Irish question returns to haunt Brexit

By Heiko Khoo
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, December 8, 2017
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Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom [Photo/Xinhua]

Ever since Britain's Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority in the June 8 general election, Theresa May's government has clung to office through a deal with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by Arlene Foster. 

Now, the internal conflicts and contradictions of this deal have come home to roost. The DUP has become the main obstacle to progress in Brexit negotiations with the EU, as it wants a de-facto veto over issues affecting Northern Ireland. 

Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom, while the Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU. During the Brexit referendum, the DUP campaigned to leave, but the Northern Ireland electorate voted by a margin of 55.8 percent to 44.2 percent to remain.  

As a consequence, changes to laws, customs regulations, citizenship rights, and the border regime, will inevitably reignite conflict. Irish republicans led by Sinn Fein want a united Ireland, while Unionists seek to keep Northern Ireland part of Britain. 

Both these objectives are also closely intertwined with religious identity. Most Catholics are republicans, and oppose any change that erects new divisions between North and South. However, Unionists are overwhelmingly Protestant and staunchly loyal to Britain. 

As part of their deal to prop up the May government, the DUP secured a promise of billions of pounds of investment, hoping this would anchor the party's power base long into the future.  

However, the DUP will never accept concessions to the EU that will decouple Northern Ireland's fate from Britain, or that might bind the North to the fate of Southern Ireland. Thus, on Dec. 4, the DUP rejected proposals that EU law should continue to apply to Northern Ireland after Brexit. Consequently, negotiations between Britain and the EU broke down. 

The historical background to all this is long and bitter. Britain occupied, plundered, and starved the people of Ireland for centuries. When a revolutionary uprising took place in 1916 it was repressed. Following this, the Anglo-Irish war of Independence from 1919-1921 resulted in partition. The North remained part of Britain and the South became an independent republic. 

After 1969, the conflict took the form of overt armed struggle. This was sparked by a battle to defend the rights of the Catholic minority living in the North. The Catholic community suffered from systematic discrimination at the hands of the Unionist administration, the local police, unionist paramilitaries, the British government and the British army. 

Peace only came in 1998, when the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) established a power-sharing deal involving the eight main political parties in the North – both Republican and Unionist. The British and Irish government also endorsed the deal.

The Agreement brought an end to sectarian and paramilitary violence, and reduced tensions between communities. The hard border between the North and South of Ireland disappeared. The conflicts and battles of the past seemed relegated to the history books.  

The economy of the Irish republic boomed in the early years of this century. And Northern Ireland received a big injection of European funds. Indeed, from 2000-2014 Northern Ireland received an average annual subsidy of 153 million Euros from major EU funding programs. This was bigger than that given to any other region in Britain. 

In the global financial crisis, the Republic of Ireland was one of the hardest hit countries in the EU. The economy crashed, and house prices collapsed. Nevertheless, the people in the North still voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. This reflects a feeling amongst the majority there that peaceful relations between the communities, and between the North and South are beneficial to all. 

Nevertheless, what shapes Irish, British and EU politics, is not what is good for the people, but what serves the interests of those with wealth and power. Under the power-sharing deal enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, the regional government has responsibility for education, transport, policing, justice, agriculture, economic policy, and a wide range of other issues. 

However, in January this year, a scandal over the funding of renewable energy schemes – for which the DUP leader Arlene Foster was personally responsible – led to the breakdown of its power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein. When new elections were held in March 2017, the Unionist camp lost its majority for the first time since 1921. And after this, it has proven impossible to reconstitute the old arrangement. 

When Theresa May called a General Election in June, she suffered a humiliating setback at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, which did much better than expected. It was this that led to the Conservative-DUP deal. However, this deal has undermined the spirit, and probably the letter, of the Belfast Agreement, as the British government is supposed to adopt an entirely neutral stance on questions that concern Northern Ireland. 

How can the Westminster government behave in a neutral manner in relation to the Irish republicans, now that the DUP has shown it can hold Theresa May to ransom? The problem is escalating, and there's a real risk the Brexit negotiations could set off a chain reaction eventually reigniting armed conflict. 

Heiko Khoo is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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