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Beyond Economics: How the Northern Ireland Protocol affects the ‘Irish Question’

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union has inadvertently put the question of Irish (re)unification back on the table, 100 years after the island was partitioned. In this blog Orlaith Rice explores how the Northern Ireland Protocol's impact goes beyond economics and affects the 'Irish question' from a political and symbolic perspective.

Written by Orlaith RicePhD Candidate at the Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin, Ireland.

This blog is part of a policy report called "NEXTEUK – EU and UK Relations: Where will we be in 2031?".

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The United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to leave the European Union (EU) has inadvertently put the question of Irish (re)unification back on the table, 100 years after the island was partitioned (Teague, 2021). The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (NI Protocol) de facto keeps Northern Ireland (NI) in the EU single market (Connolly and Doyle, 2021). Trade between NI and the rest of Ireland currently adheres to EU regulations. When the grace period (which has been continuously extended by the UK) expires, some goods coming from Great Britain will be subject to checks and tariffs upon entry to NI (Teague, 2021). Thus, the NI protocol effectively creates a customs border in the Irish sea. Unionists in NI strongly oppose this as they argue it further separates NI, economically and symbolically, from the UK mainland (Connolly and Doyle, 2019). However, the Protocol is in place to avoid a return to a ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland between North and South. Such a border would infringe the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The GFA heralded a tenuous peace in NI, after decades of sectarian violence (the Troubles) between Nationalists, who identify as Irish, and Unionists, who identify as British. The peace process is ongoing and fragile, and any departure from the GFA would raise legitimate concerns about NI governance and a potential resurgence of paramilitary activity. The legacy of the Troubles is still being reckoned with. Several prosecutions against British soldiers for killings during the Troubles have collapsed and/or been appealed as recently as last year (Kearney, 2021). Furthermore, in December 2021, the UK government settled claims of State collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the 1975 Miami Showband massacre for £1.5 million in damages to survivors and relatives of the victims (O’Carroll, 2021). This paper will provide a brief overview of the political history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, to contextualise the emergence of reunification question engendered by Brexit

By all accounts, it appeared as though Westminster forgot about NI and the GFA during the Leave campaign (Hayward and Murphy, 2018). There was little mention of how Brexit could potentially damage the NI peace process or its economy (Teague, 2021). However, NI emerged as a key issue in later withdrawal negotiations. Recently, the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in resolving potential conflicts between the EU and the UK was a key sticking point in Protocol talks (Euronews, 2021), although the latest reports at the time of writing suggest that the UK have dropped this demand (Staunton, 2021). The GFA limits the UK’s sovereignty in NI (Murray and Rice, 2021). The US were heavily involved in the peace process during the 1990s and the Biden administration has stated that a UK-US trade deal post-Brexit is contingent on the UK upholding the terms of the GFA (Connolly and Doyle, 2021). With Ireland still in the EU and seeking to avoid a hard border, it has backing from the EU27, support that appeared to take the UK by surprise. Although the Protocol hinges on purely economic issues, it is inextricably linked to NI’s unique political and constitutional context (Murray and Rice, 2021).

The distinctiveness of Ireland’s politics both North and South has led to this unique situation. Political parties in the South of Ireland do not conform to traditional left-right cleavages as seen across Western democracies. Rather, the two largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, originated from historical civil war divisions. War erupted after the signing of the so-called Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which created the Irish Free State (later Ireland), but which left 6 counties (NI) part of the UK. 2020 saw Fianna Fáil (anti-Treaty) and Fine Gael (pro-Treaty) form a formal coalition government for the first time (the Journal, 2020). Sinn Féin is an all-island political party dedicated to Irish Unity (Sinn Féin, 2021). They have historically been linked to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a republican paramilitary organization active during the Troubles. However, in recent years, Sinn Féin have sought to distance themselves from this violent association and legitimize their image as a mainstream left-wing party. Although Sinn Féin campaigned against Brexit in NI (Evershed and Murphy, 2021), the result of the referendum provides them with an unprecedented occasion to advance their agenda of a United Ireland, echoing long-established Republican rhetoric, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” (Evershed and Murphy, 2021: 6). 

The next Northern Ireland Assembly election is fast approaching and will be held in May 2022. If Sinn Féin retain their current level of public support, they could win the position of First Minister in NI for the first time, which would be “a symbolic shift” (Connolly and Doyle, 2021: 9). In the South, 2020 saw Sinn Féin win the highest share of first preference votes for the first time in an Irish General Election, winning just one seat less than the largest party, Fianna Fáil (Evershed and Murphy, 2021). Sinn Féin currently leads the opposition. Their success in the Republic has happened despite Brexit, and rests instead on the failings of government to address housing and health crises (Evershed and Murphy, 2021). Nonetheless, it is not unrealistic to expect Sinn Féin to form part of a coalition government in the next general election, in or before 2025. The GFA provides that NI may rejoin the rest of Ireland if this reflects the will of the majority, the so-called “border poll”. If Sinn Féin gain executive power in Ireland in the coming years, a border poll appears inevitable, even if the potential result of it does not. 

