If you want to understand the Irish view of Brexit, it’s best to look at the relationship between Ireland and Britain as a 700-year-long troubled marriage that eventually — thanks to an intensive counseling session supported by the United States and the European Union — led to a historic truce known as the Good Friday Agreement. The peace treaty brought three decades of troubles in Northern Ireland to an end and ushered in a new, healthier relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Then along came Brexit, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — which in just three years of negotiations has led to a proposed deal by the relatively new U.K. prime minister that, if ratified, would go some distance in undermining much of the progress that the Good Friday Agreement had achieved.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s aforementioned deal would avoid the reinstatement of a hard border dividing the six counties of Northern Ireland from the Irish republic — the main sticking point that has held up finalizing the terms of Britain’s departure from Europe. The compromise solution — placing a customs border in the Irish Sea, with Northern Ireland remaining aligned with some European Union regulations while not enjoying the benefits of full membership — opens up a host of complications for the region involving new tariffs, customs checks on goods and so on. But more worryingly, it is likely to further inflame tensions between the unionist community who want to remain part of Britain and the nationalist community who want more than ever to be part of a united Ireland.
A further complication for Northern Ireland is that, like Scotland, a majority of citizens never wanted to leave the E.U. in the first place: Fifty-six percent of the electorate voted to remain in the U.K. More significant, the vote revealed stark divisions along unionist (who are mostly British and Protestant) and nationalist (who are mostly Irish and Catholic) lines. Fully 85 percent of the nationalist population voted for the U.K. to remain in the E.U., while 60 percent of unionists voted to leave. It’s likely, then, that many nationalist Remainers will already feel embittered that the decision to leave the E.U. was largely a unionist one.
Add to that that the nationalists have had no voice in the Brexit negotiations because their elected representatives in the Sinn Fein party refuse, as a matter of course, to take up their seats in the British Parliament. (Because doing so would require swearing fealty to the queen and acquiescing to British authority over what they consider Irish territory.) So the only party that has had any real say in the Brexit deal, and the only party with a vote on the outcome, is the Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing, pro-Brexit party looking out solely for unionists’ interests.
Ironically, even though the DUP recently played a role in securing Johnson's government majority, if his latest deal is ratified, it will mean that Northern Ireland will be treated differently within the U.K., something most unionists desperately oppose. (This is the principal reason that the DUP are holding out on Johnson’s deal and may ultimately vote it down.)
So both communities in Northern Ireland have reason to be unhappy, and (adding insult to injury) the British government — which really ought to know better than to rock the boat in this volatile region — introduced yet another complicating factor with a court decision this week.
Aside from removing the border in Ireland, one of the central achievements of the Good Friday Agreement was establishing the right of all citizens of Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, British or both — meaning that they could hold either or both passports. Last week, however, the British home office won a court ruling asserting that, while Northern Irish citizens may identify as Irish and may hold Irish passports, they are British first. The decision was widely criticized in Ireland, where it is perceived as yet another attack on the agreement. And, aside from imposing a default identity on people — many of whom don’t recognize the legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland — it has serious implications for Irish citizens in the north trying to access their E.U. rights post-Brexit. (An underdiscussed aspect of the Brexit mess is that by pulling Northern Ireland out of the E.U., it will create a new class of E.U. citizens who live in non-E.U. territory.)
This latest action by the British government has caused a lot of Irish people to question what exactly Britain has in mind for Ireland. On the one hand, the decision to pull Northern Ireland out of the E.U. has predictably reopened up the possibility of Irish reunification — an issue that had been, more or less, laid to rest for the immediate future by the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, polls have suggested that around two thirds of Leave voters in Britain “would not mind either way” if Northern Ireland left the U.K. as a consequence of Brexit. But even so, in the midst of this apparent indifference toward Northern Ireland, the British government took the trouble of re-asserting its sovereignty over the region in court.
The sad truth seems to be that a good number of people in Britain have little knowledge of Irish affairs generally, and even less of Northern Ireland — a region still under British control. From Boris Johnson comparing the Irish border challenges to the congestion charges between different boroughs of London, to the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, declaring that she had not been aware that the nationalist and unionist communities in the British-ruled region only vote for their own political parties, to the esteemed British journalist Robert Peston’s bizarre statement that “the issue of Ireland, in so many different ways, has undermined British governments, you know, going back well over 100 years now,” even prominent, educated members of the British government and media display an astounding level of ignorance about their country’s nearest neighbor and territory their government continues to claim as its own.
So where does this leave the relationship between these two islands? Regardless of whether this Brexit deal gets ratified, the whole sorry saga has reopened wounds in Ireland and set the stage for potential constitutional change the country may not be quite ready for. The opposing communities in the north have managed to peacefully coexist for the past 21 years, but they are far from reconciled and neither side has fully forgiven the other for the sins of the past. Ideally, Northern Ireland needed another generation of everyone being on their best behavior — the unionists, the nationalists, the Republic of Ireland and the British government — to lay the troubles to rest and make a successful expanded Ireland possible.
But by pulling Northern Ireland out of the E.U., and thereby compromising the Good Friday Agreement, which was essentially premised on all parties being E.U. members, the British government has thrown a wrench — if not a pipe bomb — into what are still fragile circumstances.
Going forward, it will take a lot of cool heads to get the country through unscathed.
CORRECTION (Oct. 21, 2019 11:32 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article mischaracterized how the nationalist population in Northern Ireland voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Fully 85 percent voted to remain in the E.U., not voted for the U.K. to remain whole.