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To what extent has EU integration transformed the territorial conflict in Northern Ireland? A post-Brexit referendum re-assessment

Dans quelle mesure l'intégration européenne a-t-elle transformé le conflit territorial en Irlande du Nord ? Une réévaluation au lendemain du référendum britannique sur le Brexit
Philippe Cauvet


Cet article pose la question de l'influence qu'a pu avoir le processus d'intégration européenne dans le conflit territorial nord-irlandais. La situation post-Brexit en Irlande du Nord et la résurgence de la question frontalière montrent que, contrairement à ce qu'affirment certains analystes d'inspiration constructiviste, l'UE n'a pas permis une véritable transformation du conflit. La première partie identifie deux failles dans l'analyse constructiviste : premièrement, la résilience d'une conception traditionnelle, unitaire et anti-européenne de la souveraineté au Royaume-Uni et deuxièmement, l'ambiguïté du discours post-nationaliste du SDLP promouvant une déterritorialisation de l'identité nationale irlandaise dans l'UE. Les deux parties suivantes développent chacun de ces deux points. La deuxième partie démontre que le référendum britannique de 2016 marque l'aboutissement d'une longue résistance, dans les élites politiques britanniques, des conceptions unitaires et indivisibles de la souveraineté de Londres sur la totalité du territoire du Royaume-Uni. Même si l'UE avait facilité une approche conjointe entre Londres et Dublin sur la question nord-irlandaise, ces élites politiques britanniques ont préféré prendre le risque d'une déstabilisation de l'Irlande du Nord plutôt que de faire des concessions sur cette conception de la souveraineté. La troisième partie montre que malgré un discours européen post-nationaliste novateur pendant le processus de paix, favorable à une déterritorialisation de la nation irlandaise, le SDLP est resté fondamentalement inchangé : il a toujours fait en sorte de rester un parti nord-irlandais nationaliste modéré défendant un vieil objectif territorial, à savoir la réunification de l'île d'Irlande.

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1The Irish border conundrum caused by the 2016 Brexit referendum has shed new light on the complexity and resilience of one of the most protracted territorial conflicts in Europe. More particularly, it has fuelled debates on the influence the process of European integration might or might not have had on it.

2Since 1920, the date of its creation by the British Government of Ireland Act, the partition border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State generated political tensions and sustained violent confrontations. The Troubles, which started in the late 1960s were brought to an end in 1998, after a long and difficult Peace Process culminating in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which was ratified by two simultanous referendums, one in Northern Ireland and one in the Republic of Ireland. Since 1998, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland has been defined not only by British statute but also by a Treaty signed between the UK and the Irish State, both members of the EU. The fundamental principles, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, are about creating devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland so that the two Northern Irish communities, Unionist and Nationalist, can eventually share power and co-operate to find an agreed solution on the future status of Northern Ireland. Simultanously both London and Dublin agreed to become the neutral co-guarantor States of Northern Ireland. London solemnly declared that it had no strategic interest in Northern Ireland while Dublin scrapped its territorial claim on Northern Ireland from its Constitution in exchange for the creation of cross-border institutions with executive powers.

3The 2016 Brexit referendum and its results came as a tremendous shock in Northern Ireland where a majority of 56 % voted in favour of Remain. The shock can be explained by the fact that one of the main arguments of the Remain camp to justify their rejection of Brexit during the referendum campaign, and of those who later claimed for a very soft form of Brexit, was the conviction that British and Irish memberships of the EEC/EU since 1973 had significantly helped transform the territorial conflict in Northern Ireland. For instance, following that line of interpretation, the House of Lords European Affairs Committee saw Brexit as a major threat to peace in Northern Ireland :

  • 1 HOUSE OF LORDS European Union Committee 6th Report of Session 2016–17 HL Paper 76 Brexit: UK-Iris (...)

