Download PDF The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union may have hastened the coming of a united Ireland.

The list of strategic oversights on the part of those who advocated the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, known as ‘Brexit’, is dauntingly long. One of the least-discussed challenges, but perhaps the most significant, is the loss of the EU as a conflict-resolution mechanism. Brexiteers appear to have assumed, rather complacently, that this was a question for other European countries, and not for Britain. In so doing, they overlooked a conflict not yet fully resolved – and a peace not yet fully consolidated – at home.

The EU was crucial to the formation of the 1998 Belfast Agreement (known as the Good Friday Agreement) formally ending the deeply rooted armed conflict that had plagued Northern Ireland for 25 years (popularly, ‘the Troubles’). The full implementation of that agreement was delayed until 2005 due to the restiveness of armed Irish republicans and the mistrust of the province’s pro-British majority. Scarcely a decade later, Brexit has helped propel republicans to their strongest electoral performance ever in Northern Ireland – where 56% voted to remain in the EU – and has perhaps placed peace itself at risk.

The EU and the Belfast Agreement

The Belfast Agreement brought a formal end to the Troubles. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), which sought to expel British forces from Northern Ireland and unite it with the Irish Republic, were responsible for almost two-thirds of the 3,000-plus violent deaths from the conflict and pro-state loyalist paramilitaries for a little under one-third, with the remainder down to the security forces and republican splinter groups.1 At issue in that conflict was whether Northern Ireland should maintain its union with Great Britain, as its majority Protestant ‘unionist’ population desired, or become one nation with the Republic of Ireland, per the wishes of its minority Catholic ‘nationalist’ population.

Under the agreement, the question is still finessed, but in a way that both unionists and nationalists could tentatively live with. In a referendum, 71% of voters in Northern Ireland approved the agreement, as did 94% in the Irish Republic. The latter repealed its territorial claim on Northern Ireland in exchange for an institutionalised voice in governing the province through ‘cross-border bodies’, leaving unambiguously intact the principle of unionist ‘consent’, whereby a Northern Irish majority must agree to any change in sovereignty. Thus, the Belfast Agreement avoided the instability of immediate self-determination, instead calling for Irish constitutional amendments to define Ireland’s island-wide nationhood in terms of its people ‘in all the diversity of their identities and traditions’ – including, that is, those of English and Scottish Protestant lineage and identity as well as those of Celtic Catholic background – rather than in terms of physical territory.

The agreement avoided the instability of immediate self-determination

The most important factor in making this overlay of a single multicultural nation on top of separate sovereign entities a psychologically sustainable compromise was the membership of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in the European Union. In 1989, leading northern nationalist John Hume, who would share a Nobel Prize with his unionist counterpart David Trimble for the Belfast Agreement, argued that a ‘Europe of the regions’ would ensure that ‘the Irish border, like other European borders, will be no more in reality than a county boundary’. In turn, the end of the Cold War erased the strategic liability of a wholly neutral Ireland, and enabled the British government to take a more or less indifferent stance on the issue of Northern Irish sovereignty. London did so by way of the British and Irish prime ministers’ December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which explicitly left the sovereignty issue to the province’s electorate and led to the pivotal August 1994 Provisional IRA ceasefire.2 But even that document telegraphed the importance of European integration to ultimate peace, stating that any new government structures would ‘include institutional recognition of the special links that exist between the peoples of Britain and Ireland … while taking account of newly forged links with the rest of Europe’.3 It was the EU’s dilution of the sovereignty of its members via the supranational authority of its Brussels-based institutions, entrenched by the Maastricht Treaty in November 1993, that brought home the Belfast Agreement more than four years later.

