The ‘frictionless’ border
Feargal Cochrane

Chapter 5 focuses on the key issue of the future of the Irish border and why this proved to be such a difficult issue for the UK in its Brexit negotiations with the EU.

It demonstrates how Brexit complicates the issue of political self-determination in Ireland and raises the issue of how the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and Ireland will be maintained outside of the customs union. This chapter explores how the border issue was defined during the Brexit negotiations, how it divided the main political parties and their wider electorates, and the degree to which this presented new political incentives to the main political parties – specifically Sinn Fein and the DUP.

The rise of the border as a political issue after the Brexit referendum forced people to confront what the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) had managed to de-escalate. In blunt terms: which side of the binary line did people live on – the British part of Ireland or the Irish part of Ireland? In this sense Brexit re-weaponised the partition of Ireland and the ‘constitutional question’ which had been skilfully parked by the terms of the GFA since 1998.

in Breaking peace
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Brexit and Northern Ireland

This book argues that Brexit is the most significant event in the political history of Northern Ireland since partition in 1921. It explains why Brexit presents unique challenges for Northern Ireland and why the future of the Irish border is so significant for the peace process.

The book assesses the impact of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and subsequent negotiations between the UK government and the EU on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and on political stability in Northern Ireland. It explores the way in which Brexit brought contested political identities back into the foreground of political debate in Northern Ireland and how the future of the Irish border became an emblem for conflicting British and Irish visions of the future.

The book argues that Brexit is breaking peace in Northern Ireland by underlining and reviving the binary identities of Britishness and Irishness that had been more malleable under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It demonstrates how the Brexit negotiations have undermined the key pillars of the Good Friday Agreement and wider peace process in Northern Ireland; the ‘consent’ principle; the right to self-define national identity as British, Irish or both; and through the steady decline in Anglo-Irish relations since 2016.

In 2021 Northern Ireland will commemorate its centenary, but Brexit, more than any other event in that 100-year history, has jeopardised its very existence.

Hardening positions during the referendum
Feargal Cochrane

Chapter 1 introduces the key research questions that underpin the rest of the book and maps the emergence of Northern Ireland as a contested theme within the Brexit referendum debate in the run-up to the vote on 23 June 2016. While the narrative focus of this chapter is the referendum campaign and the emergence of the main party political positions, the chapter also puts some of the main themes in their historical and political context that feature in subsequent chapters. This locates the central arguments within the key academic debates on the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing and the centrality of the ‘consent principle’ as an axis of consensus for political change in Northern Ireland within the context of the Brexit negotiation process. This chapter also sets out the debate over the future status of the Irish border, and how that issue has impacted on the devolved political institutions and the relations between the main political parties in Northern Ireland.

in Breaking peace
Feargal Cochrane

This chapter looks specifically at the extent to which the Brexit process represents a challenge to the Good Friday Agreement. It examines the arguments relating to whether the substantive principles of the GFA were impacted by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The Good Friday Agreement has lasted for twenty-one years but, at the same time, the devolved power-sharing institutions that resulted from it have been plagued by instability and a chronic lack of collective coherence, and these problems were exacerbated by the spectre of Brexit and by the dysfunctionality within the UK’s efforts to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.

The chapter explores the different narratives surrounding the extent to which Brexit has impacted on and undermined the GFA. Sinn Fein and the SDLP viewed Brexit as anathema to the GFA and as a fundamentally destabilising challenge to its institutions. Many unionists, however, viewed Brexit as more of a bump in the road within the peace process and criticised Irish nationalists in both parts of Ireland for talking up Brexit as a crisis. This chapter examines these conflicting narratives on whether Brexit poses a legal or political threat to the GFA in its letter and spirit.

in Breaking peace
External shocks to peace settlements
Feargal Cochrane

This chapter connects the empirical focus of the book on the Brexit negotiations to a wider theoretical outlook on the dynamics of peacebuilding. The chapter introduces a new conceptual focus located within a conflict transformation approach by focusing on the significance of unexpected exogenous shocks to largely endogenous political agreements. The argument in this chapter is that Brexit presents a novel example of the need to provide peacebuilding shock absorbers that can withstand fundamental unforeseen circumstances – meteors – that hit peace processes with the potential to knock them off their axes and change the opportunity structures of endogenous actors.

