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Theresa May’s Government and the Northern Ireland Issue : Brexit as the end of the consociational and postnational illusions

Philippe Cauvet
p. 103-121


The Northern Irish component of the Brexit issue Theresa May’s government is confronted with reveals two inter-related aspects of what could be called the Good Friday Agreement’s democratic deficit. As a comprehensive settlement, the Good Friday Agreement’s objective was to establish new institutions in Ireland, taking into account the « totality of relationships » in order to obtain the consent of all major actors in the conflict. To do so, it drew its inspiration from two theoretical models of democracy, post-national and consociational, but these two forms of democratic changes implemented through the GFA have proved to be far from sufficient to actually transform the Northern Irish question. The ongoing controversy on the future status of Northern Ireland and the Irish Border post-Brexit shows that the island of Ireland has remained a highly contested democratic space. The consociational power-sharing institutions established in Northern Ireland in 1998 and the limited post-national innovations contained in the GFA have had very little or no transformative impact. This double democratic deficit of the GFA is an obstacle to any possible Brexit deal Theresa May’s government could negociate with Brussels.

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1Since the official results of the June 2016 Brexit referendum were released, followed by David Cameron’s resignation, many commentators and analysts have expressed doubts on the capacity of Theresa May’s government to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom as a state. In addition to the Scottish question, one of the central issues raised by the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union is related to the status of Northern Ireland as defined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Since Europe is seen as a positive contributor, economically and politically, to the transformation of the Northern Irish question during the Peace Process, it is argued that the U.K.’s withdrawal from the E.U. could seriously threaten the peace agreement. A typical example of this kind of argument can be found for instance in the report published by the House of Lords in late 2016:

  • 1 House of Lords, 2016.

The 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

2Yet such a vision of the Northern Irish situation is rather paradoxical and incomplete. If common British and Irish European membership was such a positive underlying factor in the transformation of Northern Ireland, how can one account for the continuing and renewed tensions in Northern Ireland at the time of and since the Brexit referendum? How can one account for the fact that, in spite of a 56% majority in Northern Ireland in favour of Remain, the Nationalist and the Unionist communities have shown very different reactions to the UK-wide results of the referendum? Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, and even more so since the latest General elections in the U.K., Northern Irish unionists have very clearly stated they will abide by London’s decision to leave the E.U. whereas the Northern Irish Nationalists and Republicans have expressed their concern at that perspective in very explicit terms. As this piece is being written, Northern Irish parties still have not been able to form a new Northern Irish Executive and it can be surmised that the Brexit question is certainly one of the thorniest issues blocking the talks between Sinn Fein and the D.U.P.. What this means is that on the one hand, there is a fairly large consensus around the idea that Irish and British membership of Europe has helped transform Northern Ireland while at the same time, it clearly appears that the two communities have remained extremely polarised, choosing diverging, and even conflicting paths, since Brexit.

  • 2 Todd, J., 2015.

3This paradox implies that the main question for Northern Ireland today is perhaps not simply to assess the potential risks contained in a future Brexit deal and its implementation but also to understand why such risks actually exist. If Brexit raises so many questions in Ireland/Northern Ireland today, notably on the future status of the Irish Border, is it not proof that the Good Friday Agreement was in fact a very vulnerable and incomplete agreement?2 How is it possible that such basic democratic pratice as a referendum could undermine the peace settlement found in 1998 whose very objective was precisely to recreate legitimate democratic institutions in Ireland and Northern Ireland, ratified by two referenda at the time? Rephrased, the question becomes clearer: if a U.K.-wide referendum destabilised Northern Irish democracy to such a point, does it not mean in fact that there is a problem with very the nature of the democratic regime established in Northern Ireland in 1998?