4The positive role played by the EU in relation to the peace process can be encapsulated in four areas : the safeguards that EU membership provides in underpinning the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement ; the role that common UK-Irish EU membership played and continues to play in transforming relations between the two countries ; the effect of common EU membership in diluting cross-community tensions in Northern Ireland ; and the positive impact of EU funding in Northern Ireland... Common EU membership has been a vital ingredient in the positive transformation of UK-Irish relations in recent years, and in helping lay the groundwork for the development of the peace process. It is incumbent on all sides to ensure that the relationship does not atrophy as a result of Brexit... Common EU membership laid the groundwork for the development of the peace process, as the border diminished both visibly and psychologically. In particular, it allowed Nationalists in Northern Ireland to develop a sense of common identity with fellow EU citizens across the border. The loss of EU membership thus threatens to undermine this sense of identity.1

5Yet such a positive and optimistic view of the transformative powers of EU integration on the Irish/Northern Irish conflict deserves greater scrutiny. Looking at the wider perspective, it appears that in January 2017, just a few months after the Brexit referendum, the devolved consociational power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland collapsed, following Sinn Fein's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness' decision to resign in a move to destabilise the First Minister Arlene Foster (DUP). Since then, Northern Irish institutions have proved very hard to restore. Additionally, since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Irish Border has re-emerged as one of the main bones of contention both between Ireland and the UK and between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland. It is the major reason why the UK government, however pro-Brexit, has so far failed at implementing the will of the majority of the British people in 2016. In other words, the post-Brexit Irish Border question and the suspension of Northern Irish institutions show that in spite of peace and of European integration, little has really changed. Both States and both Northern Irish communities still nurture territorial projects and views of the Irish border that are difficult (not to say impossible) to reconcile.

6In light of this more complex reality, the optimistic and positive interpretation of the role and influence of Europe on the territorial conflict in Ireland must be critically reassessed. The reality of the situation prevailing since the Brexit referendum begs serious questions on the extent and nature of the transformative impact(s) of European integration on that territorial conflict. If European integration did have a positive transformative influence on State and sub-State actors involved in the Northern Irish territorial conflict, why is it that the main factor for the re-emergence of the Irish border question was the victory of British eurosceptic sovereignists on the Brexit referendum ? Why, in spite of British and Irish memberships of the EEC/EU since 1973, and in spite of the GFA, have conflicting communal territorial identities and conflicting conceptualisations of territorial sovereignty proved so resilient ?

7This article develops a three-fold answer to these questions. In the first section, it discusses the theoretical arguments which underscore the positive view of Europe's transformative influence in Ireland/Northern Ireland. It argues that existing theories, mostly of constructivist inspiration, on European integration influence need to be reassessed on two main dimensions :

8 - The role of States and their political elites in the conception and constitutionalisation of State sovereignty.

9 - The Europeanisation of Northern Irish parties, more particularly of the SDLP, as its leader John Hume had been the main intellectual architect of the GFA.

10The following sections analyse these two aspects. The second section, focusing on the British State, demonstrates that European membership has had very little influence on the ways States and State elites conceive and constitutionalise their own State's territorial sovereignty. In spite of the 1998 Agreement and in spite of membership of the EEC/EU, the UK-State and significant parts of its elites have stuck to a traditional unitary conception of territorial sovereignty, which culminated in the Brexit referendum and destabilised Northern Irish democracy. The third section, by focusing on the evolution of the SDLP's postition on the Irish border issue, before and after the GFA, demonsrates that European integration has provided only limited « enabling » influence on the redefinition of Irish nationalist territorial identity. In spite of a more Europeanised discourse on national identity, the SDLP chose to remain the same : a peaceful and constitutional nationalist party committed to an old territorial objective, i.e. the reunification of Ireland.

Re-assessing the transformative impact of European integration on the territorial conflict in Ireland after Brexit : the limits of constructivist theory

  • 2 Intergovernmentalists tended to see the evolution of the peace process as a result of UK/Irish in (...)

11For a very long time, the Northern Irish conflict was never seen by scholars as influenced by international factors. It was framed as part of the historical opposition between Irish nationalism and the British State (Meehan, 2000, p. 84). However, for many analysts and academics who researched these questions in the years preceding and following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the process of EU integration was often conceived as one of the main factors which had reconfigured the conflict in Ireland by transforming political and territorial identities. This interpretation was developped more extensively by constructivist or pro-constructuvist researchers (Delanty, 1997 ; Diez, 1999 ; Diez et al, 2006 ; Hayward, 2004, 2009)2. The aim of this section is to assess both the value and limits of these theoretical insights in the context of the post-Brexit referendum as political tensions around the Irish Border are re-emerging.

