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The Brexit Trilemma and Northern Irish Unionists: A very British matter

Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler (University of Stirling)

The debate on how to address the border question in Northern Ireland is much older than Brexit. However, since the Brexit referendum, this fight over where to put a border and whether to have one has been reignited. The choices made by the British government but also by Northern Irish Unionists led to a situation where both are left with three options: closer integration with the EU, a border in the Irish Sea, or a land border in Ireland that could lead to Irish reunification. From what unravelled in Northern Ireland, the lesson to learn can be described as an endorsement for realism in political questions. The interests of all parties concerned – identity-wise but also geopolitically and economically – would have been served better.

The peace process in Northern Ireland and the European Union

There has been some debate on whether Brexit put the peace in Northern Ireland at risk or undermined the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). One of the main reasons the peace process has been reasonably successful was the de facto integration of Northern Ireland into the concept of a shared Ireland. It is less about legal integration than identity: The peace process has also been aided by the removal and the continuing absence of border infrastructure and the EU membership of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Brexit, as pursued by the current UK government and promoted by some Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, makes this impossible. But, of course, there could have been a Brexit that kept those conditions: The 2018 Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May with its “backstop”, which essentially would have left the UK in one customs union with the European Union their single market. This option was dubbed as BRINO (“Brexit in the Name only”) and rejected by the UK parliament. Boris Johnson renegotiated the Withdrawal Agreement in 2019, with a new Northern Ireland Protocol that replaced the backstop with arrangements for customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been considerable debate on the impact of the Northern Irish Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement on Northern Ireland, its communities and key actors. And with that debate, a lot of delusions and misconceptions have taken hold.

Accepting the fundamentals: Power asymmetry and (almost) one-sided dependency

It is essential to understand that the EU’s primary source of power is its economy’s strength. Any arrangement remotely endangering it – in practice or principle – was unacceptable for the EU in the first place. Pursuing a Brexit allowing the UK to diverge its regulations and have a de facto wide-open border creates a giant loophole for all intents and purposes on the EU side. For the EU, it was imperative to avoid this loophole, come what may. It is important to recognise that the European Union had more bargaining power at their disposal to pursue this goal. But there are two equally relevant points which also need to be considered: For one, it is questionable whether there would have been an appetite among the European electorates to give the UK another “extra wurst”. Second, it could have had political contagion effects and instead of deterring countries from reversing European integration provided an incentive for it in the medium and long term. Consequently, the question is not whether to have a border but where to put it?

Having to choose between a border on land or at sea, Unionists would probably prefer a land border. What has not been appreciated is that: a) the UK’s economic welfare depends on suitable trade arrangements with the EU, not vice versa and b) the UK was and still is divided on Brexit, and it’s questionable whether “no deal” would have been tolerated or durable. Also, any deal that leads to a land border or a (trade) border between Ireland and the rest of the EU member states would be intolerable to Ireland and the EU. This begs the UK government to question whether they go for “no-deal” and its potential economic and political turmoil among their voters. Besides, it is very likely that the USA would not have appreciated an outcome resulting in a land border and would have applied additional pressure on the UK. The position of the Trump and Biden presidency on the Irish border question has been remarkably consistent. In short: UK’s Brexit costs cannot be outsourced since the EU will not risk undermining its power base and has – through Ireland – a particular interest in maintaining the absence of a border between NI and Ireland and is willing to use its power to achieve this aim.

The first step is to accept the power asymmetry. EU is unwilling to keep the peace process in the UK afloat for conditions that undermine their core principles and key strength. And more importantly, they are not dependent on the UK approval – it is the UK that needs support from the EU. The key aim of the EU is to protect its core interests, and the primary interest is economics and power. A land border would be bad for the EU but still better than arrangements undermining its power. For the UK, the consequences of a land border would be significantly worse, probably intolerable, and unsustainable. You can summarise this situation as the Brexit trilemma: (1) A land border and no deal vs (2) a deal and a sea border vs (3) membership in the EU’s single market and customs union. Ireland re-joining the UK’s single market and customs union has never been considered as a realistic option for two reasons: 1) It would have created a power asymmetry between Ireland and the UK, disfavouring Ireland and 2) you could argue that escalating the conflict in Northern Ireland would have increased the chance for Irish reunification. Both points provide a solid reason to discard that option as purely theoretical.

Tough Choices

Accepting the Brexit trilemma as a given is the first and probably most crucial step for Unionists seeking to improve their situation. It is essential to consider the merits of each but also their downsides. If there must be a border, having a land border may be the most desirable outcome for committed Unionists who support Brexit, but it comes with a heavy price. More than any other option, it may reignite violence and possibly increases the prospect of reunification in the long term. For one, Brexit is seen as a significant culprit not just by the USA and EU but also substantial parts of the Northern Irish population, who favour closer alignment with the EU. Second, the economic fallout from installing land border infrastructure may increase the pull for undecided voters to re-join Ireland while increasing the incentives on the British side to support whatever helps to get rid of the problem – and reunification would be one of the options available.