4The answer to this question brought forward here aims at showing that the Northern Irish dimension of the Brexit debate reveals two inter-related aspects of what could be called the Good Friday Agreement’s democratic deficit. As a comprehensive settlement, the Good Friday Agreement’s objective was to take into account the « totality of relationships » in order to satisfy the demands of all major actors in the conflict. To do so, it drew its inspiration from two theoretical models of democracy, post-national and consociational, but these two forms of democratic changes implemented through the GFA have proved to be far from sufficient to actually transform the Northern Irish question. The ongoing controversy on the future status of Northern Ireland and the Irish Border post-Brexit shows that the island of Ireland has remained a highly contested democratic space. First, it is argued that as a conflict management system, consociational democracy has had very little transformative impact on Northern Irish politics and society, making cross-community consensus virtually impossible. Hence the fragmentation of the 56% majority in favour of Remain. The second democratic vulnerability of the 1998 agreement, which indirectly contributed to the first, was the incapacity of both the British and Irish states to stick to the post-national and trans-territorial democratic framework which aimed at making the isle of Ireland a shared and agreed political space. However positively their respective membership of the E.U. facilitated their rapprochement on a common solution to the Northern Irish question, both London and Dublin have refrained from fully sharing their respective national sovereignty. Their divergence about Brexit reveals, that in spite of the GFA, they have both continued to defend traditional bounded, state-centered and mutually exclusive conceptions of national democracy and state sovereignty.

Brexit and the limits of Northern Irish consociational democracy : is there a majority in Northern Ireland ?

5The first element of answer which can account for the visible destabilisation of Northern Ireland resulting from the Brexit referendum is the consociational nature of power-sharing insitutions established there in 1998. Consociational and power-sharing arrangements have been extremely efficient in regulating inter-community violence but have proved to be far less efficient in bringing about a cross-community consensus on the core question of the status of Northern Ireland. The majority of 56% of Northern Irish voters who voted for remain in June 2016 was a numerical majority but it was not a political majority. Each community had a diverging interpretation of what remaining in the E.U. meant.

  • 3 Lijphart, A., 1968, 1969 ; O'Leary, 1999.

6As Arend Lijphart and other theoreticians of consociationalism demonstrated, consociational democracy is a form of government which seeks to regulate conflict in deeply divided societies. It is conceived as an alternative to majoritarian democracy.3 Instead of giving rights to individuals, consociational democracy recognises collective rights and organises political cooperation between rival groups around four main principles. Coakley described those four principles as follows:

  • government by grand coalition : the leaders of all significant segments participate in the governing process, typically by their inclusion in a grand coalition (this can take “diachronic” form, in that not all segments need to be included simultaneously, but none must be excluded permanently; and other devices such as extra-cabinet decision-making structures may have a role to play)

  • mutual veto to protect minorities: each segment is given the right to veto any measure that is seen as threatening its vital interests

  • proportionality as the principal standard of political representation, civil service appointments and allocation of public funds: this implies proportional allocation of parliamentary seats through the electoral system, of civil service posts through the recruitment process and of public funds through some kind of proportional formula (this may be adjusted to provide for over -representation of minorities, or even of parity representation of all segments)

    • 4 Coakley, J., 2011.

    high degree of segmental autonomy: in those areas where joint decision making is not needed, each segment is free to formulate and implement policy (territorial autonomy or federalism would be a characteristic expression of this but it may also take the form of non-territorial autonomy).4

  • 5 McGarry, J. & O'Leary, B., 2006.
  • 6 Horowitz, D., 2002.

7The choice of a consociational solution to ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland was made long before 1998. From 1973 on, when London introduced direct rule, the model of power-sharing consociational arrangements was adopted both by London and by many Northern Irish parties. The Sunningdale Executive, even if it was short-lived, was the first attempt to establish power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland along consociational principles.5 Both the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement followed and developped that consociational line. Strand 1 of the GFA, later completed by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, established a fully-fledged consociational regime in Northern Ireland which was eventually accepted by the quasi-totality of political actors.6

8For those who defend consociationalism, the solution found in Northern Ireland presents many advantages. It was a realistic solution to reduce the level of violence, adapted to the socio-political conditions existing in Northern Ireland. It limited the capacity of the Unionist majority to monopolise power against the interests of the minority by enforcing political cooperation with the Nationalist minority at elite level. Representatives of each community have taken part in the legislative and executive decision-making process according to the D’Hondt formula. It led the two extreme parties, Sinn Fein and the D.U.P. into accepting the limits of strictly constitutional politics. The logic of cooperation implemented at elite level is conceived as a first step towards the long-term objective of the transformation of Northern Ireland into an integrated and shared society.