The post-Maastricht EU, with its single market and common policies in many areas, seemed to place national borders on a path to practical marginalisation. The Irish Republic’s ‘Celtic tiger’ economy benefited hugely from EU subsidies and the single market, and Dublin found in Brussels a diplomatic platform for a European identity that enabled it to move past its consuming and inward-looking tradition of acrimony with the UK. While the UK’s relationship with the EU was more ambivalent – it rejected the European Court of Human Rights’ adverse findings as to its Troubles-related counter-terrorism practices and declined to join the monetary union – in the late 1990s Tony Blair’s Labour government was clearly pro-Europe. Both northern nationalists and Ulster unionists discovered economic advantages in treating the entire island of Ireland as a single unit, which, for example, worked to exempt Northern Ireland from the EU’s 1996–99 ban on British beef 18 months before it was lifted.

In this political atmosphere, although most Northern Irish nationalists and unionists still cared passionately about national sovereignty, the hard border they had fought over became a less potent or relevant proxy for national and cultural identity. There was a more flexible, forgiving brand of sovereignty at stake, and IRA and loyalist violence and unionist intransigence became incommensurately costly. In sum, an increasingly integrated Europe created economic incentives and political ideas compelling enough to move the UK, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to moderate their national identities. An IRA prisoner mused that a united Ireland would be achieved not by force but ‘through Europeanization’, a loyalist that ‘no country was independent economically’.4 The Belfast Agreement thus contemplates a soft, permeable border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and incorporates cross-border arrangements like those adopted by the EU, regulating areas such as agriculture, education and tourism on a bi-consensual basis. But one of the Brexiteers’ primary grievances is excessive immigration, and addressing it would require a hard physical border between the UK and any EU state. The only such border is Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic.

Latent rebelliousness

By creating a common identity among nations, the EU promoted conflict resolution. But the Belfast Agreement’s functionality has also turned on the recognised power of sovereign guarantors – the UK and the Republic of Ireland – even as it established a mechanism for attenuating that power. Without them, the contentious communities that have historically riven Northern Ireland would have no recourse should the supranational aspects of the deal prove wanting. It is an exceedingly delicate balance. The peace process was almost aborted 17 months after the IRA ceasefire, when the IRA, impatient with what it regarded as the UK government’s pandering to unionists and consequent foot-dragging, bombed London’s Canary Wharf on 9 February 1996. There was a subsequent return to violence on the part of both republicans and loyalists in Northern Ireland, though not at the same level that prevailed before the 1994 ceasefires, and forging the Belfast Agreement was an improbable, close-run eventuality. It was advanced by the ascendancy of the British Labour Party under Tony Blair – which Irish republicans considered more hospitable to their interests than the Conservative Party and which induced them to reinstate the ceasefire in July 1997 after the Labour Party won the UK general election and Blair became prime minister – and the skilled US-sponsored brokerage of former senator George Mitchell. If there was informed hope that the heavy investment by all parties in peace had made it irreversible, there was also solemn recognition that the deal had been cut in historically propitious and extraordinarily fastidious political circumstances that needed to be preserved for the agreement to resist durable and ominous dissident forces.5

These forces included the Continuity IRA and Real IRA, the latter of which perpetrated Irish republicans’ most lethal single attack in Omagh, County Tyrone, killing 28 people in a bombing on 15 August 1998 – a mere four months after the Belfast Agreement was signed. Later, dissidents from these groups formed the Real Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann. Loyalist groups also stayed active. On account of the refusal of the Provisional IRA to disarm to unionist satisfaction, it took until 2005, when the group renounced violence and independent weapons inspectors verified that it had placed its weapons ‘beyond use’, for unionist parties and Sinn Féin – the IRA’s political alter ego – to agree to govern Northern Ireland under the devolved arrangement provided for in the agreement. Since then, though the arrangement has periodically proven tenuous, Sinn Féin has settled into a relatively comfortable long game of constitutional nationalism – governing with its unionist counterparts, suppressing rejectionist groups seeking to revive the armed struggle and cultivating its influence in the Irish Republic.

