An Unlikely Threat to the Western Alliance

A worsening crisis in Northern Ireland carries far greater costs than simply domestic political fallout.

The phrase "No Irish Seaborder" is written on a wall.
Charles McQuillan / Getty

A simple analysis about the unfolding crisis in Northern Ireland has established itself as settled wisdom among almost all informed observers across Europe, the United States, and even Britain: It’s all London’s fault.

The story is convincing. It was Britain that voted for Brexit despite warnings about the threat it posed to peace in Northern Ireland; Britain that imposed Brexit on Northern Ireland even though the people there voted to remain in the European Union; Britain that chose the hardest possible version of Brexit, one that it knew would be the most disruptive for Northern Ireland; and, finally, Britain that signed a treaty with the EU that it is now threatening to partially revoke over issues in Northern Ireland. All of these charges are true.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is publicly committed to unilaterally abandoning core parts of the 2019 Brexit deal he signed unless he can negotiate significant changes, insisting that the move is necessary because the practical impact of the agreement is undermining the fragile social, economic, and political consensus in Northern Ireland established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But with trust having collapsed between Britain and the EU over Brexit and a raft of other related issues, the EU believes that Johnson is acting in bad faith and has threatened to retaliate, up to and including scrapping the entire Brexit agreement.

And yet even if Brexit—and the specific form of Brexit that Britain has pursued since 2016—lies at the root of this crisis (which is true), it does not necessarily follow that London is wrong about the current threat to stability in Northern Ireland, or that it is wrong to try to combat this threat. It can be true both that Johnson is an untrustworthy and irresponsible leader who has made the situation worse and that the deal he signed (which he claimed was great and won an election to ratify) really does threaten the very peace settlement in Northern Ireland that it was meant to protect. What is more, if this is the case, the EU must share some responsibility for the mess, for the deal was made as much in Europe as in Britain.

The worsening rhetoric between Britain and the EU is setting the two on a course to a permanently hostile relationship, and the United States will inevitably be dragged into the mess. The crisis, in other words, risks metastasizing into an ongoing geopolitical challenge among historic Western allies in which everyone loses.

At the heart of the problem is Northern Ireland’s unique politics, which only functions based on a carefully constructed balance of power between its British-unionist and Irish-nationalist communities in which both sides must give their consent to any major changes. The former favors staying part of the United Kingdom, while the latter wants to secede and reunify with the independent Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member state. The lesson of Northern Irish history is that power is either shared between these two communities or imposed upon them in one form or another by the U.K., leading to instability and unrest. Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party, which does not identify as either unionist or nationalist and has seen its support grow in recent years, told me that this setup needs overhauling, arguing that it disenfranchises her own party and its supporters. “I don’t want my future to forever be dictated by sectarian tribes,” she said. Yet this is the system in Northern Ireland, and as of today, first with the vote for Brexit and then with the form Brexit has taken, power is being imposed, with the inevitable consequence that support for power-sharing is draining away—a threat to the very foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

For the exhausted onlooker, the obvious question is: Why is this an issue again? In 2019, after three years of crisis following the Brexit referendum, the U.K. and the EU finally agreed on a divorce package. A central part of the deal was something called the Northern Ireland protocol, which on its face was supposed to protect the peace settlement that has held since the Good Friday Agreement. That peace agreement, now more than 20 years old, kept Northern Ireland in the U.K. but established power-sharing between its unionist and nationalist communities, paving the way for the Irish Republican Army to give up its war against the British state, which in turn allowed the British state to remove most of its military and security infrastructure from Northern Ireland.

The protocol ensured that even though Northern Ireland would leave the EU with the rest of the United Kingdom, there would be no need for a return to any kind of “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, which nationalists feared would disrupt their ability to move and trade freely across the frontier. The problem is that the protocol did this by moving the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. instead, which to many unionists disrupts their ability to trade easily within their own country.

To Johnson’s critics, this is the inevitable consequence of Britain’s own policies: first to leave the EU’s single market and customs union (rather than to pursue a “soft” Brexit) and second to promise that no border infrastructure would be erected anywhere on the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Because Brexit necessarily means borders where once there were none, this meant that the only other place where required checks on goods could be carried out was between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. In this telling, the latest crisis over Northern Ireland is just another example of Johnson’s “cakeism,” in which he tries to have it all ways, avoiding the consequences of the choices he has made. And there is much truth in this.

Close inspection of what Johnson is actually asking for, however, reveals something less radical. He is seeking not to reopen the fundamental question of where the new border is placed but to reduce the scale of its impact, to make it palatable to Northern Irish unionists. The specific ways in which he proposes doing this may be unreasonable or go too far in the minds of his opponents, but they are not as significant a proposition as they might first appear. Johnson is threatening not to suspend the Brexit agreement if he doesn’t get his way, but to use an emergency provision within it that was specifically included in case there were “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” or a “diversion of trade” as a result of Brexit’s implementation. The British government argues that this bar has clearly been met.

Understanding the risks of inaction, or even insufficient action, is also crucial. Since the Brexit agreement was reached, Northern Ireland’s unionist representatives have all opposed the deal. To assuage their concerns, the British government has sought to limit the border’s practical impact, unilaterally extending grace periods for businesses and the like (something initially opposed by the EU). Yet this has not proved enough.

Today, unionist parties—one-half of Northern Ireland’s delicate political balance—all reject the protocol, even in its half-administered form. According to prominent figures within Northern Irish unionism whom I spoke with, unless significant changes can be agreed on within the next few weeks, power-sharing is likely to collapse.