9Yet, if one looks at the reality of Northern Ireland today, in spite of certain progress, it visibly is still a very polarised and sectarian society. There are more Peace Walls in Belfast in 2017 than 20 years ago.7 The proportion of pupils educated in integrated schools at primary or post-primary level was only 7% in 2014-2015.8 In 2016, according to the Northern Irish Housing Executive, 90% of social housing was segregated on grounds of religion and the figure rose to 94% for Belfast alone.9 Violent tensions over parades and flags flare up on a regular basis. All this demonstrates that the spirit of cooperation and cohesion has never really trickled down from elite to grass-roots community level. The continuing sectarianism of Northern Irish society can be explained by the very limits of the consociational model. As a system of conflict management and regulation, it has reduced the level of violence significantly but it has fallen short of transforming communities and community relations. Since it is premised on collective rather than individual rights, group identities have been reinforced rather than superseded. Instead of promoting a one-community approach, it has maintained and institutionalised the rivalry between the two mutually exclusive ethno-political groups. In the Assembly, each elected member has to choose a bloc, Unionist, Nationalist or Other so that the two communities are actually represented and given a voice in the political decision-making process. Any cross-community agenda is, by nature, a non-starter. In such a system, the formation of the Executive is not based on a shared coalition governmental programme but merely on a distribution of ministerial portfolios according to a purely arithmetic formula. Policy and law makers are only accountable to their respective community, trying to defend their separate communal interests rather than the greater good. Another consequence of the consociational regime has been the changing logic of party competition. Since political representation is rooted in the defense of communal interests, parties do not vye to become a majority party, but simply to obtain a majority of votes within their own communal bloc. A centrifugal system of ethnic out-bidding has developped in Northern Ireland politics whereby the more popular party is the one which is perceived as the best defender of its communal interest. As a result, since 1998, moderate parties on each side (S.D.L.P. and U.U.P), more likely to forge cross-community support, have lost considerable electoral and political influence. The more extreme parties, Sinn Fein and the D.U.P., have been the two majority parties since 2007, making cross-community consensus all the more difficult to reach.10

  • 11 The D.U.P. was in favour of Brexit.

10The Brexit question, as it developped in Northern Ireland, can be seen as the climactic outcome of two decades of consociational polarisation. Even if, on the referendum itself, there was a numerical majority in favour of Remain, each community had developped its own separate pro-European agenda.11 As a result of this consociational logic, remaining in Europe was a bone of inter-communal contention. Even for moderate pro-European parties across the communal cleavage, Europe was a divisive issue. During the House of Lords European affairs committee hearings, Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the moderate Unionist U.U.P., and Colum Eastwood, the leader of the moderate nationalist S.D.L.P., politely but explicitly expressed their irreconcilable pro-European views. Both wanted to keep an open border with the Republic but what it meant for their respective community was radically incompatible:

Mike Nesbitt : As a Unionist, I wish to persuade everybody who lives in Northern Ireland that they are best served remaining part of the United Kingdom. Part of that would be to try to make the border less obvious and less important. Some time ago, the visionary late Sir George Quigley, a businessman, identified and persuaded people on this side of the border, “Your easiest export market is 60 miles down the road. You don’t need to chase around continental Europe. It’s obviously there”. In Colum’s home city, up in Derry, there is a new cancer service. The business model is not to serve the north-west of Northern Ireland; it is Donegal, it is the Republic of Ireland. As you do things like this you make people like Colum more comfortable with the concept of the United Kingdom.

  • 12 House of Lords, 2016.

Colum Eastwood : This is where we begin to disagree [...]It feels to people from a traditionally nationalist background that we are being cut off from our ability to further integrate, in a democratic and normal way, with our friends across the border. That has a very damaging consequence for people’s confidence. Mike and I come from different perspectives on this. Both of us and David (David Ford, Leader of the Alliance Party) want to see Northern Ireland work. I want to be able to democratically convince people that a united Ireland is the right way to go in the long term; Mike wants to convince people that the status quo is the right way to go. We can do all of that without fear or threat, but let me reiterate: this shakes northern nationalism to the core. It just does.12