12Following Diez et al's analysis of the impact of European integration on border conflicts, four distinct types of « pathways » can be identified through which European integration potentially contributed to transforming border conflicts on the European continent (2004, p. 570ff). To establish this typology of European influence on border conflicts, two main criteria were used : Is the impact generated by concrete EU measures or is it an indirect effect of integration processes not directly determined by EU actors/decisions ? Is the impact limited on concrete policies or does it have wider and deeper social implications ? From these parameters they identified four different forms of European influence on border conflicts : a compulsory impact (the most direct), an enabling impact, a connective impact and a constructive impact (the most indirect but the most significant since it is defined as affecting societies at large by allowing the long-term transformation of definitions of collective identities).

13Applying this framework to the Northern Irish conflict, Diez et al demonstrated that EU integration impacted the Northern Irish conflict through three major pathways : although they identified no compulsory impact, they saw a significant enabling impact and connective impact. They also identified a « more subtle » yet important constructive impact which they argued, led to a revision or redefinition of each community's territorial identity. According to Diez et al, the enabling impact was twofold. European institutions and decision-making processes facilitated diplomatic contacts between Dublin and London and contributed to making them diplomatic partners rather than just competing sovereign States. Additionnally, the European Union was extensively used by the SDLP (constitutional Nationalist Party in Northern Ireland) as a model of conflict resolution for the German/French conflict whose recipes and mechanisms could be applied to the Northern Irish case. Diez et al insisted on the changes in the way the SDLP used European integration to redefine the territorial dimension of Irish national identity. The SDLP leader, John Hume, being the main architect of the 1998 Agreement, such a Europeanised discourse is seen as the sign of a major enabling influence of EU integration on the territorial conflict. As regards the connective impact of the EU on the Northern Irish question, it was to be found in the very significant funds which Brussels transferred to the Island with the specific aim of leading conflicting groups to cooperate in the management of these funds. EU funding, such as the Peace Programme favoured « sustained contact between conflicting parties » through multi-level cross-border and cross-community cooperation projects. The third type of influence identified is the EU's constructive impact. It is defined as « the long-term transformation of identity scripts, the reconstruction of identities ». It is seen as the result of the EU's capacity to put in place « completely new discursive frameworks for constructing and expressing identities ». Quoting Hayward (2004a, p. 17), Diez et al argued that EU integration offered an « alternative frame for identity constructions in Northern Ireland to such an extent that cooperation with the other side, once unthinkable, became a reality ».

  • 3 Although the GFA re-asserted Northern Ireland's status as an integral part of the UK, it establis (...)

14Yet, the post-Brexit referendum context raises questions on such conclusions, more particularly on the constructive impact of the EU integration. These questions relate to two different actors of the territorial conflict in Northern Ireland. First, the 2016 Brexit referendum and its chain of consequences in Ireland/Northern Ireland, reveal that, although the UK State had adjusted its conception of territorial sovereignty on Northern Ireland, it has not gone as far as adjusting its conception of State Sovereignty to make it fully compatible with EU integration. Visibly, in spite of its membership of the EU since 1973, British political elites have kept defending a conception of sovereignty as integral and indivisible on the totality of the UK's territory. This means that EU integration certainly enabled the Irish and the British States in their efforts to agree on some form of shared authority3 on Northern Ireland (Tonge, 2013, p. 212) but that EU integration has had very little long-term transformative influence on the way the UK State and its political elites conceive and constitutionalise the territorial sovereignty of their Four-Nations State. As such, a constructivist theory of EU integration influence must be completed by an analysis of the process by which London and British governmental elites came to reassert such a traditional and unchanged unionist conception of their State's territorial sovereignty. Second, at the level of communities in Northern Ireland, the political stalemate which followed the Brexit referendum clearly shows that they never completely rejected their conflicting political and territorial attachments. The Nationalist community, represented by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, still sees reunification with Dublin as a solution to the Irish Border impasse caused by the Brexit referendum, whereas Unionists still demand Northern Ireland to remain an integral and equal part of the UK State (The Guardian, 11 October 2019). The case of the SDLP is particularly interesting as it is defending very traditional nationalist solutions (i.e. reunification with the Irish Republic) although, during the Peace Process, it was the party which, as underlined by Diez et al, had gone further than others in proposing a Europeanised and de-territorialised discourse on Irish national identity (Irish Times, 30 May 2017).

