The Long Way Home: Finding a Way Through the Brexit Debacle?

The peace process in Northern Ireland is like a tiny trial run of making interdependence work in a complex world, argues Duncan Morrow. If we obsess with ‘taking back control’, as many have since the Brexit referendum, we are left with no good options.

There is a painful inevitability about what is happening in Northern Ireland over Brexit. This is, famously, a divided society. Divided, as is known, over identity and borders. That division has been fought out violently, leaving an appalling wreckage of lives lost and damaged, paramilitarisation, institutionalised social division and trauma.  

The Good Friday Agreement reached for something else: through an acknowledgement that difference had to be accommodated, that human rights and full equality had to prevail and that every effort had to be directed to reconciliation, we stumbled away from violence. Far too slowly for my taste, so that governments essentially allowed reconciliation to be dropped from the agenda because it delayed the project to bring those most hostile to the project into the tent.  At the time, it probably looked like the quicker way for London and Dublin to get rid of direct responsibility for dealing with history. But we have limped along in a kind of half-conflict half-peace ever since. 

Still, some things worked: in practice if you didn’t focus too much on the unresolved sectarianism, polarisation over every cultural issue and the lack of real policy to address anything of substance (specifically sectarianism, inequality and establishing a flourishing economy) you could largely get on with your life, and in a much more open and unthreatened way than for the three decades before 1998. A new generation with new issues seems or seemed to be on the way, if allowed.  

Which it was, until Brexit. A referendum on leaving the EU was David Cameron’s chosen route to cope with the endless divisions of the Conservative Party. But through the twists and turns of “Brexit means Brexit” the hard Brexiteers ultimately demanded an uncompromising effort to “take back control” of “our laws, our borders and our money.” But in Northern Ireland, there is no “our” border, “our” laws or “our” money, except that we also pay attention to its impact on “them.” We are existentially interdependent – and every step away is a wound. 

Here, open borders were the route to preventing conflict, not closed ones; sharing and negotiating were and are the only way to live together, not a threat; and new coalitions need the breathing space of peace to emerge. Instead of focusing on the fragile point of common belonging, Brexit amplified the pressures to assert egotism to a new pitch in a place where domination and me-first are beyond toxic – potentially lethal, in fact. 

The Brexit campaign launched in England appears to have been essentially ignorant of the fact that a hard border for the UK meant a hard border in Ireland. But there could be no deal with the EU for the whole UK without a deal in Ireland that delivered Brexit without upsetting the existing flows.  Johnson “solved” his riddle by keeping his hard Brexit and dropping the DUP: to get a closed border in Kent, he erected a hard border in Cairnryan.  So he agreed the NI Protocol. The risk now is that everything runs in the opposite direction of “control.”

None of this is good. Shafting the DUP is not good. A customs border in the Irish Sea is not good. All of it is worse than what we had. The only thing it is better than is trying to bring back control by unilaterally imposing a hard border in Ireland, which breaks any notion that the Good Friday Agreement is a new collaborative beginning for relationships between Britain and Ireland. That way lies chaos in Northern Ireland, pariah status for the UK, a trade war with the EU and serious problems with Joe Biden. 

So we are left with no good options, only less bad ones. We can of course export into two markets without hindrance – which we should get on with. We can mitigate some of the practical issues with supply routes through special deals for special circumstances and we need to do that quickly. We can reconfigure supply lines over time, and that will happen. But symbolically there is a border within the UK which was not there before and unionism unsurprisingly feels the chill. And there is no way to take away that bald fact unless the whole UK backs away from hard borders and nationalist “control” rhetoric.

The most difficult part is that this has been obvious from the beginning. You would think that the need to accommodate Northern Irish divisions into your plans would be common cause by now – for all parties.  As night follows day, playing hard ball with hard borders will end in bitter tears.   

So for years some of us have been trying to signal that moving away from a system which prevents hard borders is disastrous and should be top priority for any Northern Irish party.  The predicament of unionism now is the result of not wanting to hear (or not being able to hear or deliberately ignoring) that and marching on regardless. The result is now a problem for all of us, not just unionism, leaving only the comfortless reality of “What else did you expect?”

It is to be hoped that wise heads in London, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, and Washington will prevail. But that will require effort and attention and there is not much bandwidth for those in a Covid crisis. The evidence of last week’s Brussels debacle over Article 16 is that once the red mist descends in a Covid vaccine crisis, everyone else and every other interest and obligation disappears from view. Maybe once the details of the Protocol are ironed out, there will be a place for serious British-Irish bilateralism, giving genuine meaning for the first time to the East-West provisions of the Agreement. For unionism, finding a way back on the Protocol probably depends on persuading an Assembly in four years’ time, although a lot happens to politics and economies in that kind of frame.

But sustainable progress will also require a complete break with the terrible logic that Theresa May pronounced after the Brexit referendum – you either come from somewhere or nowhere. Actually we here in these six counties do come from somewhere, it is just a more complicated and fragile “somewhere” than national chauvinism allows. Interdependence does not make you less. But it requires that international plans are built around complexity rather than shoehorned violently into the straightjacket of “us” or “them” to make them work. Not just because they are an annoying obligation, but because, in fact, making interdependence work is the only meaningful agenda for the future of everyone and Northern Ireland is but a tiny trial run.


Duncan Morrow is a Professor of Politics at Ulster University where he has published widely in the fields of conflict resolution, Northern Ireland politics and the relationship between religion and politics. He is currently the Director of Community Engagement at Ulster University developing relationships with groups and organisations across the community.

This article was first published in Northern Slant on 04 February 2021.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


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