11Even after twenty years of peace, and in spite of their pro-european positions, the nationalist and unionist interpretations of an open border had remained fundamentally at odds. For Nationalists, reunification with the Republic was the ultimate objective. For Unionists, keeping stable relations with the United Kingdom was the ultimate objective. Hence the reactions to the results of the UK-wide referendum were as polarised as ever. Unionists very easily declared their wish to follow the rest of the UK and the pro-Brexit D.U.P. even accepted a confidence and supply agreement with Theresa May’s conservatives after the 2017 General election. At the time, the D.U.P. was involved in talks with Sinn Fein to form a new executive in Northern Ireland after its collapse a few months before. Conversely, the SDLP and Sinn Fein were repeatedly calling for a reunification referendum in order to preserve Northern Ireland’s membership of the E.U.. After twenty years of consociational peace, and in spite of a pro-Remain majority in Northern Ireland, the two Northern Irish communities still proved completely unable, and unwilling, to shape a shared European or post-Brexit position. Worse, Brexit is being instrumentalised on both sides to close each community’s ranks and further its own separate agenda. In this context, even if it is the declared wish of Theresa May’s government to find a negociated deal with Europe and Ireland on the Irish Border and on the status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit, any deal is very likely to be bitterly opposed by at least one of the two communities... Unless the existing consociational institutions undergo far-reaching reforms favouring the emergence of cross-community consensus.

What democratic space does Northern Ireland belong to ? Brexit, the GFA, referenda and the limits of postnational democracy.

12The Brexit controversy has revealed a second weakness of the GFA which indirectly fuelled the first. Although 1998 marked a significant progress towards agreed and joint sovereignty arrangements between London, Belfast and Dublin, the 1998 settlement failed to deliver the post-national democratic regime that it promised for Ireland. The positions adopted by the two central governments demonstrate that both guarantor states, Ireland and the U.K., have not given up with their traditional conception of territorial sovereignty as being mutually exclusive.

13When the GFA was first drafted and ratified in 1998, it was hailed by many analysts and politicians as the sign of new post-national order made possible by the unbundling of state, nation and sovereignty. During the referendum campaigns, North and South, one of the main slogans in favour of ratification, asserted that for the first time, a democratic solution had been found which defended « people before territory » in Ireland. Among the many post-nationalist voices, the most explicit elaboration of this interpretation of the GFA was developped by Richard Kearney, a close friend of ex-S.D.L.P. leader, John Hume:

  • 13 Kearney, R., 2001, 1997 ; McCall, 1998.

A practical form of joint-sovereignty has now been endorsed by the Irish and British peoples. This necessitates, I believe, a radical rethinking of our hallowed notions of sovereignty. In essence, it means the deterritorialisation of national sovereignty – namely, the attribution of sovereignty to peoples rather than land. Hence the Agreement’s extension of national ‘belonging’ to embrace the Irish diaspora which now numbers over seventy million worldwide... The conflict of sovereignty claims exercised over the same territory by two independent governments – issuing in decades of violence – is now being superseded by a post-nationalist paradigm of intergovernmental power. That conflict showed the necessity of ultimately separating the notion of nation (identity) from that of state(sovereignty) and even, to some extent, from that of land(territory). Such a separation is, I submit, a precondition for allowing the co-existence of different communities in the same society; and, by extension, amplifying the models of identity to include more pluralist forms of association, such as a British-Irish Council, the Irish and British diasporas and a European network of Regions.13

14The post-national reading of the GFA underlined several changes in inter-state relationships contained in the Agreement. Dublin had abandoned its territorial claim on Northern Ireland and recognised the principle of consent in Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution in exchange for institutionalised cross-border cooperation. It obtained shared executive powers in certain sectors of Northern Irish affairs. Both London and Dublin agreed that the status of Northern Ireland could be changed but on the condition that there were two concurring majorities, North and South of the Border, in favour of reunification (Dual Consent):

  • 14 Good Friday Agreement, Constitutional Issues, ii.

It is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.14

15In general, it was argued that instead of competing against one another, both states were associated in a complex web of inter-governmental institutions and inter-relations (British-Irish Council, North-South Ministerial Council, North-South implementation bodies). For postnationalists, the conflicting sovereignty claims on the isle of Ireland, had been transcended thanks to the GFA, transforming the isle of Ireland into a negociated and shared democratic space.

  • 15 Ruane, J. & Todd, J., 2003.
  • 16 McGarry & O'Leary, 2006, p. 251.
  • 17 Tonge, J., 2005 ; Hayward, K., 2006.