15Therefore what can be debated about the constructivist analysis of EU integration influence is its over-optimistic and over-simplified interpretation of Europe's transformative impact. Developments since the Brexit referendum raise far-reaching questions on what constructivists called « the rewriting of identity scripts induced by European integration ». Why has European integration had in fact so little long-term effect on the evolution of communal territorial identities in Northern Ireland ? Why has European integration had such limited impacts, even on the SDLP, the most pro-European and most advanced postnationalist party during the Peace Process in Northern Ireland ? If EU integration had significant enabling and connective impacts on actors involved in this territorial conflict, why have they not led to a comprehensive and shared reconstruction of State sovereignty and of collective communal territorial identities ?

Brexit's Irish border quagmire and territorial sovereignty in the UK State

16 In this section, the objective is to analyse one of the blind spots in the optimistic view of the impact of EU integration, namely the resistance of traditional conceptions of State sovereignty in the UK. In fact, it is now self-evident that EU integration has had very little influence in the way the UK, as a State, has conceived and constitutionalised its own definition of its territorial sovereignty. If, as constructivists had it, the EU did contribute to transforming the conflict in Northern Ireland, why then did the British State develop a growingly anti-European conception of State sovereignty which culminated in the Brexit referendum and the resulting destabilisation of Northern Irish democracy established by the GFA ? Why was the UK forced to choose between two contradictory options : either implementing the Brexit referendum results to take back control from the EU or respecting its commitment to the principles of Good Friday Agreement ? Why are the UK and the Irish Republic much more out of tune than was imagined at the time of the GFA ?

17What Diez et al underestimated in their analysis is the capacity for States, and their political elites, to define and constitutionalise their own particular conceptions of the State's territorial sovereignty according to their own, sometimes fluctuating, domestic needs. In other terms, the post-Brexit Irish Border quagmire demonstrates that European integration has not led to the emergence of an agreed and reciprocal post-sovereignty regime between the UK and Ireland. Unlike the Irish Republic, the UK State, even if it accepted certain concessions on Northern Ireland in 1998, simultanously resisted any form of abandonment of its unitary territorial sovereignty to the EU (Marcussen et al, 1999, p. 623). The Brexit referendum was actually conceived as a so-called democratic means to take back absolute control over the UK's entire territory from European institutions which are seen as an infringement on the UK State's sovereignty. So even if the European integration process did contribute to some form of shared authority between the British and Irish States, in the UK, this process did not entail a general shift to a European post-sovereign order. It was strictly limited to the Northern Irish question. The multi-level governance solutions found on Northern Ireland in 1998, although they were part of the wider process of devolution, were never conceived as an abandonment of exclusivist and unitary conceptions of the State's territorial sovereignty.

18Hence, it can be argued that European integration was, but only to some extent, one of the factors which allowed Ireland and the UK to find an agreement in 1998. It enabled both States to engage in parallel reassessments of their respective influence in Northern Ireland. Since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Irish State and the UK State made continuous bilateral efforts and compromises to redefine their established conceptions of territorial sovereignty in order to find a joint solution to the Northern Irish question. Once Margaret Thatcher had accepted the principle of an institutionalised Irish dimension in 1985 (i.e. recognising Dublin's right to have a say in Northern Irish affairs), against the wishes of the Northern Irish unionist community, Dublin and London never stopped their bi-lateral negociations. This intergovernmental process, which as Diez et al showed was certainly enabled by their membership of the EEC/EU, led the two States to accept mutual concessions on what they considered to be part of their respective territory of sovereignty. In the early nineties, London officially recognized that it had no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland while Dublin promised that it was prepared to consider all options, including a revision of its 1937 constitution, in order to achieve a peace deal. These changes were some of the crucial keys that made the GFA possible in 1998, when both London and Dublin recognised that the status of Northern Ireland could be changed with a concurrent referendum and a concurrrent majority in the North and in the South of Ireland. In exchange for the creation of power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland as well as the creation of cross-border executive institutions jointly run by Dublin and Belfast, Dublin accepted to drop its claim on Northern Irish territory contained in Articles 2 & 3 of its 1937 Constitution, thereby recognising Northern Ireland as part of the UK's territory. The fact that one of these cross-border cooperation institutions was set up precisely to manage European subsidies (SEUPB) is further symptomatic of the connective influence of European institutions identified by constructivist theory.