Yet the ground-level, cross-community situation in Northern Ireland remains flammable. Protests that erupted over the removal of the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall in December 2012 are still unresolved, and persistent disturbances during the April-to-August ‘marching season’ have reinforced the Protestant siege mentality. Multiparty talks on these matters chaired by former US special envoy Richard Haass broke down on New Year’s Eve in 2013 after a six-month effort. Haass observed that Northern Ireland, however peaceful on the surface, remained a divided society – for example, over 90% of students in the province still go to all-Catholic or all-Protestant schools – and that political violence ‘could very well re-emerge as a characteristic of daily life. So it is premature to put Northern Ireland, as much as we would like to, in the “outbox” of problems solved.’6 Residual terrorist activity has occurred throughout the ostensible 19-year peace, reflecting latent rebelliousness. During the run-up to the Scottish referendum, dissident republicans increased the frequency of their attacks, several of which were lethal.

Former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who died unexpectedly in March 2017, became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly in 2007, improbably establishing an amicable working relationship with staunch unionists. These included the late Rev. Ian Paisley, who was renowned throughout the Troubles as an anti-Catholic bigot, and whose Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had surpassed the more measured Ulster Unionist Party as Northern Ireland’s largest. McGuinness’s 2010 statement that dissident republicans were ‘traitors to Ireland’ has been cast as evidence that most republicans have moved on from the armed struggle. But an April 2013 poll of 50 Sinn Féin members (admittedly, a small sample) conducted by the Belfast Telegraph – Northern Ireland’s most widely read and reputable newspaper, and resolutely unionist – indicated that McGuinness was attempting to lead opinion rather than stating the actual consensus. Only 12% of the Sinn Féiners polled agreed with McGuinness, while 72% outright disagreed. Some 26% agreed that an armed campaign was justified as long as British rule remained. Although 66% disagreed, given prevailing attitudes about McGuinness’s statement, that majority sentiment appeared very brittle. Only a third of the Sinn Féin members believed violent dissidents constituted criminals, and only a third felt bound by civic duty to report dissidents to the police. Despite extensive reform, a clear majority did not consider the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) – which replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary, generally despised by Catholics – an impartial force.7

Scottish tease

Amplifying these indigenous factors, the social-democratic thrust and the symbolism of the movement for Scottish independence has resonated strongly among Irish republicans.8 The heavily anticipated prospect of a ‘yes’ or a close ‘no’ vote on Scottish independence in the September 2014 referendum raised anxiety among northern Protestants that the United Kingdom could be further dismantled. In 2012, Tom Elliot – then head of the Ulster Unionist Party – said the Scottish National Party was ‘a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA’.9 In January 2014, DUP member of parliament Ian Paisley, Jr, warned that Scottish independence could reopen the Northern Irish conflict. Trimble – architect of the Belfast Agreement, Nobel laureate and still a leading unionist – agreed. And indeed, the very prospect of Scottish independence had already intensified Sinn Féin’s desire for a referendum on Irish unification, prompting Sinn Féin President and Dáil (Irish parliament) member Gerry Adams to remark on BBC Radio that the United Kingdom was ‘hanging by a thread’.10 An energised republican push for Northern Ireland’s own referendum sooner rather than later, with a tacit but real threat of otherwise reverting to political violence, seemed possible, and that might have stimulated a cycle of loyalist attacks and republican retaliation.

In the event, the Scottish electorate rejected independence by a convincing margin, 55.3% to 44.7%, blunting any vicarious momentum in Northern Ireland. This relieved many if not most Northern Irish residents, who preferred the known, if imperfect, status quo. While it was mathematically clear that many unionists must have voted – along with most nationalists – in favour of the UK’s retaining EU membership in the June 2016 referendum, unionists took pains to note that a vote to remain in the EU was not tantamount to a vote for Irish unification should the UK leave the EU. Most unionists would have sided with the mainland majority to leave the Union, while most nationalists would have chosen to remain. According to a September 2016 BBC poll, 80% of Northern Irish voters would not change their views on the constitutional question on account of Brexit, and 63% of them would still support maintaining the union with Britain. Nevertheless, a mere 52% opposed holding a referendum on Irish unity.11 Some unionists have acknowledged that unionism has become softer and more susceptible to political defection.12