16As prolific scientific research has outlined, assimilating the GFA to a form of deconstruction and reconstruction of Ireland into a postnational democratic space is a highly disputable interpretation. Even if postnationalist discourse was used by certain nationalist parties during the Peace Process, Irish Nationalism, as a whole, including constitutional parties, did not convert to a fully-fledged post-nationalist ideology and agenda.15 The endorsement by the S.D.L.P. and Sinn Fein of a consociational regime in Northern Ireland bears witness to their enduring reluctance to do so.16 Although those favourable to the postnationalist interpretation of the GFA base their case on the transcending influence of European integration, many analysts have demonstrated that Europe never really had such a role on the peace process in Ireland/Northern Ireland. It was rather an accommodating nation-based influence.17

  • 18 O'Leary, B., 2017.

17The violence and complexity of the Brexit controversy in Ireland provides further evidence of the limits of the GFA in this domain. In many ways, the Brexit referendum (or the U.K. exit referendum as Brendan O’Leary rightly corrects18) was, in itself, a unilateral assertion of U.K. sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Decided by London alone, the June 2016 referendum did not recognize any specific status for the Northern Irish majority: the referendum was designed to produce an undifferentiated UK-wide simple majority. Seen from London, the only spatial unit it recognized for the democratic expression of consent was the U.K. as a whole, inclusive of Northern Ireland. Yet, if the GFA had really provided for new postnational democratic structures in Ireland, London would have been constitutionally obliged to obtain the green light from both the Northern Assembly and the Irish Parliament before including Northern Ireland in a UK-wide referendum on the U.K.’s European membership. Or the Irish and Northern Irish population would have had to take part, in one way or another, in the referendum. Theresa Villiers, David Cameron’s Northern Ireland Secretary, would have been constitutionnally bound to respect absolute neutrality on the referendum. Hence, the radically anti-British interpretation of the referendum developped by Northern Irish Nationalists is perfectly acceptable. If U.K. membership of the E.U. required Northern Irish consent, then the referendum of June 2016 was repugnant to the Good Friday Agreement’s definition of consent:

The people of Northern Ireland previously voted for the Good Friday Agreement in a unique dual referendum process involving the north and south of Ireland – that was the high watermark of Irish constitutional democracy. I am pledged to adhere to that and I make no apology to anybody for it. ...Where is the democracy and consent for the people of Northern Ireland when it comes to Brexit? [...] The promise and the understanding that the people of Ireland, north and south, were given when they endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in overwhelming numbers will have been betrayed and damaged. I do not accept, and no Irish nationalist, north or south, who supported the Good Friday Agreement has ever said, that the principle of consent that is housed in the Irish constitution can be removed, replaced or surpassed by a vote in England on Brexit or on anything else.19

  • 20 House of Lords, July 2017, p.25.
  • 21 Tierney, S., 2017
  • 22 Ringeisen-Biardeaud, J., 2017.

18What Mark Durkan said to the House of Commons is that the UK-wide majority was illegitimate in Northern Ireland because London did not abide by the definition of consent enshrined in the GFA. His interpretation was further validated when T. May’s conservative majority negociated a confidence-and-supply deal with the pro-brexit D.U.P.: even the House of Lords admitted that, doing this, London, was breaking with its role as a neutral co-guarantor of the GFA it had endorsed in 1998.20 The only reason why all this was possible for London lies in the fact that the GFA had not made a reform of the British constitution binding. As revealed by the Supreme Court decision on the Miller case, the British constitution did not recognise any special status for devolved parliaments on European issues. Therefore, in spite of its commitment to respect the terms of the GFA, London had no constitutional obligation to consult the Northern Irish Assembly on the issue of Brexit. Let alone the Irish government. From a constitutionalist perspective, the Brexit referendum was democratic.21 In other terms, what this means is that there is a major constitutional loophole in the GFA’s postnational democratic regime: since June 2016, London has not respected the terms of the GFA but it has not acted in contradiction to the British constitution. Through the Brexit referendum, it made the unilateral but constitutional choice to re-intervene directly in Northern Irish affairs by re-asserting its exclusive sovereignty on Northern Ireland and its support for the Unionist community.22 Instead of being the neutral co-guarantor of a postnational democratic regime in Ireland, it has returned to its role as a pro-Union state imposing and defending the exclusive exercise of its national democratic and sovereign rights in its national territory.

