better off together.

By , a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.
The group “Border Communities Against Brexit” holds an anti-Brexit demonstration near the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in Newry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 26.
The group “Border Communities Against Brexit” holds an anti-Brexit demonstration near the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in Newry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 26. Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

DUBLIN and BELFAST, Northern Ireland—Winding across rolling hills, lush green fields, and shadowy woodlands, the 310-mile-long border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is not an easy thing to trace these days. Driving along it, the car’s GPS frequently changes its mind, and cell-phone networks are stumped. The border flips back and forth along single village streets, divides muddy farmyards—and often disappears entirely.

In most places, the only definitive sign that you have crossed from one side to the other is a change in the speed limit, which goes from miles per hour in the north to kilometers per hour in the south. Yet, not too long ago, many of the 208 crossing points that dot the now completely open frontier were pockmarked by bomb blasts and blocked by tank traps. Many of the rolling hills surrounding the crossing points were topped by observation towers, from which the British army would have seen repeated shootings and killings.

During the Troubles of the late 1960s to 1990s, some 3,500 people died in violence between republican and unionist paramilitaries, British soldiers and Northern Irish police—many of them right on this tortuous border. It is a time remembered here with a combination of grief, anger, and regret. “Whatever the justice of the cause,” said Neale O’Brien, a local historian from South Armagh, Northern Ireland, “it wasn’t worth one drop of the blood that was spilt.”

The peace that has ruled the area for decades now was hard-won. But it now may be under threat, as is the relative prosperity that has sprung up in border communities since the guns fell silent.

“It’s Brexit,” said Colin Harvey, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “The U.K. decision to leave the European Union has been radically destabilizing.” If, as seems increasingly likely, the United Kingdom leaves the EU without a deal on Oct. 31, this border will suddenly become “live” once again.

To the north will be the U.K. region of Northern Ireland, outside the EU. To the south will be the staunchly EU-supporting Republic of Ireland. This division will, of course, pose a whole range of economic, political, and security challenges. Yet, at the same time, Brexit has also challenged deeper issues of national identity, reviving a long-dormant debate over whether people here would be better off in a united, rather than divided, island.

This debate has also now managed to reach across some traditional sectarian divides. “Even some unionists are now beginning to think the unthinkable,” said Mike Nesbitt, the former head of the traditionally pro-British, or unionist, Northern Irish Ulster Unionist Party and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. “Many wonder if they would rather be in a united Ireland and part of the EU—or be a part of the U.K. but out of the EU.”

Irish unity may therefore be among the many unintended consequences of the current Brexit debacle.

The border separating six counties of the old Irish province of Ulster from the island’s other 26 counties has always been contentious.

Imposed in 1921 and a trigger for the subsequent Irish Civil War, it was never designed to be an international frontier. Following county lines drawn up to reflect local property boundaries, rather than defensible borders, it was used as a way of establishing a Protestant, unionist, British-identifying majority in Northern Ireland and a Catholic, nationalist, Irish-identifying majority in the south.

Yet many Irish nationalists in the south never accepted this division, while the north’s large Irish-identifying Catholic minority suffered sometimes violent discrimination at the hands of the protestant, unionist majority.

The Troubles resulted, with these only drawing to an end in 1998, thanks to the Good Friday, or Belfast, Agreement. The agreement was signed by the United Kingdom, Ireland, and most of the unionist and nationalist parties of the north and then ratified by referendums in both parts of the island.

U.S. mediation was key to the agreement, too, with U.S. President Bill Clinton sending Sen. George Mitchell to chair the talks. Part of the Good Friday Agreement’s genius, argued Nesbitt, was that it “allowed self-definition to people in Northern Ireland.” It said that “you can be Irish or British or both, and there is no hierarchy. No one definition is better than any other.”

As time went on, this flexibility helped defuse long-standing sectarian and national divisions in the north.

As of 2019, “you now have a situation where polls suggest around 50 percent of the population of Northern Ireland say they are neither unionists nor nationalists,” said Jon Tonge, a professor of British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool. At the time of the Good Friday Agreement, the figure was around 33 percent, and at the height of the Troubles, it had been even lower.

