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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.

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Feargal Cochrane

The introduction sets out the big picture themes of the book, the central arguments within it and the main structure.

It maps out the wider context and sets up several of the core arguments, namely that no one saw Brexit coming –or really understood its implications. This introductory chapter outlines how Brexit represents the biggest political and economic challenge for Northern Ireland since its foundation in 1921. But in the context of Northern Ireland’s troubled history, Brexit sits as a counterpoint to partition, separated by nearly 100 years but the two events bookending generations of political strife, cultural division and economic instability.

This chapter argues that Brexit connects the present and future of Ireland to the past in a number of ways that are not understood within a British context. The introductory chapter uses the Irish border as an example of the way in which Brexit carries a different set of issues in the Irish context than it does within Britain.

This chapter concludes with short summaries of each of the seven chapters that follow and how they relate to the central themes within the book.

in Breaking peace
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
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
Westminster 2017
Feargal Cochrane

This chapter focuses on the aftermath of the Westminster General Election of 8 June 2017, the hung parliament that resulted and the ‘confidence-and-supply’ deal negotiated between the Conservative Party government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on 26 June 2017.

The General Election was called by the new Prime Minister Theresa May to help mandate her leadership and provide the parliamentary arithmetic to help steer Brexit through the political and legislative process. It was also called because the overwhelming message from the opinion polls was that the Conservative Party would win a landslide victory against the embattled leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. The result left Theresa May clinging to office with a minority government. The subsequent confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP kept her in power but changed the dynamics of Brexit significantly, both in terms of how the negotiations proceeded within GB, but also in terms of Northern Ireland politics.

The chapter examines how the General Election and the Conservative Party deal with the DUP had a corrosive impact on political relationships in Northern Ireland and on the appetite of the main parties to restore devolved institutions to Northern Ireland that could operate effectively.

in Breaking peace
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
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
Anglo-Irish relations after Brexit
Feargal Cochrane

This chapter examines the impact that the Brexit negotiations have had on Anglo-Irish relations. It explains how the London/Dublin relationship has been integral to the political fortunes of Northern Ireland and will continue to play a critical role in the future viability of the peace process and political institutions in the region. UK and Irish membership of the EU has been a point of commonality since the simultaneous entry of the two countries to the EEC in 1973. From that point a slow convergence took place over seeing the political conflict in Northern Ireland as a problem to be jointly managed.

The chapter explains how the Brexit referendum and subsequent UK negotiation with the EU changed that dynamic and potentially sets a new course for both countries. This relates to policy towards Northern Ireland but also to wider dimensions, notably economic interests, attitudes to security, human rights and to the European neighbourhood itself.

The chapter demonstrates how the Brexit negotiations made diplomatic relations more fraught between the two countries, primarily over the ambiguity surrounding the future of the Irish border, but also over the UK’s broader commitment to the future of the GFA itself.

in Breaking peace
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Brexit – do or die?
Feargal Cochrane

The concluding chapter frames the key arguments within the book and the key issues that will face Northern Ireland, the UK government and the Irish Republic as the next phase of the Brexit process begins. It makes the argument that Brexit is breaking peace in Northern Ireland and that the severity with which it does so is dependent upon how Brexit is experienced.

A no-deal Brexit with no transition period is likely to result in a more extreme decline in Anglo-Irish relations and the peace process, while a deal between the EU and UK with the backstop element intact and a transition period is likely to cause a less immediate and urgent crisis.

This chapter will include the events at the end of October 2019 and the implications presented by whether the UK leaves the EU without a deal and a transition period – or agrees an alternative arrangement with the EU. The chapter will also cover the implication of the Conservative Party leadership contest to replace Theresa May as leader and prime minister and the implications of this for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

in Breaking peace