This chapter positions subsequent chapters in terms of how Brexit should be understood in its impacts on political conflict in Northern Ireland. It is intended to provide conflict studies scholars with an example of the need for greater flex and adaptability within conflict environments. Brexit was a meteor in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process – no one understood when they were negotiating how normal political gravity would be affected when it hit the political atmosphere in June 2016. This chapter widens the lens outwards from Northern Ireland and Brexit, to bigger debates concerning conflict analysis and the architecture of peacebuilding.

in Breaking peace
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The result and the fallout
Feargal Cochrane

This chapter examines the outcome of the referendum vote on 23 June 2016 and the divisions that both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ votes in Northern Ireland exposed, both across the political parties and within their respective electorates. The chapter assesses the political fallout from the result and the responses of the main political parties. This period saw the crystallisation of political positions and a shift from campaigning mode towards arguments relating to the democratic legitimacy of the vote and rival interpretations of what it meant in practice.

This chapter also assesses the extent to which the UK government’s response to the referendum result undermined the ‘consent principle’ in Northern Ireland and further complicated confidence in the devolved institutions. It maps out the way in which the result overlapped with the ethnonational divide, with 88% of nationalists voting Remain, compared to 34% of unionists. The chapter assesses the implication of these polarised figures for the wider political process, not least the tensions between Sinn Fein and the DUP up to and beyond the resignation of Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in January 2017 and the subsequent Assembly and Westminster elections of March and June 2017 respectively.

in Breaking peace
Philip Norton

The chapter identifies the nature of constitutions and constitutionalism and explains the distinctive nature and history of the United Kingdom’s uncodified constitution, shaped especially by the outcome of the glorious revolution in the seventeenth century and the development in the nineteenth century of the Westminster model of government. It draws out the settled nature of the constitution for most of the twentieth century, the pressures it has since faced, the myriad constitutional changes that have occurred since the late twentieth century under successive governments and demands for more, including a codified constitution, and the different approaches to constitutional change that have developed, producing a constitution that has moved from being settled to unsettled and contested.

in Governing Britain
Who decides?
Philip Norton

This chapter looks at the ways in which a prime minister is chosen as well as the means by which a prime minister may be removed from office. It identifies how the means of choosing a prime minister has changed over time as well as problems deriving from circumstances where it is not clear who should be called to form a government, where there is a sudden vacancy caused by the death or incapacity of the incumbent, and where there may be some uncertainty as to who commands a majority of the House of Commons. It also addresses how prime ministers may be removed from office, other than through defeat in a general election.

in Governing Britain
Who governs?
Philip Norton

This chapter analyses the constitutional consequences of the United Kingdom joining the European Communities (EC), later the European Union (EU), creating a new juridical dimension to the UK constitution, and how Parliament adapted to membership through adapting its structures to enable it to scrutinise and influence proposals for European law. It identifies the problems deriving from the result of the 2016 referendum on leaving or remaining in the EU, the challenges encountered by the May and Johnson governments in seeking to negotiate a withdrawal agreement and achieve parliamentary approval for that agreement and the clash between the outcomes of the 2016 referendum and the general election of 2017.

in Governing Britain
When is a convention not a convention?
Philip Norton

This chapter defines and discusses the role of constitutional conventions, viewing them as the oil in the formal machinery of the constitution. It distinguishes them from law and practice. It examines how conventions come into being and details key conventions of the constitution, such as the monarch giving assent to any bill passed by the two Houses of Parliament and the prime minister having to be an MP. It identifies practices that have been confused with conventions (such as the Sewel ‘convention’), conventions than have been transposed into statutes (such as elections resulting from votes of no confidence), and conventions that have been broken or appeared close to being broken, not least under the premiership of Boris Johnson.

in Governing Britain