Is Northern Ireland at ‘The Most Dangerous Situation for Many Years’?

Desmond King

The situation in Northern Ireland is deeply uncertain, as the quotation in my title indicates – it is from David Campbell, chair of the Loyalist Communities Council speaking in Parliament to the NI Select Committee. Unionism has mobilized against the Brexit NI Protocol, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has unexpectedly changed leadership to restore its conservative roots, various brands of politicians warn of imminent violence on the streets, relations with the Republic of Ireland – already poor – are deteriorating, and the United States recently elected president, Joe Biden, celebrates his Irish identity in his interest in Northern Ireland. In its briefings about the Protocol the UK government swings from stinging denouncements of EU intransigence to claiming signs of progress.

In some ways, of course, Northern Ireland is always in a state of uncertainty, its future haunted by its origin and history. A teleological perspective is dangerous for either unionists or nationalists. Its trajectory resembles a train journey with many stations to stop at, but whose final destination is undetermined.

For observers of Brexit, Northern Ireland is a vivid example of a wider clash between reality and rhetoric. The Protocol required contradicting all the statements and positions of the Tory government elected in December 2019 to ‘get Brexit done.’ In agreeing to these final terms with the EU, the Johnson government accepted the requirements of Brussels (deriving from its own treaty obligations to the Anglo-Irish agreement and its fellow member state, Ireland) and threw aside its own promises to Northern Irish unionists.

‘Getting so much better all the time. It’s getting better all the time.’ Isn’t it?

History, expressed in an obdurate and all defining sectarian division, dominates Northern Ireland in the hundredth year of its existence, as a self-contained unit constitutionally defined by the United Kingdom,[1] whose own conception of union is increasingly debated and queried.[2] The pace of Brexit and sectarian driven conflict, post-Brexit self-righteousness, and unionist and republican anxieties and calculations means NI now ensnares UK politics. Noise and petulance, however, does not necessarily mean change.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, his team were stunned to discover how much time NI and its politicians had consumed in the prime ministerial diary. No one had warned them!

Northern Ireland has never respected parliamentary niceties

That surprise is reverberating again in Downing Street. Johnson sits on an impregnable Conservative Party majority in Parliament and can be callously indifferent to or merely neglectful of events in the six counties. But Northern Ireland has never respected parliamentary niceties and the combination of an inherited dysfunctionality and Brexit has guaranteed its significance. It is un-ignorable.

Yet, the recent dark clouds are mildly unexpected. After the bloody wars of three decades costing three and a half thousand lives, the tense forging of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in 1998 offered optimism. This Agreement – initially opposed by the DUP (more of whom below) – was bolstered in the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006 when the governing Northern Ireland Executive was put in place. The fervent enemies – Free Presbyterian Dr Ian Paisley and armed struggle Republican Martin McGuinness – formed a shared administration and remarkably appeared publicly together in congenial manner dubbed the ‘Chuckle Brothers’.

The Republic of Ireland dropped, by referendum, its long-standing constitutional claim that Ireland was a 32-county entity over which it claimed complete sovereignty. Elections ensued. Facilitated by common membership in the EU, the border faded as a physical infrastructure offering seamless passage North and South. Access to Irish or UK passports or both became the norm in Northern Ireland opening up identities.

The Queen as UK head of state made an official visit to the Republic, greeted warmly by all and sundry, and uttered a greeting in flawless Gaelic. But, most significantly, sectarian killing vanished.  

“Brexit means Brexit”

Brexit has of course destroyed these good times and fanned discord, or, at least brought to the surface, pre-existing bad tempered conflicts – for example, about the Irish language, how to deal with legacies of the killing years and more.

From the moment the long forgotten Brexiter Tory Northern Ireland Secretary in David Cameron’s government, Theresa Villiers, declared during the 2016 referendum campaign, there would be no need for a border with the Republic as an EU member if Brexit occurred, to PM Boris Johnson’s contradiction in January 2021 of his own Protocol agreement – dismissing the NI-UK mainland border checks as non-existent – so Brexit has not only not shifted but has in practice locked-in NI’s political, religious, identity and ideological fissures into a new phase.   Both sides have ratcheted up tensions: the mass attendance at the Sinn Fein Bobby Storey funeral prompted tough exchanges with the party’s DUP co-executive partners and unionist criticisms of the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

But the Brexit fallout is even more significant. The Protocol has intensified the feeling of betrayal amongst unionists and intensified the will of loyalists to defend the promised ‘unfettered’ trade across the Irish Sea, liberated from forms, checks or barriers. It is now the most important priority for Unionists. The requirement of customs declarations on parcels from Britain to NI is a daily reminder of inequality of citizenship for NI unionists within the nominally co-equal UK.