Assuming that this is the worst outcome for Unionists, only two options remain: BRINO and no border or a proper Brexit but with a sea border. The former may be politically difficult, given that Brexit support among Unionists was relatively high and presumably a moral choice. But considering that Northern Irish Unionists only hold a handful of seats in the House of Commons, they would need to support whichever political party would provide that option. Essentially the situation would need to be the same as in the 2017-2019 parliament when the DUP held the balance of power by supporting Theresa May’s government. But at that time, the DUP rejected the 2018 Withdrawal Agreement that included the backstop, the closest thing to a BRINO with no border either on land or sea. Looking at the current situation in UK and Northern Ireland, it is rather unlikely that the DUP will ever again hold such leverage and use it to work towards a closer relationship with the EU’s single market and customs union.

The second option would give Northern Ireland a Brexit – essentially what lots of Unionists were voting for – but Unionists would need to live with a sea border of some sort. That does not mean that Unionists cannot propose changes. Still, they would need to recognise that any proposed change crossing or undermining even remotely the integrity of the EU’s single market and customs union is a non-starter. So, tweaks to the Northern Irish Protocol are possible, but no changes on principle. 

Substance v Image

With these options, one could argue that the Withdrawal Agreement and its Northern Ireland Protocol provides the “best parts of the options available” rather than “the best of both worlds” – a Brexit and Northern Ireland still being part of the UK. That may not feel like an acceptable outcome for Unionists, but it is the best option available. To improve the situation, Unionists would need to accept that there will be controls (a sea border) and promote measures smoothening those frictions. This would require not just an open ear in London but primarily in Brussels and Dublin. Both would need to be lobbied, and both would need to trust London and Unionists. If that does not improve, it essentially means that either the trade friction in the Irish sea remains as it is, or there will be a new land border increasing the risk of a border poll and reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Essentially Unionists would put the bits which remained to them in jeopardy.

Looking at the activities of the biggest Unionist party in Northern Ireland, their choice seems to be the latter approach: There is no significant attempt to smoothen the frictions within the de facto limitations and musings about either abolishing or substantially changing the Northern Irish Protocol, which would lead to a land border given that the wanted changes do not consider EU’s definite red lines. It may please their supporters who share the view that this trilemma essentially does not exist, but it undermines the declared goal of Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom and preserving vital interests of Unionists. As it stands, supporting those activities is the choice of image over substance – it may make you feel good and reassures you in your identity, but it is likely to have the opposite effect in the medium and long term. 

Learning from past and recent mistakes

In a nutshell, the situation in Northern Ireland is a very British one: Brexit has been looking like a slow learning process for the United Kingdom to realise that the EU has significant leverage over neighbouring countries. There are dependencies and power asymmetries that favour the European Union. Whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective. But recognising and learning to work with them is a matter of realism and good governance. Unfortunately, this recognition process did not come to pass yet, reinforcing the still existing division between Remainers and Leavers. This friction, by itself, weakens the UK and raises tensions – for example, over Scottish independence and the Northern Irish land border – and therefore amplifies the imbalance of power. To avoid this would have meant that the Brexit process would have needed to be consensual. A large majority within each constituent part would have been required to support the process and the outcome. Supporting a hard Brexit worked against building consensus both in Northern Ireland and in the UK. It is somewhat ironic that Northern Ireland is often an afterthought in British politics, subject to “othering” manifested in Dominic Cummings’ “tail wagging the dog” comment on Ireland. The conflict in Northern Ireland and how it came to pass makes it a typical example of British politics rather than an anomaly.

Keeping this in mind, Northern Irish Unionists and British politicians must learn the same lessons: 1) Recognise the interests of your key stakeholders before you make any decision. Key stakeholders are not just the ones you like, but these are the ones who have de facto a veto over all your actions affecting them. EU, Ireland, and Nationalists in Northern Ireland and Remainers in the UK are stakeholders, and their interests would have needed to be considered. 2) Realise your power levers and recognise the power base of your stakeholders. Politics is often not about good and bad – that is a matter of perspective – it is about who decides over the outcome; it is about control. If you want to rule, you need to have all relevant powers on your side; otherwise, attempting to take over control might end up somewhere where you do not want to be. The faster the UK politicians learn this lesson, the more they can improve their situation. Among those beneficiaries of a speedy learning process are British Unionists.


Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler is a PhD student at the University of Stirling with a research project on parliamentary assistants.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.

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