English politicians are prone to playing lip service to the unity of the United Kingdom. Theresa May even made sure she visited Northern Ireland on her whistle-stop one year until Brexit tour last week. May leads the Tory Party that is officially called the Conservative and Unionist Party.

But how deep does this caring for Northern Ireland really go when it comes to Brexit?

Not very far, I’d argue.

Alex Massie, in a thoughtful column in February for The Times (paywalled, here). This is the key paragraph (my emphasis):

According to the most recent Future of England survey, a joint initiative of the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University, 81 per cent of Leave voters in England believe destabilising the Northern Irish peace process a price worth paying if that’s what Brexit requires. That’s quite something. But then so is the discovery that 88 per cent of those Leave voters consider Brexit more important than the survival of the United Kingdom. That is, they would accept Scottish independence if doing so guaranteed Brexit.

Cardiff University’s website is so chaotic I cannot locate the original report to which Alex refers, but there is a little more detail here. Massie also cites Daniel Hannan, the Tory Brexiter, who claimed “the Good Friday Agreement has failed” – Hannan has deleted his tweet, but it is archived here, and you can sort of see what he and the Tory hardcore Brexiters are trying to do – to firm up their side of the argument for Hard Brexit and to let Northern Ireland go as the price for getting there. Brexit is, lest we forget, essentially a problem of English nationalism.

LBC has commissioned some more recent polling on the issue, explained by The Independent here. The poll forced respondents to choose – leaving the EU (36 per cent) is a higher priority than keeping the UK together (29 per cent).

Meanwhile the GUE-NGL Group in the European Parliament (essentially Sinn Féin) has conducted some polling in Northern Ireland, where they find a majority (57.8%) for a special EU status for Northern Ireland in the case of a Hard Brexit.

So how does this fit with the Brexit negotiations?

At the time of writing we are where we were in December 2017 – with three options for the border in Ireland still on the table, a line that essentially held at the mid-March 2018 summit (more on that holding-the-line from Patrick Smyth of the Irish Times here).

A recap of the three options:

  1. A comprehensive free trade agreement can be reached between the two sides, rendering a border unnecessary (current status: unlikely, as London wants hard Brexit)
  2. Technological solutions ensure that goods and people are checked without the need for a border (no-one thinks this one will work – even the Northern Ireland Select Committee of the Commons thinks so)
  3. The backstop or fallback solution, if 1 or 2 do not come to pass – that Northern Ireland will fully align with the Republic of Ireland (and therefore with the EU), and have some special status towards the EU (this one is loathed by the DUP, but we know how it could work – passport controls and customs controls on the ferries across the Irish Sea instead)

All of which makes me think that Option 3 is going to be the one we will ultimately end up with. There will be legal text for it by the autumn according to Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand. If Option 1 or Option 2 are to work then the UK side needs to find ways to make those plausible, and I see no sign of that.

There is of course a hurdle. Or a potential hurdle. The Democratic Unionist Party and its 10 MPs propping up Theresa May’s government in Westminster.

But what is the DUP actually going to do? Down May’s government and cause an early election with the danger of Corbyn and Labour getting in? And do that in the middle of the hottest phase of the Brexit negotiations? Plus on the substance of Hard Brexit, May can probably count on enough support from Labour Hard Brexiters to get approval for the Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons.

It’s time to think what was supposed to be unthinkable in the Brexit negotiations over the last 12 months: that England will wave goodbye to Northern Ireland as a necessary price for Hard Brexit, giving Northern Ireland a special status within the UK and towards the EU (essentially a Norway-option), with passport controls and customs controls on the ferries in the Irish Sea instead.

(Note: I intentionally write England here, for I do not think the views of Scotland or Wales in this are central just now. And note that I do not want this to happen – this post is simply my reading of what is happening)

[UPDATE 5.4.2018, 2000]
I am still annoyed the original Cardiff University research mentioned here is nowhere to be found. A better summary of it is however here.