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19Yet, this does not mean that the Good Friday Agreement marked the emergence of a new European post-sovereignty regime accepted and shared by London and Dublin. More than anything else, the Brexit referendum demonstrates that Dublin's and London's redefinitions of sovereignty to pacify Northern Ireland, did not imply a shared approach to their respective conceptualisation and constitutionalisation of State sovereignty (Todd, 2015, p. 67). Since 1973 when they simultanously became members of the EEC, both states have followed increasingly diverging sovereignty paths. Dublin certainly always managed to combine its European membership with its own nationalist ideology of State sovereignty : membership of EEC/EU was conceived and used as enhancing the Irish State's sovereignty, not as a hindrance to it (Laffan, 2017, p. 57). As Hayward or others have shown, Irish membership of the EU was crucially influential in the emergence of the Irish Republic's redefined approach to the Border question (Hayward, 2004 ; Kornprobst 2008 ; Cauvet, 2011 ; Coakley, 2017). But this was never really the case in the UK. Unlike Ireland, the UK always had troubles reconciling European integration and its established ideology of State sovereignty (Marcussen, 1999). In fact the 2016 Brexit referendum is the end-point of an enduring movement of resistance against post-sovereign changes, especially within British policital elites whose goal was to retain the State's exclusive sovereign powers. The first UK-wide referendum ever organised in the UK was decided in 1975 by Harold Wilson's Labour government on European membership, only two years after EEC membership had been voted by Parliament. The aim was to curtail opposition to European membership which had developped within the Labour Party establishment. From the late 1980s on, although London was negociating with Dublin on a bi-lateral basis to find a shared approach on the Northern Irish sovereignty issue, it simultanously engaged in a growingly confrontational relationship with European institutions (i.e. Margaret Thatcher's Bruges Speech in 1988 or the creation of UKIP in 1993 by Alan Sked, a Professor of European studies at the London School of Economics). British eurocepticism, both left-wing and right-wing, was part and parcel of a wider political movement which rejected a European post-sovereign order, to retain the State's undivided authority on the entire territory of the Union (Sharp et ali, 2014, p. 37). It is only logical therefore that such anti-European conceptions of State sovereignty gradually came to contradict the concessions made on the Northern Irish question, which had been part of Tony Blair's wider devolution reform. As was demonstrated by the 2017 Miller decision by the UK Supreme Court4, the Northern Irish Assembly, in spite of Northern Ireland's specific constitutional status since 1998, was denied any constitutional right to intervene in the decision to trigger Article 50 (McCrudden, 2017 ; Keating, 2019). Theresa May's 2017 parliamentary deal with the Northern Irish unionists of the DUP – a rejection of the Northern Irish policy London had been conducting since 1985 and the Peace Process – was an additional sign that eurocepticism and traditionalist conceptions of the union between the British nations were the two sides of the same coin. As the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum show, it is abundantly clear that EU integration had little or no influence on British State elites' established conception of sovereignty. To quote Keating (2019, p. 167), the Brexit referendum and the political havoc it caused in Northern Ireland show the dramatic resilience of « the traditional Westminster view of the United Kingdom as a unitary state in which competences may be devolved to local levels but ultimate power remains at the centre ».

20Hence any analysis of EU integration influence on the Northern Irish territorial conflict has to take the particular issue of sovereignty in the UK into account. If it can be argued that European integration partly enabled both States and their governmental elites to socialize and discuss their respective conceptions of sovereignty on the particular question of Northern Ireland, European integration has not transformed the established conception of sovereignty in the UK. British state elites, first from the left-wing of the Labour Party in the 1970s and early 1980s, and later from the right-wing of the Conservative Party, have proved very resistant against European post-sovereign influences. Even at the risk of re-igniting the Irish border question, indivisible sovereignty over the entire UK territory was re-asserted and constitutionalised as an exclusive and non-negociable attribute of the central British State.

