Explainer

Here’s What Boris Johnson’s New Brexit Deal Would Mean for Britain and Ireland

Could Northern Ireland leave the U.K. altogether?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker address reporters in Brussels on Oct. 17. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

After weeks of painstaking negotiations between representatives of the European Union and the British government, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has struck a deal detailing the nature of his country’s relationship with the EU after its scheduled departure from the bloc on Oct. 31. British members of Parliament are expected to vote on the proposals in a special parliamentary session on Oct. 19, widely considered the last chance to pass a deal before the Brexit deadline.


What is Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal?

Very little actually distinguishes Johnson’s proposal from that of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Theresa May.

“Most of the exit agreement [negotiated by May] is exactly the same to what Boris Johnson is proposing,” said Frances Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council whose research covers the European Union. “The same financial settlement … same treatment of EU citizens in the U.K. and U.K. citizens in the EU.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted in response to the announcement that “Johnson’s negotiated a worse deal than Theresa May” and that it “should be rejected.”

The only substantial difference is the economic status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit and, specifically, how to manage the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

The Irish border has been the main sticking point throughout these negotiations. The EU and the Irish government want to ensure that the border remains open and unobstructed, in line with the 1998 Good Friday peace settlement, which largely brought an end to the 30-year sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. On the other side, the British government wants to secure the U.K.’s status as a distinct economic unit—which would, in theory, require some type of border after Brexit, given that Northern Ireland is still part of the U.K. but shares an island with the Republic of Ireland.

As post-Brexit customs and tariffs come into effect between the U.K. and the EU, there would need to be some method of checking goods entering EU member Ireland—and if there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic, then the checks would have to take place before goods from outside the EU arrived on the island.

The position of Johnson’s current Conservative-led U.K. government has been complicated by its relationship with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 votes in the House of Commons it has in recent years relied on to pass legislation. The DUP is adamantly opposed to any deal that appears to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.


What happens to the backstop?

May’s withdrawal agreement included the now-infamous backstop, an insurance mechanism that would have kept Northern Ireland aligned with the EU customs union and single market in the absence of a formal deal on trade and security arrangements after the post-Brexit transition period. Its purpose was to prevent the need for physical infrastructure along the Irish border—thus fulfilling the U.K.’s obligations in the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the Irish border must remain open—while still allowing the rest of the U.K. to pursue its own economic interests.

The EU initially proposed a Northern Ireland-only backstop in February 2018, but May rejected it out of hand, saying “no U.K. prime minister could ever agree to it.” She offered the U.K.-wide backstop as an alternative, but this was rejected by pro-Brexit members of Parliament three times (including Johnson himself). Indeed, Johnson’s new proposal mirrors the EU’s initial offer, with some minor changes to appease unionists.

As an Irish Times editorial on Thursday noted, “The price Johnson has paid for killing the backstop is his acceptance, as the default position, of the very thing—Northern Ireland in the EU customs union—that the backstop would, if activated, have produced. At the DUP conference last year, Johnson said no British prime minister could ever accept a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. He just has.”

“Northern Ireland would remain technically in a U.K. customs union,” said Heather Conley, the Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “but in actuality it remains part of the EU customs union.”

Under the Johnson proposals, the Irish border would remain open to cross-border traffic and trade, and the new economic border between Britain and the EU would be placed squarely in the Irish Sea. To use an example, medical equipment produced in London could continue to be traded freely with Scottish companies in Edinburgh, but it would be subject to EU tariffs when it enters Belfast in Northern Ireland. Johnson has proposed a rebate system to help offset the costs British businesses will accrue trading with Northern Ireland, but that arrangement remains unclear.


What is the DUP, and why does it have so much influence?

The DUP represents Northern Ireland’s unionists, a British Protestant community that is religiously devoted to the union linking Northern Ireland with Britain. The DUP has always been characterized by its uncompromising approach to politics, and its “not one inch” mentality has helped muddle Brexit negotiations to date.

The party is pro-Brexit but wants to maintain a strong economic relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Its resolute opposition to any deal that appears to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K. is based on the belief that such an arrangement would weaken the union and make eventual political unification with the republic more likely. This has been the party’s red-line issue.

The 2017 U.K. general election delivered a disastrous result for May’s Conservatives. They lost their outright majority in Parliament, forcing them to seek support from the DUP’s 10 MPs in order to pass bills—including all Brexit legislation.

That arrangement gave unionists an effective veto over Brexit negotiations—the DUP could simply vote against any proposal it didn’t like, certain that the traditional rigidity of Parliament would preclude any other party from supporting the government.


Can the British government ditch the DUP?

Johnson’s Northern Ireland arrangement crossed unionists’ red line, and in its official statement, the DUP rejected the deal because it is “not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and [undermines] the integrity of the Union.”

