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After Brexit, Could There be a (Northern) Irexit?

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom (“UK”) voted in a referendum, 52% to 48% to leave the European Union (“EU”).[1] However, anti-EU sentiment was not evenly dispersed. In certain areas, such as Scotland and London, the majority voted to stay while in other areas, such as Wales and most of the rest of England, the majority voted to leave.[2] In Northern Ireland, 55.8% of voters voted to remain in the EU.[3] Despite the outcome of Northern Ireland’s vote, the UK overall voted to leave the EU. Unlike other areas of the UK, this discrepancy between what the Northern Irish wanted and what the UK is doing, cuts deeper. An important question is whether this discrepancy warrants a referendum for a united Ireland per the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (“the Agreement”).

The Good Friday Agreement

The road to peace in Northern Ireland was filled with many car bombs and other atrocities. From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, Northern Ireland went through a period known as “The Troubles.”[4] The violence during this time  was a result of tensions between Unionists/Loyalists, who were mostly Protestants and wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the UK and Irish Nationalists/Republicans, who were mostly Catholics and wanted a united Ireland.[5] This sectarian conflict has deep roots in culture, religion, and historical conflict that goes as far back as the Tudor Conquest of Ireland in the 16th Century.[6] Still, the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1972 was a watershed moment which created an uptick in violence in the mid to late 20th Century.[7] The main point is that centuries of conflict mostly ended in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.[8]

Along Came Brexit

So, what is the connection between the 2016 referendum and a 1998 Agreement? Much attention has been focused on Annex A in Section II of the Good Friday Agreement. The first clause says,  “It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll” (emphasis added).[9] In other words, if the majority of the Northern Irish vote to leave the UK, then the UK must respect that vote.

The next section of the Agreement says that only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can call for a vote. There is a caveat to this power which is as follows: “the Secretary of State shall [call for a vote] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland” (emphasis added).[10] Herein lies the issue. Whether or not a vote should take place depends on the Secretary of State’s personal view of the situation. The critique here is that the Secretary’s view might not be shared among the people of Northern Ireland. The Brexit Referendum could be seen as an example of this problem. As stated before, the Northern Irish voted to stay in the EU, unlike other parts of the UK. Moreso, as the proposed date for the EU exit approaches, many polls show that the UK as a whole is now more anti-Brexit since 2016.[11] Even more concerning, “if not a single voter in the referendum...changes their mind, enough mainly Leave voters will have died, and enough mainly Remain voters will have reached voting age, to wipe out the Leave majority achieved in June 2016.”[12] The Brexit referendum has created a situation where the UK will possibly leave the EU despite the majority of its citizens, including the Northern Irish, wanting to stay.

Voting to remain in the EU might not be the same as wanting a united Ireland. Surely there are Unionists who liked the EU and Republicans who want to leave. Still, leaving the EU is a major political and economic decision. The effects of Brexit are not minor. Even if someone in Northern Ireland wished to stay in the UK, they may consider joining a united Ireland solely to retain the benefits of being an EU citizen. There is no way to know for sure what the majority of Northern Irish people want, based on the outcome of Brexit alone. Still, due to the intense opposition to leaving the EU, this Brexit issue is enough of a reason to trigger the secession vote mentioned in Annex A, Schedule 1 of the Good Friday Agreement.

Furthermore, independent polls suggest that the tide may be turning.[13] Post-Brexit polls conducted in Northern Ireland show growing support for a united Ireland.[14] Considering that the UK is supposed to leave the EU in the next few weeks[15], a vote per the Agreement should happen sooner rather than later.[16]

The United Ireland Debate

Not everyone agrees that there should be a united Ireland poll at this time. There are of course logistical concerns. With the UK gearing up to leave the EU, another separatist movement would just add to the chaos. Another criticism of a united Ireland poll is that some may not see the Brexit results as a “trigger” to the Agreement’s mandate.

On the other hand, is this transitional period not the perfect time to call for a vote? Why should Northern Ireland prepare to leave the EU if there’s a chance that its citizens may want to unite with Ireland, an EU country? Having the vote now would be more efficient because in the case Northern Ireland does secede, they wouldn’t have to re-transition back into the EU.

Besides, when exactly will that mandate be triggered? If a contentious Brexit split is not enough, then what is? Actual violence? The last time there was a united Ireland referendum was in 1973 and that poll was boycotted by Nationalists.[17] Has enough time passed already? 

