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Northern Ireland: Brexit as a Final Call for a Good Friday Agreement Revision

5 February, 2024

by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant

Brexit, often regarded as an era of British independence and one of the most dramatic consequences of the broader European crisis, has become a catalyst in unresolved yet pacified tensions between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. Seen by nationalists as a ray of hope for integration with the Republic, Brexit distanced Northern Ireland from the mainland, aggravating the polarisation of society and creating an urgency for a new political solution.

Twenty-six years of peace, followed by the Good Friday Agreement, came at the cost of huge political instability. While it is hard to question the democratic nature of this peace treaty that ensured equal representation of the populace and its effectiveness in supporting reduced violence, the practical implementation of it resulted in Northern Ireland’s limited capacity to make effective governing decisions. In line with the Agreement, unionists and nationalists were forced to govern together within the frames of a devolved administration. Back then, a newly reestablished institution – the Northern Ireland Assembly – obtained a right to an independent approach concerning  ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Issues’. Given that each of the sides possessed a veto right, it was challenging to reach a common ground between those who had been waging war against each other for over three decades. For example, the issue of the Troubles legacy, and the investigation of the past crimes alongside the usage of Ulster Scots and Irish languages in the education system became points of discord. The Northern Ireland government collapsed several times, entrusting the fate of the province to Westminster and becoming highly dependent on its decisions and subsidies.

The British departure from the European Union became a turning point that laid bare the political dysfunction of Northern Ireland: prior to last week’s agreement to restore devolved government, it had been two years since the position of First Minister became vacant. Paul Givan of the Democratic Unionist Party resigned from the office in February 2022, as a sign of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, violating the principle of the power-sharing agreement and collapsing the Executive. According to the Protocol, Northern Ireland remained within the EU customs union, while the rest of the UK withdrew from it. This economic border with Great Britain has adversely impacted the social and political climate in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it might have left the unionist population, whose vote for Brexit was a manifestation of loyalty to the crown, with the feeling that the government acted against their interests. Economic relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have strengthened, while trade with Great Britain has notably decreased.   Northern Ireland sent 41% of its goods exports to the Republic of Ireland, a significantly higher proportion than the 8% recorded for the entire UK. Consequently, 36% of Northern Ireland’s goods imports came from the Republic of Ireland compared to the 3% reported for the UK overall. The risk of another stage of this conflict and British territorial amendments is considered a probable scenario by many. Jim Allister, an MP of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, expressed his concerns that the redirection of Northern Irish trade in the favour of the Republic is a forerunner to a united Ireland. While there were new elections in May 2022 – elections in which the nationalist Sinn Féin became the largest party for the first time – the Democratic Unionist Party’s until recent unwillingness to consent to the appointment of an Assembly speaker, making its meeting and the formation of an Executive impossible

There are two leading factors why Northern Ireland is placed in an exceptionally disadvantageous and vulnerable position nowadays. First, Brexit segregated those 44.2% who were in favour of it from Great Britain by the trade border and created a common politico-economical space with the Republic of Ireland. The Brexit era brought the precedent of the nationalist party winning the majority of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a result, the disruption of power-sharing rule amidst the unionist First Minister’s resignation left Northern Ireland with the nationalistic Sinn Féin the most significant party willing to take part in governance. Brexit played a specifically bad joke with the unionists, who constitute half of the population.

Second, the principle of devolved government enshrined in the Belfast Agreement had practically been suspended. Civil servants maintain the functionality of the health and education system, although they do not have the authority to change laws and policies. On four occasions since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Britain has temporarily  ruled directly from Westminster in instances of local government collapse. However, it has not taken up that option on this occasion. The result has been a persistent limbo, that has postponed the making of important political decisions, which have been piling up for years. Westminster’s hesitancy to timely settle the well-functioning mechanism of devolution dramatically hindered its development and functionality in Northern Ireland. And now, having a dispute with London regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol, Northern Ireland’s government is in crisis again. The picture of political climate in Northern Ireland is the following: 1) from the unionist perspective, the dubious character of the Northern Ireland Protocol forced the unionist representatives of government to resign; 2) the power-sharing devolved government is unable to consolidate due to its clear lack of experience on self-governing resolution of political issues; 3) the feeling of disappointment of Brexit and newly reignited nationalistic moods significantly aggravated sectarianism and tensions, intensifying the tangible experience of war’s shadows.

It should be noted that the Windsor Framework is considered to be a proximate solution to the Irish Sea border issue that can become an evident asset in the fixing of the Northern Irish devolved government system. The latter is the issue that can no longer wait to be put aside, and it is fraught with the further social and economic deterioration of Northern Ireland. For instance, 2024 started for Northern Ireland with the largest strike in 50 years: over 100,000 public sector workers demanded change and warned about the possibility of services’ collapse. Brexit became a turning point that vividly demonstrated the difference between the promised vision of devolution and its actual functionality in today’s reality. It is high time for the Good Friday Agreement to be reviewed. It needs to be reaffirmed to ensure its adherence and effectiveness. Furthermore, there is also an urgent need for new solutions in London that would soothe the relations with Brussels and strengthen the partnership with Dublin for the sake of stability and peace in Belfast. Despite the agreement to return to devolved government last week, Northern Ireland desperately needs a strong devolved government which would achieve efficiency in the current European landscape and improve social well-being.

Image: Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate in Belfast (Source: Robert Paul Young via CC BY 2.0 DEED)

About Oleksandra Zadesenets

Oleksandra Zadesenets is an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations. During her recent internship with the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA, she co-authored an analytical article on the socio-cultural aspects of the transformational processes in Ukrainian society following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was presented at a scientific conference. Oleksandra's research interests cover a broad range of issues that shape international landscape. She is particularly drawn to the constructivist theory of international relations, and her area of research interest encompasses democratic transformations in post-Soviet countries, competitive authoritarian regimes, post-Cold War international affairs, closed autocracies, nationalist and dissident movements, human rights and human security, R2P, cultural diplomacy, war making and peace making.