  1. richarda

    I though I should begin with something we all can agree on : “The London Underground is not a political movement” – Jamie Lee Curtis, “A fish called Wanda” I expect disagreement on almost everything else I say.
    The present N Ireland problem is because of two mututal incompatibilities, ie the sovereignty of the UK, and the insistence of the EU, via the Good Friday Agreement to decide what happens in N Ireland. As stated here elsewhere, the immediate likely outcome is a “Hard” Brexit, and a theoretical hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland. In practice the customs border will be between NI and the rest of the UK. A similar arrangement was in place at the end of the Second World War, so not entirely new.
    Before I move onto what happens next, I’ll set out a brief overview of other things:
    I suspect there is fairly broad agreement on what is wrong with the EU, The main disagreement is whether it can be fixed. My view is that not only is it unfixable, it was designed that way.
    Projections such as those saying we have “lost” billions even before Brexit happens depend on growth of around two percent pa in real terms. My forecast is for zero real growth. Population growth via immigration complicates this projection, but it does not resolve the difference.
    The Euro, the US Dollar and the Japanese Yen are headed for deep trouble. see link:
    The ECB has assets of ~36% of GDP, the BoE’s assets are ~26% of GDP. Thus it’s just a matter of when, not if. And the UK’s Mr Cameron has already helped out Greece via the ESM despite explicit promises this would not happen, so if the UK is still in the EU when it all falls apart, the UK will be expected to help out despite promises to the contrary.
    Which brings me back to the Hard Brexit and the £40Bn Brexit tab. I assume, absent advice to the contrary, that a Hard Brexit will mean no £40Bn paid into EU coffers, followed by a ~£5Bn pa hole in the EU budget – I’m pulling a figure out of the air here, and compared with the Euro 280Bn debt Italy wants cancelled, it’s a rounding error.
    Which brings me back via the PIIGS to Ireland. Ireland is : A tax haven; until recently the recipent of additional EU funding; and ~80% of its foreign trade goes to the UK. Thanks to contributions from Germany, the UK, and vast quantities of Central Bank malfeasance in the form of quantitative easing, Ireland had a crack-up boom that terminated in 2007. Even after the bust, and significant cuts to Civil Service pay, life was relatively good, because 0.75% mortgage rates and near prohibitions on foreclosures eased many problems. But the problems are still there.
    Brexit, particularly a Hard Brexit, will impose costs on the Republic of Ireland, some of which the RoI hopes to avoid by having a soft border. with NI. In the long run though, the economics suggests that the RoI would be better off leaving the EU and forming an economic unit with the UK. Which is exactly what the EU is trying to frustrate, and why the RoI wants the benefits of it’s past EU membership but none of the costs it is now beginning to face.

  2. Justin

    I don’t think putting a customs barrier between NI and rest of UK is the same as saying goodbye to NI. The Channel Islands are outside UK for customs purposes but they are never going to become French.

  3. D forbes

    There’s no chance of the UK dumping N Ireland unless the majority of people in N Ireland wish to be severed from the UK. The Good Friday Agreement stands whether May or Corbyn is at the rudder.what this poll and other agitators are doing is agitate neutrals, the 30-40% non voters in N Irelands elextorate to side with the remain/united Ireland camp should a referendum be called on the wishes of the N Irish people themselves for or against reunification. However the agitation could have the reverse effect by hardening attitudes of waverers who resent being pushed into a United Ireland. These types of polls and the border problem in Brexit negotiations is unquestionally hardening attitudes in N Ireland and feeding extremism, undoing the spirit of the Good Froday Agreement.

  4. Steve Banner

    Ok well England can go it alone then, along with Wales. I am English; served in the Army for nearly 30 years; my wife is Irish. We live in a lovely village near the coast in Dorset.

    These Brexiters need to feel the pain of their choices. These farmers and fishermen and bankers, motiviated by greed and racism, need to know what fear feels like.

    Meanwhile we are moving back to Ireland. Good luck England and Wales, you are going to need it.

  5. Douarnenez

    The problem is that the United Kingdom is not a kingdom of equals. It is heavily dominated by the English because of the size of the population of England. Therefore NI, Wales and Scotland are basically the last remnants of the British (aka English) Empire.

    Like the other colonies that have been lost these too will one day go their own way. This will, in the long term, be better for them, and also for the English, who can forge for themselves their own, new niche in the world, instead of trying to reconcile the impossibility of two different national identities.

  6. Christopher Jones

    This is rubbish, sorry. In what way is the EU to blame for any of this. How is it imposong its view on what should happen in NI when the UK clesarly doesnt have a clue? Its Londob playing (puerile) politics here, not Brussels or anyone else.

  7. Sharon Mcintosh

    The referendum was based on lies may I remind everyone. In Scotland we knew it was coming and we are a sovereign nation and every constituency voted to Remain in the EU . The most conservative constituency in East Renfrewshire was the largest number of Remain in that constituency. I’m an activist and when I campaigned in 2014 for Scotland to be Independent anyone who voted no was because they wanted to stay in the EU they thought if they voted yes they would have to leave the EU . Look what happened so you tell me without being Einstein I know if Scotland was to be asked again if they would prefer to be Independent or to stay out of the EU with the Tories it would be hell yeah .

  8. rapscallion

    Before we go any further, I need to remind people that the question on the Referendum Question was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Therefore, whether there was a Remain majority in NI and Scotland is utterly and completely irrelevant. Those countries within the Union were not being asked as a country but as part of the Union.

    Personally I don’t want it to happen either (NI being sacrificed), and I don’t think it will come to that. The EU is playing politics with the constitution of the UK for its own nefarious purposes. No PM could countenance such a move. I would threaten to break of ongoing negotiations unless the EU took its nose out of our business.

    • You need to read the Good Friday Agreement, voted by 71% of the people of NI and 95% of the Republic . It was signed 20 years ago and is an International Treaty registered at the UN. The Irish Government has every right to be involved. The Good Friday Agreement gives prominence to the ‘principle of consent’ which affirms the legitimacy of the aspiration to a United Ireland while recognizing the current wish of the majority in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. It goes on to state that…
      “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”.

  9. So, the essentially English Brexit vote means taking back control of the borders withthe rest of the present United Kingdom? An interesting thought.

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