In Northern Ireland Brexit support and its fallout falls unfailingly along sectarian lines

In Northern Ireland Brexit support and its fallout falls unfailingly along sectarian lines. The Unionist parties, including the UUP, DUP and TUV, each campaigned for Brexit as an eagerly grasped opportunity to deepen integration into the UK and to weaken the fragile ties with the Republic of Ireland, ties represented by the absence of a hard North-South border with checks and a North-South ministerial council put in place by the Good Friday Agreement; these ties were already weakened by the periodic collapse of the Northern Ireland executive.

Nationalist parties – Sinn Fein and the SDLP joined by the ever hopeful Alliance Party – opposed Brexit for the opposite reasons: Brexit would weaken North-South ties, probably result in a hard border and remove the extra-national state forum for civil exchanges offered by the European Union’s institutions in Brussels and Strasburg.   It would place their community at the mercy of a populist Brexit Conservative party led by Boris Johnson. A clear majority voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum.

The intention to get a border reinstated between the Republic of Ireland and the six county NI state was made explicit by the ousted DUP leader, Arlene Foster, in a genial ‘lunch with’ interview in the Financial Times at the end of May. Munching through their fish delicacies, Foster retrospectively berated to her host that the then PM, Theresa May failed to impose this agenda on the EU: “Foster exhales, and blames May for accepting there could be no Irish border checks. ‘All of the reasons I voted for Brexit are still good reasons. The difficulty has been the way in which the protocol has been worked through. And I think the Irish government has a lot to answer for.’”

By this stage on her way out of office, Foster took the opportunity to promote the anti-Republic of Ireland narrative as the source of the hated NI Protocol. Her successor to the leadership of the DUP – Edwin Poots – immediately declared upon election, that relations with the Republic had never been worse. Prime Minister Johnson’s promise of ‘unfettered’ trade across the Irish Sea within the UK is the goal of unionist antipathy to the Protocol.

As in Scotland, the majority of Northern Irish voters voted against the UK’s departure from the EU. The aggregate UK vote favoured leaving. Brexit first empowered the DUP into an agreeable alliance to prop up Theresa May’s no-majority Tory government, extracting funding for Northern Ireland and apparent vindication of their dismissal of the backstop treaty arrangement.

But the Tories’ whopping majority under Johnson in December 2019 eliminated the DUP’s political clout and influence. Johnson kept up his rhetorical fantasies denouncing the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea (most vociferously when addressing the DUP’s own national conference where the delegates credulously embraced him) – but, guess what? In practice, he did the opposite, agreeing to the very hated border checks as part of the withdrawal agreement, embodied in the Protocol Agreement. Northern Ireland is in practice remote from English electoral and day-to-day politics so interest in this new trade border is minute. Having expected Brexit to deliver closer ties to the UK, in practice it has done the opposite, delineating it from the Union more crisply and in ways which have no parallels in Wales or Scotland.

“The times are [not] a changing”

The discreet notice from Loyalist paramilitary groups issued through the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – the hard men with access to violent means –  that the Good Friday Agreement is suspended, and the dangerous threats to workers at Larne port, should send a shiver down the spine of No 10’s Brexit visionaries. It is an unflinching message.  The DUP’s new leader, Edwin Poots, intones that relations with the Republic of Ireland have ‘never been worse’, and he apportions principal blame for the Brexit Protocol set of border checks across the NI-UK sea equally on the Irish government and the EU, not the UK government which negotiated and accepted the arrangement. The disdain is palpable and deep.

For the unionist community securing closer ties with the UK and limiting relations with the Republic of Ireland is elemental. A nineteen-year old LCC delegate told a subdued Northern Ireland Select Committee hearing that such was the level of anger about the NI Protocol that violence could result: “I am not sure if and when violence will be the answer. I am saying that I would not rule it off the table.”

