BREXIT: What Does It Mean for Northern Ireland’s Future?

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The world witnessed the United Kingdom’s citizens’ decision to withdraw the nation from the European Union through a nationwide referendum conducted in June 2016. And after four-year-long discussions, debates and negotiations, BREXIT finally happened on January 31, 2020.

The United Kingdom has left the organization after 48 years of its long-lasting relationship with the European Union. The UK has experienced several political instabilities related to its exit from the European Union. Then Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported continuing its relationship with the EU, resigned from the post of Prime Minister after the referendum was in favour. Later the new Prime Minister Theresa May, who came into power, also tried to leave from EU, but it also became a failure. 

Image courtesy-The Independent

And finally, when Borris Johnson came to the administrative power, he reiterated that he would implement the mission of BREXIT. Even before the exit from the European Union, the United Kingdom and the EU had signed a trade agreement. However, they could not be able to reach an agreement on various issues like the future of Northern Ireland issues. This will generate certain difficulties for trade and mobility on the local and domestic level, but more importantly, it also fosters serious concerns for the future of Ireland. 

What is BREXIT?

BREXIT (a portmanteau of “British Exit) is the name given to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom) at the end of January 31 2020. The UK has been an EU member state since January 1 1973. After 48 years of solid relations, accounting for several reasons, the citizens decided to leave the Union.

After BREXIT: EU-UK Relations

After BREXIT, in 2020, the EU and the UK agreed on their new partnership. It sets out the rules that apply between the EU and UK as of January 1 2021. This rule will cover areas like travel and border controls, trade in goods, and security, such as pacts on cooperation to battle terrorism. Later on May 1 2021, EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force. This was the recent step the EU and UK took in formalizing their new relationship. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson signing the BREXIT Agreement at Downing Street, 24 January 2020
Image courtesy-Twitter@BorisJohnson

Brief History of Northern Ireland

Looking at the history of Ireland, we can see English domination and its impacts from the 17th century onwards. Three centuries of English domination and interference from Ireland led to various rebellions and political instabilities in the state. Most Catholics wished to have complete independence from Great Britain, but Irish protestants living in a catholic majority did not have an interest in living as part of that country.

Political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland did not occur until the early 20th century, when protestants and Catholics split into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule. In an attempt to pacify the two factions, Great Britain ratified the Government of Ireland Act 1920, dividing Ireland into two separate political entities and giving each some self-government powers. This Act was welcomed by Ulster Protestants and rejected by Southern Catholics, who continued to demand complete independence for a united Republic of Ireland.

A roadsign with directions to Belfast and Dublin kept in Carrickcarnan, Ireland, on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland
Image courtesy-Reuters

From 1960 to 1990, the two states remained bitter rivalries. In 1995, the Irish and British governments released their joint proposals on the subject of future Northern Ireland. After a long period of historical debates and negotiations, the momentous Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement in 1998, came into being. As a result, Northern Ireland became a part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland Protocol

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom which shares a land border with the European Union member state, i.e. Republic of Ireland. The whole situation changed when the United Kingdom withdrew from the EU. As such, NIP is a protocol that aims to resolve the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement melted the decades-long violence and played an instrumental role in securing peace between the two borders. 

A view of Newry, the Northern Ireland border town
Image courtesy-The Times

Before BREXIT, it was easy to transport goods across the borders of the two states. However, a new system was needed after this because, as per the EU rules, strict food regulations prevailed between the EU and the non-EU states. According to the protocol, inspections and checks must be conducted between Northern Ireland and the UK instead of checking the goods at the Irish border. The Kingdom wants to create red lanes and green lanes for goods imported from Britain. Thus, the UK administration has presented a draft of legislation aiming to override the protocol unilaterally. However, European Union has opposed these new rules initiated by the United Kingdom.  

Future of Northern Ireland Post-BREXIT

Political Stability of Northern Ireland

The fears regarding the impact of BREXIT on the political stability of Northern Ireland and the issue of the Irish border were raised during the European Union referendum itself. Notably, EU membership has played a crucial part in Northern Irish politics. It has played a significant political, psychological, and economic role in enabling the nationalists and unionists to cooperate and also act as a means of maintaining relationships with the Republic of Ireland.

A mural by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Image courtesy-Foreign Policy

The population of Northern Ireland seems to be divided along community lines, as confirmed by the BREXIT referendum results. Most nationalist constituencies remained to vote to remain with the EU, whereas the majority of unionist constituencies voted in favour of leaving. This subsequently means that it could revive the inter-communal tensions, particularly as membership in the EU is a sensitive issue. 

Border Issue Between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

In addition to posing a threat to political stability, BREXIT could also be a source of instability for the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The borders of the two states had a soft border when Northern Ireland was a part of the European Union. So far, BREXIT will reinstate a hard border between the two states as Northern Ireland would no longer be a part of the EU. Thus, it requires the introduction of several border controls.

A protest poster displayed in Northern Ireland against BREXIT
Image courtesy-Belfast Telegraph
Deviation of Trade

The United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the EU’s single market and Customs Union and follow a trade relationship based on Free Trade Agreement would create a trade deviation. Thus, the Northern Ireland Protocol’s structure of virtually unconstrained trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and some restrictions on trade between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, were also going to have some trade differences. Therefore it is highly distressing and unpredictable how the United Kingdom will continue its trading process without the European Union’s support. 


BREXIT is giving way to some serious threats to the future Northern Ireland peace process in disrupting the all-island cooperation and integration process. Also, the Northern Ireland economy is dependent mainly on the EU more than any other region of the United Kingdom. The interruption to normal mobility in the Republic of Ireland would seriously damage their relations. 

Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland

Some implications of BREXIT are unclear; it depends on various factors like short-term impacts on the peace process and the impact of another Scottish independence referendum. Whatever the long-term implications, BREXIT will build an immediate crisis for the peace process. If the negotiations result in a hard land border, it will weaken the current peace process. Therefore it is not easy to see it surviving in its current form. 

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About the Author

Mohammad Unais A V

Apart from being a talented football player and a hodophile, Unais is also an active social worker in Kerala. He is pursuing his master’s degree from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, in International Relations and Politics. From his political science background, he has a keen interest in areas like Migration and Refugee Studies, Gender Studies and World Politics.

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