Of course, hard and unshakeable unionists who would never vote for Irish unification have not gone away. The province’s cultural and political divide, and by extension its sovereignty, remain the primary subtexts of politics in Northern Ireland. A Belfast Telegraph survey taken on trends among younger members of the electorate in autumn 2014 – just before the Scottish referendum – revealed that, for the first time, young Protestants were more likely than young Catholics to be unemployed, by 24% to 17%, and that young Protestants were less satisfied with their politicians than their Catholic counterparts, 42.9% compared to 57.1%. The upshot was that young unionists felt that nationalists were reaping more benefits from the Belfast Agreement than were unionists.13 This could translate into an intensification of dissatisfaction among working-class loyalists who, during the Troubles, became paramilitaries and could be subject to vestigial temptations if provoked.

Pretexts for political aggro abound in Northern Ireland. At street level, ongoing sectarian tensions occur, especially during the marching season, which culminates in parades and bonfires to celebrate Protestant victory in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne on 12 July.14 Although these have proven to be containable over the last decade, the spectre of the Troubles still hangs over the province. As Die Zeit editor Jochen Bittner observed while visiting Northern Ireland in 2016: ‘In West Belfast, the Peace Wall barrier continues to segregate parts of the pro-British Protestant from the pro-Irish Catholic working-class communities. If the absence of political violence is peace, then yes, there is peace. But this doesn’t mean that the society is at ease with itself. Groupthink and mistrust of the other have softened, but linger.’15 From a unionist standpoint, the deeper challenge to the stability of its straddling dispensation for British and Irish sovereignty is the fact that those opposing a referendum on the constitutional question comprise a slim and possibly dwindling majority.

Sinn Féin’s position

Gerry Adams has fastened on to this reality. His trajectory remains an important indicator of the sovereignty question’s salience and volatility in Northern Ireland. In May 2014, he was detained and questioned for four days about the murder of Jean McConville, committed by the IRA more than 40 years ago, which he was suspected of having authorised as the alleged officer commanding the Belfast Brigade at the time (he denies any active IRA affiliation, ever).16 It was telling that the PSNI did not consider his position so sensitive or crucial that his arrest might jeopardise the stability of the province. Since the Belfast Agreement had been signed, it had been not Adams but McGuinness – an admitted former IRA commander – who had had the highest political profile among republicans in the North. The original idea was that Adams would concentrate politically on the Irish Republic to ensure that Sinn Féin was strong island-wide when the time came for a referendum on unification, and he has been a member of the Irish parliament since 2011. But that strategy rested heavily on the prospect that Catholics would outbreed Protestants in Northern Ireland, and that the overwhelming majority of Catholics would vote to leave the United Kingdom. Changing mores and improved living standards for northern Catholics made these propositions less certain than they had been 20 years earlier. But the Brexit vote has increased the economic incentives for all northerners to leave the UK, and the political incentives for northern nationalists to do so.

Adams remains the leader of Sinn Féin and, especially with McGuinness’s death, the principal enunciator of pro-Belfast Agreement republicanism’s strategic positions. On 12 July 2016 – less than three weeks after the Brexit vote – Adams published an op-ed in the New York Times. His contention was essentially that Brexit had sabotaged the Belfast Agreement by, first and foremost, re-imposing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that would involve the re-establishment of security checkpoints, military bases and customs stations. These were the very things that symbolised the stark physical and administrative separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland, and which nationalists found so vexing. In addition, Adams noted, the evolved fluidity of goods, services and workers would end. And as EU funding for peace programmes dried up on the Northern Irish side, cross-border cooperation would atrophy further.

In Adams’s view, these consequences of Brexit are inevitable, and the Northern Irish electorate’s 56% vote in favour of remaining in the EU constitutes a sufficient basis for holding concurrent referendums on Irish unification in the North and the South.17 McGuinness backed Adams’s play, noting that the British government had ‘no idea what Brexit means’ and that Northern Ireland’s vote to stay in the EU ‘must be recognised and respected in any negotiations’.18 The Scottish National Party (SNP)’s push for a second referendum on Scotland’s independence, in light of its 62% vote in favour of remaining in the EU, has lent weight to Sinn Féin’s arguments, and if the SNP prevails they will be all the more difficult to reject.

