Towards a critical constitutional juncture for Northern Ireland?

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By Mary C. Murphy and Jonathan Evershed

Having completed its journey through the House of Commons, the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill now proceeds to the House of Lords, where it is liable to be tied up by weeks of debate and attempts at amendment. If and when it receives Royal Assent, the Bill will give government ministers powers to unilaterally disapply part of the Northern Ireland Protocol, effectively tearing up the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and risking retaliatory action from the European Commission.

The Bill’s Parliamentary progress has taken place against a backdrop of, and been a catalyst for, renewed post-Brexit political turbulence in the UK. After months of precedent-shattering denial of responsibility and refusal to move from Boris Johnson, ‘partygate’ and sleaze have eventually conspired to bring him down.

The resultant Tory leadership contest has seen all of the candidates to become the next Prime Minister doubling down on belligerence towards the EU in order to ‘save’ Brexit. Concurrently, commitments to ‘levelling up’ – a core pillar of Johnson’s rhetorically ‘muscular’ attempts to hold the Union together from the centre – have been all but entirely dropped.

Meanwhile, devolved governance in Northern Ireland remains in limbo following a transformative Assembly election in May 2022. Sinn Féin emerged, as predicted, as the largest party at Stormont, with Deputy President Michelle O’Neill claiming the title of ‘First Minister Elect’. The Alliance Party also had a good election, increasing its share of the vote by 4.5 percent and gaining 9 seats.

By contrast, with a loss of 3 seats and a swing of 6.7 percent against it, the DUP had a more difficult election, reflecting the ongoing impact of the party’s dalliance with Brexit. Despite evidence that the Protocol has protected Northern Ireland from some of the worst of Brexit’s economic consequences – and that the Northern Ireland Assembly now has a comfortable pro-Protocol majority – the DUP remains unwilling to re-enter government without guaranteed action to remove it.

The net result has been to prolong the political and constitutional crisis confronting the UK, in general, and Northern Ireland in particular. The toxicity of Conservative Party politics, the soaring cost of living and the long term impacts of Brexit and Covid across the islands are all driving centrifugal constitutional forces which may yet result in an ‘Indyref II’ in Scotland, a border poll in Ireland and even Welsh independence. Nowhere are the political stakes higher than in Northern Ireland.

In our book, A Troubled Constitutional Future: Northern Ireland after Brexit – launched at the Royal Irish Academy on 17 June – we seek to appraise whether this balance of political forces is liable to translate into a critical constitutional juncture for Northern Ireland: when and how it may eventually lead to a new and transformative constitutional settlement. We examine how Brexit has impacted on key political actors in Northern Ireland (and vice versa), with chapters exploring its consequences for Ulster Unionism, Irish Nationalism, Northern Ireland’s ‘Others’ and the British and Irish governments (and the relationships between them). The precise shape and depth of any eventual constitutional change will depend on the relative strength of these actors, their future strategic decisions and, likely, mistakes.

Throughout the book, we examine how decisions and (mis)calculations made by different actors at earlier stages of the Brexit process have impacted on their capacity to influence the course of the constitutional future. Broadly, we find that Unionism emerges from its involvement with Brexit weakened, perhaps terminally, where Nationalism emerges, on balance, with its relative position strengthened.

This does not mean, however, that Irish unity is an inevitable outcome of the Brexit imbroglio, particularly given the rise of the ‘neithers’, whose stake in the constitutional conflict in and about Northern Ireland is more ambiguous. We also conclude that the UK government approach on Brexit has acted to undermine the integrity of the Union, but that the approach taken by the Irish government is not necessarily acting to accelerate Irish unity.

There is no doubt that Brexit has fundamentally changed the political and constitutional calculus in Northern Ireland. The path to constitutional change, however, is uncertain and unclear. A range of possible constitutional futures currently co-exist, and it remains to be seen which of them will eventually enter into being.

Dr. Mary C. Murphy holds a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration and is a senior lecturer in politics with the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork.

Dr. Jonathan Evershed is a Newman Fellow in Constitutional Futures at the Institute for British-Irish Studies, University College Dublin.

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