The government will seek to get the DUP on board before Parliament convenes on Saturday. There are rumors that the British government might offer Northern Ireland billions of pounds of additional funding in exchange for DUP support, and there is now a consent mechanism in place that would give the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont a vote to reconfirm the proposals every four years. That second offer might help reenergize efforts to restore the Stormont assembly, which has been out of commission for more than two years now, partly due to the DUP’s unwillingness to talk to Sinn Fein, the country’s largest Irish nationalist party.

But the parliamentary arithmetic has changed considerably since the 2017 general election, and the DUP’s influence is no longer as great. Several cross-party defections have occurred, and Johnson’s expulsion of 21 Conservative rebels in September removed the government’s working majority. Having the DUP’s 10 votes on his side is helpful, but it’s no longer a prerequisite to get a deal passed, especially if he can find new allies in other parts of Parliament.

Business Insider reported earlier this week that a growing number of Conservatives who voted against May’s deal are now ready to vote for Johnson’s, and a substantial section of Labour MPs also seem prepared to back the government. Such a shocking about-face on Northern Ireland coupled with brazenly crossing the aisle to seek votes could eventually cost Johnson his position as prime minister, but it might be enough to overcome both the DUP and opposition from inside the Conservative Party.


What would that mean for Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland’s loyalists—the more hard-line, working-class subsection of unionists—give their loyalty to the concept of “Britain” or, more accurately, “Britishness.” Despite what their label implies, they are not necessarily loyal to the British government or even to the state because, they believe, it is just as capable of selling them out as any other foreign entity.

Loyalists have always deeply distrusted the intentions of the British government, but they were conspicuously silent throughout the Brexit process, evidently secure that the DUP represented their interests honestly. However, the DUP is now under attack from other unionist parties in Northern Ireland that see Johnson’s deal as worse than May’s.

Robin Swann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, denounced the deal, and Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said it would enmesh the economy of Northern Ireland too firmly in the Republic of Ireland’s, bleeding the union to death.

The anger is not limited to rival political parties—it could also explode on the streets. After Johnson’s proposals were made public, the Belfast Telegraph reported that members of the Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary group responsible for some 300 deaths during the Troubles, was preparing large-scale protests and demonstrations, because “Boris Johnson has shafted the loyalist people of Northern Ireland.”

“I would advocate peaceful protest and civil disobedience as no one wants to see violence,” the loyalist activist Jamie Bryson warned, “but I think when you have mass numbers of people on the streets, violence will occur.”

Conley, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calls this situation “preconflictual.” The conflict in Northern Ireland is currently inactive, but as one side becomes more agitated it naturally antagonizes the other side and could escalate tensions.

This is particularly unsettling in the current climate, as republican paramilitary activity itself has steadily increased in recent years, partly due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.


Could Northern Ireland leave the U.K. altogether?

All of this leads to the question: If all efforts fail, could the British government simply lop off Northern Ireland and pursue whichever Brexit deal it wants?

Not exactly.

The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland must be approved by referendum in both parts of Ireland. It has always been assumed that voters in the republic would support Irish unity by a large majority, but the situation is far more complex in the north.

Northern Ireland was historically composed of a majority of unionists, and the dual referendum mechanism was partly a way to guarantee they would have the final say on constitutional change.

But demographic change over the past few decades has caused a steady population shift in favor of Irish nationalists. Unionists no longer have an outright majority in population or even in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Some experts predict that Irish Catholics, who tend to support a united Ireland in greater numbers, could form a majority in the country as early as 2021, potentially tipping the scales in favor of unity.

If the U.K. government believes there is sufficient support for Irish unity, it is legally obligated to trigger a referendum. A widely cited poll conducted by the independent pollster Michael Ashcroft suggested that 51 percent of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unification in a referendum. Other polls reinforce that conclusion. The surge in support for unity is unprecedented in Northern Irish history, and it is seen as a direct consequence of Brexit and concerns over the future of the border.

Boris Johnson sympathizes with unionism as an ideology, but if the numbers prove to be too close for comfort, he might find it politically expedient to threaten to hand the problem of Northern Ireland over to Dublin, giving him the ultimate leverage he needs to get the DUP to sign off on his deal.

It is often said in Ireland that Britain would be happy to renounce control of the north if it could save face while doing so. The government’s official stance is to preserve the territorial integrity of the U.K., but a recent YouGov poll shows that 59 percent of Conservatives want Brexit to take place even if it means Northern Ireland leaving the U.K.

As he prepares to negotiate the post-withdrawal agreement, perhaps Johnson will calculate that the immense financial cost of hanging on to Northern Ireland is no longer worth it in a post-Brexit world. He might then hold a unity referendum anyway, leaving him—and Britain—to pursue the economic future of the rest of the United Kingdom alone.

Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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