Symbol or substance?

Boiled down to its essentials, Sinn Féin’s argument is that the overall vote in favour of leaving the EU perforce should trigger referendums because it undercuts a fundamental premise of the Belfast Agreement that the Northern Ireland vote for remaining in the Union reinforces: the shared membership of the UK and the Irish Republic in the EU. As a juridical position, it is unsteady. As political realism, it is formidable. Republicans pressing for a referendum could heap on a variety of other technocratic factoids. For instance, Northern Ireland’s EU subsidy – which totals €3.5 billion for the 2014–20 budget, or about €600bn a year – is higher per capita than any other UK constituent, indicating that Northern Irish residents have the most to lose from Brexit.19 Furthermore, there were sharp increases in the number of British citizens applying for Irish passports, and Irish nationals resident in the UK applying for Irish citizenship, following the Brexit vote, underlining the EU’s attractiveness.20

But Sinn Féin’s deeper and more threatening agenda, if it has one, would turn on the physical accoutrements of a hard border – the checkpoints and military installations that Adams mentions. These would constitute acute provocations and, more pointedly, prime targets for a revived physical-force republican movement that has neither disappeared from the Ulster landscape nor forgotten a long-practised military modus operandi. As Bittner writes: ‘Psychologically, this would be a throwback to an era most thought had passed. For Northern Ireland’s radical fringe, on both sides, it might even reactivate well-rehearsed stimulus–response patterns of decades past – of violent attacks and counterattacks. If the remnants of the Irish Republican Army needed a provocation to take up the fight again, British officials along the border might be just the ticket.’21 In implicitly raising this possibility, Adams can be read as reiterating the veiled threat that he made in 1995, when post-ceasefire negotiations of a peace agreement had stalled, regarding the IRA: ‘They haven’t gone away, you know.’22

Six months later, the IRA bombed Canary Wharf to get London’s attention. After 20 years of relative peace, it would take less than that to do so now. Attacks on border outposts were a staple of the IRA’s Troubles-era tactics. While the IRA’s 1956–62 ‘border campaign’ to resuscitate the idea of Irish unification was famously anaemic and futile, the broader Catholic community had then been indifferent. By the late 1960s, greater alertness to heavy-handed unionist rule and Catholic civil rights evoked passion and protest and ushered in the Troubles. It is eminently possible that post-Provisional IRA elements could mobilise a more determined and effective effort were robust popular support – which did not exist before 1969 – to emerge on the basis of the tangible costs of Brexit, pecuniary and otherwise, to the nationalist community and cause. Although the Provisional IRA undertook the large-scale decommissioning of weapons in 2005, it probably would not be too hard for it to restore its arsenal. Furthermore, there is plenty of legacy militant know-how in the republican community, and dissident groups have retained a military capability. Over the past decade or so, they have launched periodic gun and bomb attacks on security forces – mainly the PSNI – and killed at least five people.23 Frequent armed republican aggression would almost inevitably prompt loyalist retaliation, perhaps turbocharged by insular nativist impulses similar to those that underlay the Brexit push and burgeoning movements in Europe and the United States, now reinforced by the Brexit campaign’s success and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election.

Republicans enjoy historic political strength

Republicans now enjoy historic political strength in Northern Ireland. In a snap election on 2 March of this year, Sinn Féin won 27 of 90 seats against the 28 for the DUP, which lost ten seats.24 Adams asserted that this unprecedented virtual tie was a ‘watershed’ moment indicating that ‘the notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished’; calling for ‘a step-change’ and ‘an end to the status quo’; bolstering the view that Northern Ireland should have a ‘special designated status’ with respect to Brexit; and constituting ‘a vote for Irish unity’.25 Technically, the election was prompted by the collapse of the devolved assembly due to McGuinness’s resignation as deputy first minister. While his stated pretext was the costly mishandling of a renewable-energy programme, and his declining health was undoubtedly a factor, under the Belfast Agreement Sinn Féin could have forestalled the collapse and the election by nominating a replacement for McGuinness within seven days. McGuinness’s intransigence and his party’s failure to nominate a replacement made it quite clear that Sinn Féin wanted to show its political muscle in the wake of the Brexit referendum, as it did.26 London’s inattention to, and dearth of post-Brexit planning for, Northern Ireland made republican indignation all the more credible.27