In 2017, the European Council agreed that in the event of Irish (re)unification, NI would automatically rejoin the EU (Murphy, 2019). As the electorate in NI voted to remain within the EU in 2016 (Harvey, 2020), the appeal of EU membership is likely to have increased support for Irish unity among a cohort who may not have previously been ideologically invested in a United Ireland. For example, since the Brexit referendum, there has been an increase in people born in Northern Ireland applying for Irish (EU) passports. The GFA confirmed that people born in NI are entitled to dual Irish and British citizenship (Hayward and Murphy, 2018). In 2015, 39% of all first-time adult passport applications in Ireland were from people born in NI or the UK, whereas it was 78% in 2019 and has remained over 70% ever since (Carswell, 2021).

As the EU member state most directly affected by Brexit, Ireland’s relationship with the EU, NI and the UK more generally has changed dramatically since 2016 (Murphy, 2019). The Protocol negotiations are playing out against the backdrop of the Irish government’s ‘decade of centenaries’, commemorating the struggle for Irish freedom and the foundation of the state. With the recent commemoration of the centenary of the signing of the bitterly divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty, an agreement that solidified the partition of the island and led to civil war, the political tensions surrounding the Protocol are particularly salient. Irish President Michael D. Higgins recently declined an invitation to a church service in Northern Ireland marking the centenary of Northern Ireland, a decision which sparked controversy, particularly as Queen Elizabeth had been due to attend, but later cancelled due to illness (BBC News, 2021).

A United Ireland would open a Pandora’s box of constitutional, political and economic questions for Ireland, as well as posing a significant challenge to the constitutional integrity of the UK. This renewed debate on Irish reunification may not have emerged at all in the absence of Brexit (Hayward and Murphy, 2018). By 2030, it will be possible to fully reflect on the consequences of the final outcome of the NI Protocol negotiations. It is also entirely possible that the EU, the UK and Ireland will be dealing with the ramifications of a referendum result on the reunification of the island of Ireland, which would further alter EU-UK relations.



BBC News (2021) ‘NI100: Michael D Higgins defends decision not to attend centenary event’ (17 September) available at: [Accessed 27th October 2021].

Carswell, S. (2021) ‘Post-Brexit demand for Irish passports falls due to Covid-19’, The Irish Times, (2 August) available at: demand-for-irish-passports-falls-due-to-covid-19-1.4617376 [Accessed 13 August 2021]. 

Connolly, E. & Doyle, J. (2019) ‘Brexit and the changing international and domestic perspectives of sovereignty over Northern Ireland’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 30, pp. 217-233. Available at: 

Connolly, E. & Doyle, J. (2021) ‘Brexit and the Northern Ireland Peace Process’ (March 30) DCU Brexit Institute Working Paper Series No 11/2021. Available at [Accessed 13August 2021]. 

Euronews (2021) ‘Brexit: UK reiterates demand to end ECJ role ahead of latest talks over Northern Ireland Protocol’ (26 October) available at: [Accessed 27 October 2021].

Evershed, J. & Murphy, M. C. (2021) ‘An bhfuil ár lá tagtha? Sinn Féin, special status and the politics of Brexit’, British Journal of Politics & International Relations, pp. 1-16. Available at: 

Harvey, C. (2020) Designing a Special Arrangement for Northern Ireland: the Irish Protocol in context (1 May). Brexit Institute Working Paper Series - No 6/2020, Available at: or 

Hayward, K. & Murphy, M. C. (2018) ‘The EU's influence on the peace process and agreement in Northern Ireland in light of Brexit’, Ethnopolitics, 17(3), pp. 276-291. Available at:  

Kearney, V. (2021) ‘Bloody Sunday 1972: ‘Soldier F’ Will Not Stand Trial’, RTÉ News, (2 July) Available at: prosecutions/ [Accessed 12 August 2021].  

Murphy, M. C. (2019) ‘The Brexit crisis, Ireland and British–Irish relations: Europeanisation and/or de-Europeanisation?’, Irish Political Studies, 34(4), pp.530-550. Available at: 

Murray, C. R. G. & Rice, C. A. G. (2021) ‘Beyond trade: Implementing the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol’s human rights and equalities provisions’, Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, 72(1), pp.1-28. Available at: 

O’Carroll, L (2021) ‘Miami Showband massacre: UK government accused of ‘lies’ after £1.5m payout’ The Guardian (14 December) Available at: [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Sinn Féin (2021) Irish Unity [online]. Available at [Accessed 11 August 2021]. 

Staunton, D. (2021) ‘Britain drops demand for removal of ECJ role from NI protocol’ The Irish Times (10 December) Available at: [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Teague, P. (2021) Brexit and the political economy of Ireland: Creating a new economic settlement. London: Routledge.

The Journal (2020) ‘From 'unthinkable' to inevitable: How FF and FG learned to stop worrying and enter coalition’ (27 June) available at: [Accessed 27 October 2021].


Photo credit: Shutterstock/764025649




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