A Call for a United Ireland Vote

Despite the critiques, one has to factor in current events. While the Brexit referendum was in 2016, more people today understand the negative impacts of leaving the EU. In fact, after missing the original March 29 deadline, there is a growing chance the UK will leave the EU in a “no-deal” scenario on April 12 due to the discord around Brexit.[18] So, it is possible that even more people in Northern Ireland may want to unite with Ireland, an EU country. Moreso, in a callback to the Troubles, a car bomb went off in Derry, Northern Ireland this past January.[19] This has caused a real fear that attacks like these may reemerge in the face of a disastrous Brexit deal. Northern Ireland has been relatively peaceful since 1998. While there will always be people within Northern Ireland who want unification with the Republic of Ireland, why risk a re-emergence of pro-union paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army over a politically and economically unpopular decision? At least with a united Ireland poll, dissidents can at least have their voices heard and that may help maintain the peace.

All in all, as long as Ireland is split, calls for Irish reunification will subsist. Waiting for actual sectarian violence to reemerge would make the chaotic Brexit transition even more tumultuous. However, if the Secretary of State calls for a vote per the Good Friday Agreement in light of Brexit, a turbulent future may be avoided.

Siobhan Donaghue is a staff member of Fordham International Law Journal Volume XLII.

This post is a student blog post and in no way represents the views of the Fordham International Law Journal.


[1] "EU Referendum Results." BBC News. N. p., 2019. Web. 5 Mar. 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] "The Northern Ireland Conflict 1968-1998 – An Overview." The Irish Story. N. p., 2015. Web. 5 Mar. 2019. http://www.theirishstory.com/2015/02/09/the-northern-ireland-conflict-1968-1998-an-overview/#.XJExp89KjEY

[5] Id.

[6] Black, Jeremy (2004). The British Seaborne Empire. Yale University Press. pp. 32–34.

[7] Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson (2000). Those Are Real Bullets, Aren't They?. London: Fourth Estate.

[8] "Sinn Féin's delegates endorse North Ireland peace agreement". 11 May 1998. Retrieved 12 September 2016. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/629268/Sinn-Feins-delegates-endorse-North-Ireland-peace-agreement.html?pg=all

[9] "Full Text Of The Good Friday Agreement / Belfast Agreement." Wesleyjohnston.com. N. p., 2019. Web. 5 Mar. 2019. http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/today/good_friday/full_text.html

[10] Id.

[11]  Smout, Alistair, “Regrexit? British voters would now back staying in the EU, poll shows,” Reuters, 5 Nov. 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-poll/regrexit-british-voters-would-now-back-staying-in-the-eu-poll-shows-idUSKCN1NA2KL

[12] Kentish, Benjamin, “Leave voters dying and Remainers reaching voting age means majority will soon oppose Brexit, study finds,” The Independent. 17 September 2018 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-leave-eu-remain-vote-support-against-poll-uk-europe-final-say-yougov-second-referendum-peter-a8541971.html

[13] See "Hard Brexit poll suggests Northern Ireland would rather join Republic and stay in EU than remain in UK and leave". The Independent. Retrieved 8 December 2017.  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/northern-ireland-support-join-irish-republic-eu-hard-brexit-poll-lucidtalk-a8098531.html; Scarsi, Alice, "END OF UK: United Ireland support SURGES as May's Brexit crisis deepens". Daily Express. Retrieved 8 December 2018. https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1055934/brexit-latest-news-theresa-may-deal-northern-ireland-border-united-ireland-poll

[14] "Northern Ireland (NI) Tracker Poll Results Report: Winter (December) 2018" (PDF). LucidTalk. 6 December 2018. p. 15-16. Archived (PDF) from the original on 14 March 2019. Retrieved 14 March 2019

[15] Boffey, Daniel. "Britain 'Could Leave EU By 22 May If Mps Vote For Customs Union'." the Guardian. N. p., 2019. Web. 1 Apr. 2019.

[16] Simon Carswell, “Brexit: ‘We are all racing to this March 29th deadline,’” The Irish Times, 4 Mar, 2019 https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/brexit-we-are-all-racing-to-this-march-29th-deadline-1.3812917

[17] "BBC ON THIS DAY | 9 | 1973: Northern Ireland votes for union". BBC News. 9 March 1973. Retrieved 2012-03-11 http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/9/newsid_2516000/2516477.stm

[18] Nicholls, H. Where are we at with Brexit? A guide. The Globe and Mail, (2019). Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-where-are-we-at-with-brexit-a-guide/ Web. 31 Mar. 2019].

[19] "IRA Dissidents Suspected In Northern Ireland Car Bomb Blast." NBC News. N. p., 2019. Web. 5 Mar. 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/ira-dissidents-suspected-northern-ireland-car-bomb-blast-n960726