As of late April, the power-sharing executive required under the Belfast Agreement had not been formed, and the UK government had extended the deadline for doing so to 29 June. This enabled London to defer until after the UK general election scheduled for 8 June – which UK Prime Minister Theresa May called early mainly to consolidate support for Brexit – a decision either to hold another election in Northern Ireland or to re-impose direct British rule for the first time in more than a decade. Direct rule is the most likely scenario, and it would inevitably exacerbate tensions between nationalists and unionists, and sectarian antagonism in Northern Ireland – all the more so if, as heavily predicted, the hand of the Brexiteers in the British Parliament is substantially strengthened by the general election.28

May has minimised the challenge of managing Northern Ireland’s perpetual constitutional question in the context of Brexit. She appears to have little historical appreciation that the UK’s membership in the EU was integral to the Belfast Agreement, and has dismissed worries about a securitised border, musing that it will be ‘frictionless’. Yet the Irish Republic’s government has reportedly designated 250 possible sites for border checkpoints – greatly more than the 20 that existed during the Troubles, on account of the expansion of the road system occasioned, ironically, by almost 20 years of peace.29

For several months following the Brexit vote, it seemed at least premature to forecast a Brexit-triggered reckoning over Northern Ireland’s sovereignty. It seemed that a tentative and protracted UK withdrawal would attenuate Brexit’s antagonism to Northern Irish republicans; and that this, in turn, would blunt the process’s direct effect on dissident republicans’ stature within the movement and, therefore, their incentive and capacity to drive a resurgence of the armed struggle. On 29 March 2017, however, May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, giving notice to Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, that the UK would leave the Union at midnight on 29 March 2019. This move, combined with May’s unequivocal rhetoric in the House of Commons, repudiated any notion of a ‘soft’ Brexit that might have preserved important aspects of the UK’s economic, cultural and diplomatic relationships with the EU, in favour of a ‘hard Brexit’ that will take the UK out of the customs union as well as the single market, and starkly sever it from the EU.30 This dispensation left little room for the ‘special designation’ that Adams a few weeks earlier had suggested might placate republicans. From Northern Ireland’s perspective, there now seems to be little doubt that Brexit will be substantive rather than merely symbolic.

Republican resurgence?

The Provisional IRA’s motto, referring to a united Ireland, is ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ in Irish, ‘Our day will come’ in English. The Brexit referendum and May’s invocation of Article 50 may well have hastened that day. It is in Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA’s interest to keep a lid on the wholesale reincarnation of the troubles: it was only when the Provisionals sustained a ceasefire and Sinn Féin chose a dominantly political track (forgoing the Armalite for the ballot box, as it were) that Sinn Féin was able to garner more than 12% of the Northern Irish vote, vault past the ‘soft’ nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, help forge the Belfast Agreement and earn co-leadership of the new devolved assembly. At the same time, especially if no referendum has been authorised before the UK’s scheduled hard exit in March 2019, the Provisional IRA could decide to acquiesce to marginally greater dissident violence in order to maintain pressure on the British (and Irish) governments to support a referendum on sovereignty.

This equipoise between ‘licensed’ but deniable republican militant operations and a full-blown return to the higher level of violence that prevailed from 1969 to 1994 would resemble the tense situation that obtained between the Provisional IRA’s post-Canary Wharf ceasefire in July 1997 and the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998. But conditions then were more conducive to a calming political dispensation than they would be now. Firstly, in 1997–98, the Labour Party was in power, enjoyed solid and active EU backing for a deal on Northern Ireland, and was strongly motivated to make one, having supported in opposition a united Ireland by unionist consent in the 1980s and early 1990s.31 None of these factors is now present. The Conservative Party is in power, has much stronger historical ties to Ulster unionists than the Labour Party – ties that stand to be reanimated by nostalgic Brexiteers – and, having doubled down on Brexit, is politically compelled to ensure that Brexit does not spell the fragmentation of the United Kingdom. These considerations cut in the direction of the British government suppressing a referendum in Northern Ireland, which would exacerbate republican resentment and increase the likelihood of republican violence.