At the same time, traditional northern fears about a unified Ireland being under the thumb of the Catholic Church­—one of the main reasons Protestants wanted to hew to the United Kingdom—have been undercut by major social changes south of the border.

Ireland legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 and liberalized abortion laws in 2018, making the south now more socially liberal than the north. “The republic is now a modern, pluralist, democratic state,” Tonge said. And then there are demographics. While at its creation, Northern Ireland had a solid, Protestant, unionist majority, that has steadily eroded over the years. Now, the Catholic, generally Irish nationalist community is approaching numerical parity with the Protestant community.

At the EU referendum in 2016, although around two-thirds of those identifying as unionists voted to leave, around 85 percent of Irish nationalists voted to stay. This gave the “remain” camp a comfortable majority in Northern Ireland.

However, “by sheer weight of numbers,” said Nicola McEwen of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, “Brexit was made in England.” Northern Ireland represents only around 3 percent of the United Kingdom’s population, while England—which voted to leave—represents 84 percent.

In that moment, the promise of the Good Friday Agreement was undone. “To paraphrase the Ulster poet John Hewitt,” Nesbitt said, “‘I am an Ulsterman, Irish, British and European. If you deny me any part of that mix, you deny me who I am.’ Brexit therefore impacts our whole sense of identity, as it’s saying that you can’t be Irish and European anymore.”

Beyond that are the economic problems. A July report from the Northern Irish Department of the Economy states that if the United Kingdom leaves the EU without a deal—a prospect that seems increasingly likely under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson—there would be “immediate and severe consequences,” with some 40,000 jobs in Northern Ireland at risk in the region of 1.8 million people, many of these disappearing “almost overnight.”

“Every economic indicator is already falling, and we just don’t know how far we still have to drop,” said Paul McFlynn of the Nevin Economic Research Institute in Belfast. Danske Bank also predicts output in the region to contract by 0.5 percent in 2019, and annual economic growth has been stagnant, at around 1 percent. Meanwhile, since the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland’s currency, the U.K. pound, has slid 15 percent against the euro and 17 percent against the U.S. dollar.

In Ireland, too, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in July that a no-deal Brexit would be a “fundamental disruptor” immediately costing 50,000-55,000 jobs. Ireland’s GDP would likely shrink significantly, with Brexit having “profound implications” for the economy “at all levels.”

At the same time, police in the north and south have warned that armed groups might seek to take advantage of the return of the border to restart a campaign of violence. Indeed, in April, a New Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunman killed the journalist Lyra McKee. This still small group, of several hundred members, is the result of a consolidation among republican paramilitary dissidents who split from the Provisional IRA in 1997, after the latter accepted a cease-fire and joined the Good Friday peace process.

Putting all these factors together, it is perhaps not surprising that the debate on Irish unity has recently gained momentum.

“Being removed from the EU against the will of the majority here in Northern Ireland has created a whole new dynamic,” Harvey said. “The Good Friday Agreement also allows for a future referendum”—on Irish unity—“and we need to start preparing for this now.”

An April survey showed that around 62 percent of voters in the south would vote to unite with the north. A March poll in Northern Ireland showed only 32 percent in favor, with 45 percent against. Yet the poll also showed some 23 percent undecided.

“If a lot of the ‘don’t knows’ went over, it could be a very close thing,” Tonge said. “In a way, the harder the border Brexit ends up delivering, the bigger that shift is likely to be.” With Johnson pushing forward with plans for a “no deal,” a hard border may well be on its way, too. Indeed, speaking on July 26 in Donegal, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said: “One of the things, ironically, that could really undermine the union, the United Kingdom union, is a hard Brexit.”

Indeed, “we are seeing some unprecedented challenges to the very notion of national unity in the U.K.,” Tonge added, “and not only from Northern Ireland but Scotland and even Wales, too. Ask me if the U.K. will still exist in its current form in a generation, and I’d have to say—that’s a very tough call.”

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Cyprus.