Europe Analysis

Analysis: Brexit & Northern Ireland

  • Share:

Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images 

In April the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in the Northern Irish city of Derry (Londonderry) provided a grisly reminder of what is at stake in the United Kingdom’s exit negotiations with the European Union. Tactics Institute for Security and Counter Terrorism looks at the situation in Ireland and considers the security and counter terrorism implications of the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU.

Lyra McKee, 29-year-old journalist, was shot in the head while reporting on a riot on Derry’s Creggan estate. The New IRA, an collective of armed groups who oppose the peace process, claimed responsibility for the murder and offered an apology to Ms McKee’s family. In the weeks that followed Ms McKee’s murder, threats, in the form of graffiti, to “execute” the people helping with the police investigation into the murder were sprayed in Creggan. The message “Informers will be executed” was painted along the wall of a local community centre, and posters of rats were attached to speed signs.

On the whole, though, the vast majority of commentators and members of the public took McKee’s murder to be a warning about the price that is paid by ordinary people when uncertainty and insecurity fester in Northern Ireland and along its border.


The 1998 peace agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement, was reached after three decades of violence known as the troubles which saw the loss of over 3,500 lives. The conflict was, ostensibly at least, about sects of Christianity. Catholics were broadly republican and wanted Northern Ireland to return to being part of the Irish republic. Protestants were broadly loyalist, wanting to remain in the United Kingdom, ruled from London.
Since 1998 there has existed an open border along the Republic/Northern Ireland border. After decades of checkpoints, fear and harassment the openness has been something to cherish. And it has largely worked.

As both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were EU members, the two countries shared a customs union, treaties and the minutiae of shared membership of a comprehensive and remotely administered union. But, the Irish border is the UK’s only land border with the EU, so the democratic decision of the UK population to leave the EU has created great uncertainty and memories of the violence, both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland, are still fresh for many people.


Politically, the situation is complicated by the fact that, following the Brexit vote in 2016, there was a general election in 2017. The ruling Conservative party, who secured a modest majority in the 2015 election, hoped to score a huge majority by calling an early election for June 2017. To the surprise of every political commentator in the country, the Conservatives failed to win and were forced to form a minority government propped up by the right-wing Northern Irish party the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose 10 MPs meant that prime minister Theresa May could pass some legislation. In return, the DUP secured a £1 billion deal from the Conservative government for Northern Ireland.

Ideologically, the Conservatives, currently seeking to avoid another general election, which might return the Labour party to power, are deeply committed to the Union. The official name of the party is the Conservative and Unionist party, and its membership and politicians generally abhor the idea of any reduction in the size of the union, which is a matter of wealth and prestige.

The Future

In the context of peace and politics, the current ‘soft’ Northern Irish border is preferred by nearly everybody. The border mainly runs through fields and involves no disruption in people’s movement. In 2017 the UK and EU agreed that a so-called backstop is needed to ensure cross-border cooperation, maintain the all-island of Ireland economy and preserve the Good Friday Agreement.

The EU wanted Northern Ireland (without the rest of the UK: England, Scotland and Wales, collectively Britain) to stay in the customs union, much of the single market and the EU VAT system. For the UK government this suggestion was hugely problematic as it would place an EU border in the Irish sea, unify Ireland economically and separate the North from Britain, which would undermine the union.

The backstop could not get through the House of Commons, which leaves open the possibility of the Republic and Northern Ireland being in different economic systems in which goods are checked at the border as per EU regulations. The UK needs to agree a comprehensive withdrawal deal with the EU otherwise the Irish dilemma could become a flashpoint.

In London, the ruling Conservatives, despite being unionists, also want to leave the EU customs union and single market. Northern Ireland is left in the middle, with the added complication of the Tories still relying on the DUP to prevent the paralysis of parliament and the collapse of the minority government. Currently, with the UK failing to find a way forward with Brexit, nobody is completely dissatisfied. But nobody is satisfied either, and a misstep could lead to security and terrorist alarm in the UK once again, in Ireland and in Britain.