The sentiment is unremarkable. What is disconcerting is the threat to the twenty-three years of peaceful co-existence achieved in NI since the Good Friday Agreement, and just how fragile that peace may be. Brexit has had a profound effect.

DUP reshaped

Turmoil in the DUP has thrown up Edwin Poots as the news DUP leader, after the un-ceremonial and brutal pushing aside of the ‘moderate’ Arlene Foster (who has promised to leave Northern Ireland were it to be unified with the Republic and has quit the DUP, the party she only joined after quitting the Ulster Unionists in 1998). The meeting on 27 May at which Poots’ narrow victory over Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was confirmed proved a bruising event with charges of intimidation of the failed candidate reported to the police.

Poots is cut from an altogether different cloth to the cosmopolitan Foster. Strengthened by his religious conviction, Poots’ unionism is indivisible. The DUP, recall, opposed the Good Friday Agreement forged by the Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble, an opposition which meant they could welcome in Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster as new converts. The DUP’s opposition also paid handsome electoral dividends as their apparently deeper loyalism made them the largest unionist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, dispatching 8 of the province’s 18 MPs to Westminster in the 2019 election based on 44% of the turnout. (Among the nationalist vote Sinn Fein – 7 MPs (38%) squeezed the SDLP to 2 MPs (11%), but their MPs abstain from Parliament; there is 1 Alliance MP (5%)).  But the pressure of the Protocol has now disrupted this largest unionist party. 

After watching how badly Foster has been bruised by the perfidious Johnson, Poots is unlikely to be assuaged by senior Tory claims, such as that from Jacob Rees-Mogg that the DUP are “the guardians of the union of the United Kingdom.” Poots does not want rhetoric, but measurable dismantling and elimination of Protocol checks. He is not an MP but can see in Lord Frost an ally willing to pull the lever down on Article 16 of the UK-EU exit treaty, not just to defuse but to blow up the Protocol.  Contradicting the longstanding position of the British government, articulated by the then NI Secretary of State Peter Brooke in 1990, Rees-Mogg recently suggested the UK had a strategic and selfish interest in Northern Ireland.

The unionist narrative, shared with Lord frost, cleverly reverses the previous understanding of the Protocol and argues that it undercuts the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (a position which David Trimble also promotes). The main constraint on a radical British unilateral initiative is the Biden presidency: Brexit politicians need a trade deal with the US and the president has repeatedly underlined his support of the Good Friday Agreement and warned against government actions disrupting it. He may appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland.

Governing without agreement

The broader context is the history of the Northern Ireland state since 1921. Violence had declined dramatically, but sectarian division is higher than it has been for over three decades. Half of the 20 miles of peace walls separating nationalist from unionist communities in Northern Ireland have been built since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. These are 25 feet high and, in some places, three miles long. The gates in these walls – which are opened apprehensively – featured as focal points in the riots in Belfast and in Derry in April. The mass killings of the Troubles have ended, but the ease with which violence can spread in the streets was once again on display .  Whether unionist opposition to the Protocol can go beyond this is unclear: the type of protests – mass strikes by unionists – used to scuttle the Sunningdale Agreement (1973) and to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) are no longer viable.

The early stages of the Troubles involved the enforced relocation of perhaps as many as 15,000 families in Belfast

Close to 95% of children in Northern Ireland attend religiously segregated schools, catholic or protestant; a fraction attend multi-denominational schools. Churches, political leaders and parents collude willingly in this apartheid education system. It is not consociationalism.[3]  Sectarian embeddedness is visible elsewhere. The historian, Marianne Eliot, originally from North Belfast, describes the erosion of the sort of neighbourhood in which she grew up: “the kind of mixed-religion housing estate on which we lived is no more. The early stages of the Troubles involved the enforced relocation of perhaps as many as 15,000 families in Belfast. Those mixed estates were re-sorted into single-identity ones, as people were forced out. They have never returned.”  Divisions have hardened in many ways in the twenty-first century. One party – the Alliance – tries to bridge these divisions and increasing numbers of younger votes declare weaker allegiance for pure nationalism or unionism.