The ambiguity of the SDLP's Europeanised postnationalist deterritorialisation of Irish national identity

21 Another debatable argument made by Diez et al discussed in this section is the interpretation of the SDLP's Europeanised discourse. Although John Hume was the main intellectual and moral force behind the GFA (McLoughlin, 2013, p. 137), and although they showed that the SDLP had adjusted its territorial discourse to the new European environnement, the extent of the SDLP's redefinition of its nationalist agenda must not be exaggerated (Cunningham, 1997 ; McLoughlin, 2013, Cauvet, forthcoming). Yes the SDLP had partly Europeanised the Northern Irish question, integrating a postnationalist and de-territorialising interpretation of European integration. However, the evolution of SDLP's territorial discourse before and after the GFA shows rather a limited influence of EU integration. John Hume's party never developped a fully-fledged postnational de-territorialisation of Irish national identity. It has remained a moderate Northern Irish Nationalist party committed to the reunification of Ireland as one single sovereign State. This explains why, very shortly after the Brexit referendum, instead of attempting to create a cross-community pro-Remain front in Northern Ireland, it chose to stick to traditional nationalist pro-reunification rhetoric. Only a few days after the referendum, Colum Eastwood, its current leader, declared that « the SDLP, as a party, continues to believe that the reunification of Ireland is the biggest and the best idea around » (SDLP,, 20/07/2016).

22It is undeniable that, after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the SDLP, under the leadership of John Hume, adopted a much more postnationalist and de-territorialised definition of Irish national identity. In countless statements and books, Hume, a convinced European and a member of the European Parliament between 1979 and 2004, argued that EU integration had rendered notions of exclusive territorial identities and territorial sovereignty obsolete, thus allowing new solutions to conflictual territorialities :

23The European Union has blurred the traditional bounds of sovereignty and notions of territorial integrity… Both Unionists and Nationalists have always sought to express their rights in terms of territorial majority… but it is becoming ever more apparent that there are other valid norms we can assimilate… The changes that have taken place in Europe offer us the challenge to seek to replace bitter conflict with cooperation… without loss of anyone’s distinctiveness or identity... The traditional notions of absolute and indivisible national sovereignty and territorial jealousy are now so inadequate that their promotion is destructive… All this has significance for Ireland given that the historic difficulties have hinged on attitudes and aspirations concerning sovereignty and territory. (Hume, 1996, p. 134-135)

24As John Hume was the main intellectual and moral force behind the Peace Process, his Europeanised postnationalist discourse significantly influenced parts of the contents of the GFA. His ideas of a shared UK/Irish authority on Northern Ireland and the creation cross-border cooperation institutions, very much inspired by the European multi-level governance model, became the core of Strand 2 of the 1998 Agreement.