19As could be expected, since 2016, the Dublin government has often expressed its frustration at the British government’s attitude. Yet, the same criticism can be levelled back at the Republic of Ireland. Historically, Dublin was actually the first of the two guarantor states to destabilise the fragile postnational democracy established by the GFA, there again through a referendum. In 2004, confronted with a supposed wave of immigration into the isle of Ireland, Bertie Ahern’s government decided to organise a referendum to reform Article 9 of the Republic’s Constitution. The aim of the reform was to limit the citizenship and social rights of immigrants by abandoning Jus soli and shifting to Jus sanguinis. Dublin launched that constitutional reform knowing perfectly well that it was in clear contradiction to the GFA. The proposed reformulation of Article 9 was designed to circumscribe Article 2 of the same constitution, whose rewording had been one the central postnationalist achievements of the GFA. Jus soli as enshrined in Article 2 had been conceived with and for the nationalist community of Northern Ireland to enshrine their birthright to be Irish citizens. The change brought in Irish nationality and citizenship law in 2004 clearly meant that the Dublin Government preferred renouncing its GFA commitment in order to protect its own citizenry from immigration at the expense of the nationalist minority in the north that lost one of its fundamental cultural and political links to the Irish State. To say this in other words, the Irish Republic’s government, supported by 80% of the referendum voters, defended its own selfish state-interests by destabilising one of the most symbolic postnationalist provisions of the GFA. There again, if Dublin did so, it is simply because, constitutionally, the GFA had not limited its sovereignty: Dublin had a constitutional right to undo the constitutional requirement of Jus soli imposed by the GFA. In 2004, the Irish Republic was already in the same position as London with the Brexit referendum: asserting its absolute national sovereignty as a state, it was destabilising the postnationalist democratic architecture established by the GFA. Besides, the reaction of the Northern Irish moderate nationalist party, the SDLP, at the time, was very similar to the one it had against London on Brexit. Already, Mark Durkan had to condemn Dublin’s neglect of its GFA commitment:

  • 23 Mark Durkan, Irish Times, 17/04/2004.

That Agreement [the 1998 inter-governmental agreement] is a part - and an instrument - of the Good Friday Agreement. It gives expression to the constitutional premises of the Good Friday Agreement and provides clear promises in respect of citizenship entitlements and choices to all born in the north. Therefore it should not be treated as the property of the two governments to arbitrarily re-interpret or adjust. It is perturbing that the Irish government did not choose to raise its plans with northern parties, not even in the context of the Review of the Agreement’s workings... It seems that the choice was made not to engage the northern parties on this matter, but to instead dispose of our interests by way of a joint declaration, with the British government, helping to qualify provisions of the Agreement... The perceived lack of regard for the rights and insights of Irish citizens in the north, in the context of the proposed referendum preparations by the government, will serve to corroborate and compound fears that their citizenship status might be further compromised in the future with the readier convenience of statute alone.23

  • 24 The Guardian, 23/02/2017.
  • 25 Irish Times, 30/03/2017, 9/08/2017.

20Although of a different form, Dublin’s reactions to the Brexit referendum results and to London’s refusal to involve Dublin in its European negociations is of the same nature. By calling for a special European status for Northern Ireland,24 the Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland) wanted to obtain guarantees that Northern Ireland could choose to remain in the European bloc. Doing this, Dublin was once again abandoning its neutral role, this time (re)discovering its proximity with the Nationalists and Republicans in the north: both the S.D.L.P and Sinn Fein have been calling for a reunification referendum, with Sinn Fein putting mounting pressure on the southern government to make it their official line.25 Dublin’s gradual realignment on exclusive nationalist and anti-unionist positions since June 2016 is in clear contravention to the GFA which stated that a reunification referendum could only be decided if there were clear signs of a majority wanting it. Even if they demand a soft and seamless border with the Republic, Northern Irish Unionists have made it plain they would reject any proposed special status for Northern Ireland and any proposed change in the constitutional status of the province as an integral part of the UK. The new leader of the moderate U.U.P., Robin Swann, was very explicit:

  • 26 The Guardian, 5/12/17.