“A risky game

The Unionists, as Jonathan Powell has argued, are playing a risky game. The pandemic has obscured the economic cost of Brexit and, therefore, a hard Brexit is now politically manageable: this will mean ditching the Protocol dramatically by exercising Article 16.  In any case, while the conflicts about the Protocol include economic dimensions, they are fundamentally political and more about identity. Division reproduces the conventional sectarian divide. One opinion poll reports that when asked about how they will vote in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, 47% of respondents will only vote for those parties promising to uphold the Protocol while 42% of respondents will restrict their votes to candidates opposed to the Protocol.

Brexit and the Protocol layer onto the existing divisions and inter-community hatreds of the province. But there is a sting in the tail: the new DUP leadership, with support from other unionist parties, will present a tougher front against the Protocol and translate this into a withdrawal from power sharing and from North-South political relations. Where such intensification will lead is unclear. The TVU – which never accepted the Good Friday Agreement – might gain. Its leader Jim Allister left the DUP in 2007 when it agreed to work with Sinn Fein in the power-sharing executive.

The perennial question of whether unification of Norther Ireland and the Republic of Ireland may occur in the forseeable future seems misplaced and only dimly on the horizon in the current political context. A referendum on this subject is an option, which can be activated by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, under the Good Friday Agreement. When and how this would occur is at the discretion of the Secretary of State, though scholars have given the issue serious attention.

there is a majority on both sides of the border – 70% – for setting a date within 5 years for a referendum

As Arlene Foster’s oft cited decision that she would emigrate were unification to occur reveals, this possibility of unification is anathema to the vast majority of the unionist community. Many commentators miss or underestimate this depth of resistance, a depth as strong in 1921 when NI was created, as it is in May 2021. A recent opinion poll found that a two-thirds majority of voters in the Republic of Ireland support a united Ireland, but there is no majority to pay any additional cost for unification. In NI the responses in favour of unification polled 35% with 44% opposed. But interestingly there is a majority on both sides of the border – 70% – for setting a date within 5 years for a referendum.  These findings are consistent with other polls.

The Census 2021 is eagerly awaited by both communities in NI. It is widely speculated that a catholic majority will be counted in the state’s 1.9 million residents. But demography won’t produce immediate changes. The short-term agenda will be dominated by unionist opposition to the Protocol, and the destabilizing effects of this stance on already frosty relations with its power-sharing partner – Sinn Fein. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions are inherently fragile and their suspension could recur. 

We end where we started, and where Northern Ireland most commonly rests – at an un-named train station. Brexit has stirred up division and political instability in quite dangerous ways.  Will the Brexit waving Conservative government get away with both defying the EU by overriding the Protocol and the associated economic costs of its hard Brexit? Or will the government respect the legally binding Protocol and test the resolve of the unionist community?  It is hard to find an easy solution to the dangers Brexit poses for Northern Ireland. It is easier to imagine greater instability and conflict. The pursuit of an ‘English’ sentimental attachment to sovereignty is, in Northern Ireland, indeed a ‘risky game.’


[1] Brendan O’Leary, A Treatise on Northern Ireland: 3 volumes. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[2] Michael Keating, The Fragmented Union: State and Nation in the United Kingdom OUP 2021.

[3] Donald Horowitz, “Explaining the Northern Ireland Agreement: the sources of an unlikely constitutional consensus.” British Journal of Political Science 2002 32: 193-220.

Desmond King is the Andrew W Mellon Professor of Government at the University of Oxford. He is the author of many books including, Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Harvard 2000), The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation (Oxford, 2005), Separate and Unequal: African Americans and the US Federal Government (Oxford 1995/2007),  Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in the Obama Era with Rogers M Smith (Princeton, 2011), Sterilized by the State with Randall Hansen (Cambridge, 2013), Fed Power: How Finance Wins with Lawrence Jacaobs (Oxford, 2016/2021) and Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and the Unitary Executive with Stephen Skowronek and John Dearborn (Oxford 2021).

Header image credit: ‘Belfast Peace Wall’ Jennifer Boyer


King, Desmond 2021. ‘Is Northern Ireland at ‘The Most Dangerous Situation for Many Years’?’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)