Brexit, borders and division in Ireland

By Ernest Walker

In 1998 the electorate in Northern Ireland voted on whether to accept the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which they did on a majority of 72%. Whilst the Catholic nationalist community voted heavily in favour their enthusiasm was not shared by the Protestant unionist community where those voting in favour was just over 50%. In a recent article published in the Belfast based Irish News one of its regular columnists, Alex Kane, revealed that in the elections held for the Stormont Assembly later that year unionist parties that were opposed to the GFA, led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), received more votes than those unionist parties who were in favour. He also made the point that within the ranks of the pro-GFA Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were elements who were actually opposed to the Argeement. In other words political unionism had a problem.

Quite naturally some commentators believed that the referendum result spelt the end for Ian Paisley and the DUP. However, over time, the DUP became the biggest unionist party, so were they the real reflection of the unionist/loyalist attitude to the GFA? The UUP and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) whose respective leaders, David Trimble and John Hume, were two of the main architects of the GFA saw support for their parties decline, leading the DUP and Sinn Féin to become the biggest parties in the assembly.

The small pro-GFA Progressive Unionist Party which had the potential of a left voice within unionist politics declined after the untimely death of its charismatic leader, David Ervine, and has since shed its left wing image. Although it played an important part in the formation of the GFA, particularly the inclusion of victim’s rights, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which also challenging the sectarianism and sexist politics of traditional parties, lost out too.

In 2007 Ian Paisley became First Minister alongside Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuiness as his Deputy. Such was their relationship that they earned the nickname “The Chuckle Brothers”. However, in 2008 Paisley was removed unceremoniously from the leadership of the party he founded. His successor was Peter Robinson who had been seen as very close to Paisley but his removal was less than amicable. This led to bad feeling from the Paisley family towards those, including Robinson, who were responsible.


Whilst the GFA saw the decline of political violence of the ‘Troubles’, sectarianism and division still exist. In the 2016 EU referendum Leave was supported by many in the unionist/loyalist community following the line of the DUP - the UUP supported Remain. On the opposite side many nationalists supported the Irish nationalist pro-EU line. It is worth pointing out that Sinn Féin had opposed Ireland’s membership application in 1973 and had voiced opposition over the years especially in the eight EU related referendums that have taken place in the Republic.

In 2005 Gerry Adams wrote on the question of the EU becoming a superpower, “This, of course, is the polar opposite of the democratic and anti-imperial outlook of Irish republicanism, as well as democrats and progressive people all over Europe.” (1) He described it as a “rich man’s club led in the main by the former colonial powers”. He also made the point that EU integration would see the undermining of workers’ rights and labour standards, a sentiment echoed at the same time by Mary Lou McDonald, now President of Sinn Féin. Earlier this year she commented that a united Ireland would see the realisation of the ideals of Pearse and Connolly ignoring the fact that what is now the European Union was set up to combat the ideals of Pearse and especially Connolly. Sinn Féin, like all republicans, cherish the ideas set out in the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, but they should revisit it and read the part which proclaimed, “The Irish Republic as a sovereign independent state” declaring “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasible”.

In January this year Michelle O’Neill, Vice President of Sinn Féin and Deputy First Minister in the Stormont assembly wrote in the Irish News, “Independence can be achieved through the mechanism of the Good Friday Agreement. This means looking beyond Brexit and beyond the union to a new Ireland with the whole island back in the EU through a referendum on Irish unity”. Sinn Féin claims to have a policy of “critical engagement” with the EU but as one critic pointed out, “while there seems to be plenty of engagement, there is not much evidence of criticism”. They also call for a reformed and democratised EU, however, they are deluding themselves and the Irish people if they think that can happen. On the other side, of course, we have the problems of the Northern Ireland Protocol which equally divides the two communities. Unionists see it as breaching the GFA claiming that it is a constitutional issue as there is a border down the Irish sea and, unlike the rest to the UK, the North is within the orbit of the EU. As you would expect nationalists have no problem with the protocol as they see it as a stepping stone to a united Ireland. The Alliance Party and the Greens, both of which do not designate themselves as unionist or nationalist, have no problem with it as they are pro-EU anyway.

A legal challenge by unionists claiming that the protocol breached not only the GFA but the 1800 Act of Union was dismissed by the High Court in Belfast but could be subject to an appeal. It has to be said that their chances of overturning the protocol are slim. Another sticking point is the issue of an Irish Language Act which unionists see as a threat to their perceived “Britishness”. This is where sectarianism starts to kick in as, in other parts of the UK which they so want to be a part of, there are several other Gaelic languages spoken. An Irish Language Act is no more of a threat to their Britishness than Brexit is a threat to the GFA as the pro-EU crowd are constantly telling us. Indeed, in loyalist east Belfast Irish language classes are flourishing. Westminster has threatened to legislate for an Act if Stormont does not. However, they legislated on abortion but those services are still to be implemented.


The issue of a border poll could be the subject of an article on its own as there are differences amongst its advocates as to when one should be held and it is not the straightforward issue some would have you believe. I would quote the comments of Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, who said that whilst he desires a united Ireland he also desires an Ireland united. As regards the recent turmoil in the DUP some commentators are predicting its demise, although that may be a case of wishful thinking. Some thought that would happen in 1998 and it did not. I am not sure it could happen now. Meanwhile we have the longest waiting lists in the NHS in the UK. We have more and more people using food banks and the fact that many working class people live in housing estates that are all-Protestant or all-Catholic areas does not help to break down sectarianism. That is just part of the problem and is the legacy of decades of unionist misrule.

We got through the major commemoration in the unionist calendar on the 12th July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, relatively unscathed as the number of parades, especially the main one, were curtailed by the pandemic. The issue of the bonfires came up again over the period with unionist/loyalists claiming that the opposition to bonfires was an attack on their culture. After one bonfire collapsed when it was lit, and another built using 17,000 pallets also collapsed, this led to calls that regulations on size, siting and safety be brought in. More so when a 17-year-old youth holding a can of petrol which he intended to use to light the bonfire was engulfed in flames. What to many people would seem a sensible thing to do was met with derision from some quarters of unionism/loyalism but when it comes to Northern Ireland as someone said “that’s life”.

The British Government with its announcement of what is tantamount to an amnesty for those responsible for killings during the “Troubles”, whether British Army or paramilitaries, has managed to unite, albeit from different angles, both sides of the community in their condemnation. Of course, the main aim of the Tories is to get the British soldiers off the hook. This is where working class organisations in Britain can help by condemning the government and demanding it withdraw this action, as difficult as that may be, so that justice can take its true course.

(1) Gerry Adams, The New Ireland: A vision for the Future. (2005)

Sinn Féin leaders, including Michelle O’Neill, (front second from right) oppose Brexit photo by Sinn Féin