There can be no separate arrangements for Northern Ireland... This would effectively introduce a border up the Irish Sea and would be nothing less than an attack on UK sovereignty and would run contrary to what many people voted for in the Brexit referendum... The Ulster Unionist party is very clear that we need to resolve the current situation. We need to reach a deal whereby the United Kingdom – and that means all of the United Kingdom – secures its departure from the EU on the best terms possible. Certainly Northern Ireland – which post-Brexit will be the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU – wants to see Brexit negotiations proceed and succeed. While we have no desire to have customs controls placed on our trade with Great Britain, we also recognise the need to ensure that the cross-border trade arrangements with the Republic of Ireland are as seamless as possible. But everyone should be very clear, whether they are in London, Dublin, Brussels or Belfast. Northern Ireland’s constitutional position cannot and should not be used as a bargaining chip. The constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is not up for debate.26

  • 27 Anthony, G., 2017, p. 7.

21Dublin’s proposal of a special-status for Northern Ireland and its rediscovered proximity with the Nationalist minority in the north, is an outright attack on the unionists’ conception of consent and therefore is repugnant the GFA.27 Yet nothing in the GFA can legally or constitutionally prevent Dublin from returning to traditional nationalist and quasi-irredentist positions on Brexit... The Brexit imbroglio definitely shows that both London and Dublin still have not fully accepted the postnationalist logic of the GFA which aimed at transcending their respective national and exclusive sovereign interests. Such acceptation seems all the more unlikely in the near future as, since the Brexit referendum, both co-guarantor states have become significantly less neutral in their relationship to the two Northern Irish communities.


22As the U.K. just obtained a deal with the E.U. on Brexit, all this demonstrates that the contents of the deal on the Northern Irish question, represent a mere statement of contradictory intentions. The triple objective of organising the exit of the U.K. from the E.U. without imposing any special status on Northern Ireland as part of the U.K., while fully respecting the GFA, seems as impossible to achieve as squaring a circle.28 Yet, did Theresa May’s government and the E.U. negotiating team have other options than a declaration of intentions? If Brexit raises so many issues in Ireland/Northern Ireland, the problem is not so much Brexit itself as the GFA. Any solution imagined on trade and commercial relations between the E.U. and the U.K puts to the test the very fragile democratic regime established in the isle of Ireland in 1998. On the one hand, whatever status is negociated for the Irish Border, soft or hard, it is very likely to be opposed by one of the two communities which, as part of a consociational democracy, have the political resources to block the democratic process in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the D.U.P., as the two majority parties, have considerable influence, as the ongoing stalemate in the power-sharing talks shows. On the other hand, Dublin and London, in addition to having diverging interests with the E.U., have lost their status as neutral and postnational guarantor states. They are both more dependent on their respective community in Northern Ireland, which reduces their capacity to find and impose a postnational deal.

23In more general terms, the way the Brexit question has developped in Ireland is quite revealing of the fundamental weaknesses of the consociational and postnational forms of democracy that the 1998 GFA established in Ireland. The postnational innovations contained in the GFA have proved insufficient to protect the Northern Irish province from state-centered and mutually exclusive conceptions of British-versus-Irish democratic sovereignty. Simultaneously, the consociational institutions established in Northern Ireland have made local cross-community majorities impossible - even when a numerical majority exists as was the case on remaining in Europe - reinforcing each community’s cultural and political alignment on its kin-state.

24If excessive and risky competition between the U.K’s and Ireland’s majoritarian models of democracy is to be avoided over the Brexit question, both states and both communities in Northern Ireland have to accept to rethink the consociational and postnational forms of democracy they established in 1998. This might sound excessively alarmist, but, without far-reaching adaptations to the GFA to solve its democratic deficits, any deal negociated by the U.K. to leave the E.U. is likely to generate further confusion and political instability in Ireland.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Philippe Cauvet, « Theresa May’s Government and the Northern Ireland Issue : Brexit as the end of the consociational and postnational illusions », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 103-121.

Référence électronique

Philippe Cauvet, « Theresa May’s Government and the Northern Ireland Issue : Brexit as the end of the consociational and postnational illusions », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 15 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.2167

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Philippe Cauvet

Maître de Conféreences en Civilisation britannique à l'Université de Poitiers

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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