Secondly, in the 1990s the Clinton administration lent active and, crucially, objective political support to the Northern Irish peace process. Certainly in retrospect, president Bill Clinton’s overall commitment to that process and more particularly his granting of a US visa to Gerry Adams, his keeping the Provisional IRA off the State Department’s official list of terrorist organisations, and his appointment of Mitchell as special envoy for Northern Ireland, were key to reaching the Belfast Agreement. By contrast, President Donald Trump has voiced ringing support for Brexit, sees pro-Brexit UK nationalism as kindred to his own populist nationalism, would tend to look askance at the agenda of a party with connections to terrorism, and is therefore very unlikely to support any Irish republican initiative. He has not manifested any sensitivity to the UK’s devolved entities’ particular attitudes towards leaving the EU – having famously congratulated the Scots on Brexit (clueless that a large majority had voted against it) – and has not appointed a special envoy for Northern Ireland to replace former senator Gary Hart, Obama’s appointee. At a St Patrick’s Day event at the White House last March, Trump did make a pledge of support for Northern Ireland and said he would visit the province in 2019 for the British Open golf tournament in Portrush. But pro-Brexit unionist MP Ian Paisley, Jr – obsequiously though probably accurately – construed this as an indication of strong support for unionist resistance rather than the traditional US role of honest broker.32 On balance, an absence of constructive and substantial outside political support from the United States could help tilt the republican movement towards provocation.

Another factor promoting a more aggressive republican approach could be that London’s choice of a hard break has crowded out selective options such as special single-market membership for Northern Ireland, which stood to diminish Sinn Féin’s economic argument for Northern Ireland’s leaving the UK. Still, it is far from certain that Brexit will move the Provisional IRA to rearm and return to full-blooded violence, or dissident republican groups to erupt. A failed Scottish referendum or an accommodation between London and Edinburgh, for instance, could quell republican agitation, particularly if beneficial economic mechanisms developed for Scotland could be applied to Northern Ireland. But, given Sinn Féin’s political strength, its absence of external support and the viable core of republican dissent extant in the province, the British government appears to be unjustifiably sanguine that the Irish republican movement has been permanently tamed. Certainly the PSNI should think twice before picking up Gerry Adams for questioning again.


1 Malcolm Sutton (ed.), Bear in Mind These Dead: Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland, 1969–93 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 1994). Data available at

2 See Michael Cox, ‘Bringing in the “International”: The IRA Ceasefire and the End of the Cold War’, International Affairs, vol. 73, no. 4, October 1997; and Michael Cox, ‘“Cinderella at the Ball”: Explaining the End of the War in Northern Ireland’, Millennium, vol. 27, no. 2, 1998.

3 Downing Street Declaration, 15 December 1993, section 9,

4 Jonathan Stevenson, ‘Peace in Northern Ireland: Why Now?’, Foreign Policy, no. 112, Fall 1998, pp. 47–8.

5 See, for example, Jonathan Stevenson, ‘Irreversible Peace in Northern Ireland?’, Survival, vol. 42, no. 2, Autumn 2000, pp. 5–26.

6 Claire Williamson, ‘Violence May Still Return, Haass Warns’, Belfast Telegraph, 12 March 2014.

7 Liam Clarke, ‘Poll: Quarter of Sinn Fein Still Back Armed Struggle’, Belfast Telegraph, 15 April 2013.

8 The connection between Scottish independence and Irish unification did not get much play outside the UK. See, for example, Jonathan Freedland, ‘Will Scotland Go Independent?’, New York Review of Books, 20 March 2014.