25Yet, in many ways, during and since the Peace Process, he and his party never became a postnationalist party. Although its Europeanised, postnationalist and de-territorialised conception of Irish national identity was partly integrated into the GFA, the SDLP has constantly refrained from developping a full and comprehensive ideological redefinition of Irish national identity and of its territorial dimension. During the Peace Process, abiding by a traditional definition of Irish nationality as an all-Ireland identity, the SDLP always refused to apply its postnationalism to inter-community relations within Northern Ireland : in SDLP discourse, community relations in Northern Ireland were systematically excluded from the much vaunted need to de-territorialise identities (Cauvet, Forthcoming ; Aughey, 2005, p. 69). Linked to this attitude, they defended the creation of consociational power-sharing institutions within Northern Ireland, although the choice of consociation was in clear contradiction with their proclaimed postnationalist transformation of Irish national identity. As a model of conflict accommodation (Lijphart, 1969 ; McGarry & O'Leary, 2006), consociation does not aim at transforming communal identities. Consociational institutions tend to fix and polarise ethno-cultural communities and to reinforce the more radical parties within communities, rather than to transcend the communal divide. Consociation just allowed a recognition of the equal legitimacy of each community – parity of esteem – inducing both communities to share power but it did not transform their respective ideologies (Nagle & Clancy, 2012). For critics of such consociational arrangements in Northern Ireland, they present several problematic features. They create elite-driven top-down political processes, leaving little space for bottom-up initiatives (Jakala et al, 2017, p. xvii). Another major flaw is that they institutionalise and entrench the communal divide, for instance by requiring each member of the Assembly to designate as Unionist, Nationalist or Other (Wilson and Wilford, 2003, p. 11-13). In that consociational regime, as demonstrated by Graham and Nash (2006, p. 276), the resistance and promotion of old territorial attachments has proved to be one of the major obstacles to the de-polarisation of Northern Irish politics and society. In that respect, since 1998, the SDLP has proved very similar to other Northern Irish parties, including the more extremes like Sinn Fein or the DUP. It has stuck to its traditional and strictly communal strategy. Instead of adopting a cross-community positioning, the SDLP has always declared as Nationalist in the Northern Irish Assembly. Like Sinn Fein, its action in favour of the Shared Future Agenda, a long-term programme favouring a less polarised and sectarian Northern Irish society, has proved very timid, not to say inexistant (Cauvet, forthcoming). The 2017 suspension of the Northern Irish Assembly and Executive and the two communities' fundamental opposition on the post-Brexit Irish Border quagmire is nothing more than the continuation of this consociational logic, as transformed communal identities have not yet emerged in Northern Ireland. Far from the portrait made by Diez et al, John Hume and his party, using power-sharing consociational politics to promote a traditional island-wide definition of the Irish nation, have largely contributed to maintaining the ethno-territorial communal divide in Northern Ireland. As has become clear since the Brexit referendum, Northern Irish communities, including the more moderate nationalists like the SDLP, have not fundamentally deconstructed their communal identities. They are still committed to old and irreconciliable territorial agendas (Ruane & Todd, 2003, p. 145).


26What appears from all this, is that, although it can be argued that the Peace Process and the GFA were partly facilitated by the process of EU integration, the EU only accompanied the decisions made by the main actors involved in Northern Ireland's territorial conflict : both States and both Northern Irish communities. However, it did not really have any significant constructive impact. The constructivist interpretation of EU integration influence on the territorial conflict in Northern Ireland, has proved to be problematic as it failed to take into account two major factors in the continuation of this terrtorial conflict : the definition and constitutionalisation of State sovereignty in the UK and the ambiguities of the SDLP's conversion to a postnationalist de-territorialisation of Irish national identity.

27On the one hand, EU membership has not had the same impact in the Republic of Ireland and in the UK. In the latter case, as the Brexit referendum demonstrated, the conception of the State's territorial sovereignty and its constitutionalisation have proved very resilient to any European transformative post-sovereign influence, even to the point of clashing with London's long-established policy on Northern Ireland.

28On the other hand, in spite of a europeanised postnationalist revision of Irish national identity during the Peace Process, John Hume and his party have remained the same moderate nationalist party, committed to reunification with the Republic of Ireland. Although it favoured some innovative provisions contained in the GFA, it simultanously supported the establishment of consociational institutions in Northern Ireland, within which both communities and their representative elites could remain unchanged. As the main intellectual architect of the GFA, and as the defender of a postnational and de-territorialised revision of Irish national identity, John Hume and his party have a particular responsibility in the continued polarisation of Northern Irish society and politics. As demonstrated by the suspension of Northern Irish institutions from early 2017 to January 2020, the two communities still cannot agree on how to reconcile their identities which have remained highly territorialised.

29All in all, if any lesson can be drawn from the post-Brexit Irish border conundrum, it is that EU integration has had too little transformative influence on the evolution of Northern Irish territorial conflict.

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1 HOUSE OF LORDS European Union Committee 6th Report of Session 2016–17 HL Paper 76 Brexit: UK-Irish relations, p. 67.

2 Intergovernmentalists tended to see the evolution of the peace process as a result of UK/Irish intergovernmental decisions rather than as a sign of the EU's transformative influence on territorial conflicts (Tannam, 2019).

3 Although the GFA re-asserted Northern Ireland's status as an integral part of the UK, it established many cross-border institutions which gave Dublin a share of power and authority in Northern Irish affairs.


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Philippe Cauvet, « To what extent has EU integration transformed the territorial conflict in Northern Ireland? A post-Brexit referendum re-assessment », Géocarrefour [En ligne], 94/3 | 2020, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2020, consulté le 02 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Philippe Cauvet

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