9 Katrin Bennhold, ‘Irish Keep Their Eyes on Scottish Independence Vote’, New York Times, 3 June 2014.

10 See, for example, Stephen Walker, ‘Gerry Adams: United Kingdom Union Hanging by a Thread’, BBC News, 7 February 2014,

11 See, for example, Henry McDonald, ‘Brexit Vote Reignites the Debate on Britishness in Northern Ireland’, Guardian, 19 October 2016.

12 See, for example, Alex Kane, ‘Brexit Challenges the Identity of Ulster Unionism’, Irish Times, 20 April 2017.

13 Noel McAdam, ‘Revealed – The True Depth of Protestant Disillusionment’, Belfast Telegraph, 4 September 2014.

14 See, for example, Peter Geoghegan, ‘Brexit’s Most Dangerous Frontier’, Politico, 25 July 2016,

15 Jochen Bittner, ‘Will Brexit Unravel the Peace in Northern Ireland?’, New York Times, 11 October 2016.

16 For a sound recent article on this contentious aspect of Adams’s much-debated past, see Patrick Radden Keefe, ‘Where the Bodies Are Buried’, New Yorker, 16 March 2015.

17 Gerry Adams, ‘Brexit and Irish Unity’, New York Times, 12 July 2016.

18 Gerry Moriarty, ‘British Government Says It Will “Work Closely” with North During Brexit’, Irish Times, 2 October 2016.

19 Marc Champion, ‘Divided Northern Ireland Faces Brexit Hangover’, Bloomberg, 19 July 2016,

20 Henry McDonald, ‘Huge Rise in Britons Applying for Irish Citizenship After Brexit’, Guardian, 13 October 2016.

21 Bittner, ‘Will Brexit Unravel the Peace in Northern Ireland?’. Others have taken a comparably dire tone. See, for example, Ian McBride, ‘After Brexit, Northern Irish Politics Will Again Be Dominated by the Border’, Guardian, 19 July 2016; and Kevin Meagher, ‘Brexit Is the Beginning of the End for Northern Ireland’, New Statesman, 27 July 2016.

22 See, for example, David McKittrick, ‘IRA Has Not Gone Away, Adams Warns Ministers’, Independent, 13 August 1995.

23 See ‘Timeline of Dissident Republican Activity’, BBC News, 11 May 2016,; and Brian Rowan, ‘Dissident Republicans Still Haven’t Gone Away You Know’, Irish Times, 18 August 2016.

24 Sinead O’Shea, ‘Northern Ireland Voters Give Sinn Fein Its Biggest Win Ever’, New York Times, 4 March 2017.

25 ‘Sinn Fein Upends Elections in Northern Ireland’, Associated Press, 4 March 2017,

26 Sinead O’Shea, ‘Northern Ireland, Forced by Sinn Fein, Sets Early Election in the Shadow of “Brexit”’, New York Times, 16 January 2017.

27 Peter Geoghegan, ‘Northern Ireland and the Disunited Kingdom’, New York Times, 28 February 2017.

28 Kathryn Gaw, ‘Come What May, the Biggest Loser in the General Election Will Be Northern Ireland’, Guardian, 20 April 2017.

29 Rob Merrick, ‘Brexit: Irish Government Identifying Possible Checkpoint Locations on Northern Ireland Border’, Independent, 6 February 2017.

30 See, for example, Jonathan Freedland, ‘Dover and Out’, New York Review of Books, 11 May 2017.

31 Under Blair, Labour took a more neutral line on reunification, convergent with the Tories’ conspicuous moderation of their traditional pro-unionist stance by virtue of the 1993 Downing Street Declaration.

32 Ian Paisley, Jr, ‘“We Will Be There For You” … Words Uttered by Trump that Signal Glorious Chance to Reset Clock on NI/US Relationship’, Belfast Telegraph, 18 March 2017.

Jonathan Stevenson is IISS Senior Fellow for US Defence and Editor of Strategic Comments. He is author of ‘We Wrecked the Place’: Contemplating an End to the Northern Irish Troubles (The Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 1996).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June-July 2017

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