With elections for Northern Ireland’s assembly due in May, political shifts in unionism and nationalism suggest that power-sharing would not easily be resurrected. Within unionism, if the protocol is not significantly amended, the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, believes that it would have no choice but to leave government or risk losing support to a rival, and much more hard-line-unionist, party that opposes the Good Friday Agreement. That would almost guarantee that the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin—for so long the political wing of the IRA—would win elections for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history. Such a result would further destabilize and radicalize unionism, making the resurrection of power-sharing even harder.

“We will be in this perpetual cycle,” Doug Beattie, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and which has historically been the most moderate of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties, told me. “Everything we’ve gained … could be lost in the blink of an eye.”

Loyalists holding the Union Jack walk down a street.
Unionist supporters take part in a protest against the Northern Ireland protocol (Charles McQuillan / Getty)

In one sense, why should anyone outside Britain or Ireland care about a political breakdown of this nature? Northern Ireland is about the size of Connecticut, but with half of the population and nowhere near the wealth. It has no significant natural resources or strategic economic interests. In almost every way, it is irrelevant to the core interests of Europe’s great powers and certainly to the U.S., even if there are obvious moral and political reasons to resolve the dispute.

And yet the internal political dynamics of this small bit of the U.K. now threaten to grow into the most serious long-term political crisis within the Western alliance. The EU and what was its second-largest economy are on the road to an ever more fractious relationship, bedeviled by distrust and animosity, that risks descending into an all-out trade war that could undermine core diplomatic and security cooperation.

Both the U.K. and the EU have long known this but ignored the warnings, believing that whatever deal they thrashed out could be imposed on Northern Ireland without the consent of both sides of the political-sectarian divide there. This is essentially the position still taken by the EU, Ireland, and parts of the U.S. establishment, which have concluded that Johnson’s government—if it wished—could back down in its demands and reach a compromise with the EU broadly along the lines already agreed upon, and Northern Ireland’s unionists would, in the end, have to swallow it.

A more nuanced argument made by some Irish nationalists I spoke with, as well as opponents of Brexit in the U.K., the EU, and beyond, is that the tension we are now seeing was an inevitable consequence of Brexit. Matthew O’Toole, an Irish-nationalist member of the Northern Ireland assembly who supports the protocol, told me that the only long-term solution is a stabilized relationship between Britain and the EU, which, in his view, London is deliberately avoiding with its antagonistic stance toward the EU and its member states—principally France—on a number of issues.

This analysis is clearly true insofar as Northern Ireland’s future does rely on a stable relationship between the U.K. and the EU, but it implicitly assumes that the tension is all the fault of Johnson. More fundamentally, though, the analysis also works in reverse. The relationship between the U.K. and the EU cannot be stabilized until the situation in Northern Ireland is resolved. And right now it is far from resolved. Northern Ireland today is a rot in the heart of the Western alliance that is being left untreated.

Both the U.K. and the EU believe that they have learned lessons from the past few years of Brexit negotiations, but in reality, both are repeating mistakes that led to this situation in the first place—imposing deadlines, marking red lines, threatening maximalist retaliation.

The conclusion London has drawn is that the only way to get the EU to move is to ramp up the pressure. “The lesson is, you have to be tough, tough, tough,” one senior U.K. official close to Johnson told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the negotiations. In return, the EU has decided that it cannot afford to give the impression of weakness over Northern Ireland, partly in case that encourages further moves against the bloc’s sovereignty from within the EU itself, especially given ongoing disputes with Poland and Hungary about the extent of EU power over member states. Yet, according to those in 10 Downing Street, this has only had the equal and opposite effect in Britain—confirming the need to be independent of such calculations in Brussels. And so the merry-go-round continues.

The truth is that the EU simply does not trust Johnson—and for this Johnson must take some of the blame. In London, though, Johnson’s most senior advisers are deeply frustrated that the EU does not seem to understand the scale of the crisis potentially coming unless a consensus can be reached over how to manage the border. For the U.K., which already has an ongoing security threat to deal with in Northern Ireland, maintaining stability within its territory has become a “first order matter of state,” more important than any kind of crisis in relations with Washington, according to two senior figures close to Johnson who asked for anonymity to discuss government strategy.

From 10 Downing Street’s perspective, Britain has taken a major political hit to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to protect Ireland’s place in the EU’s single market. As a result, it needs far more help to limit the scale of the internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Too often, officials close to Johnson feel, the situation is dismissed by the EU as something being used simply to score political points, when, according to those familiar with Johnson’s thoughts on the matter, he has become the most hard-line of all on the issue, seeing it as a question of territorial integrity and internal stability.

The ultimate risk is that either a deal is made that does not go far enough to stop the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and the feared spiral of disorder or a deal cannot be reached and the work of the past five years negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is undone, meaning, in time, the return of a border in Ireland, which would present just as much of a challenge to the peace settlement as the political crisis being faced today.

The EU and much of conventional wisdom argue that any move by Johnson to undo the Northern Ireland protocol will lead to such an outcome over time, creating momentum that will inevitably destabilize Northern Ireland’s and Britain’s relationship with the EU. Yet this analysis fails to acknowledge that the status quo—which many have been defending until recently—is itself now a destabilizing factor.

After five years, then, we are back to square one, with each side effectively declaring that no deal is apparently better than a bad deal. This would represent a total failure of politics—one that would damage not only Northern Ireland but Britain and Europe as well, and so, by extension, the Western alliance more broadly. A plague on all your houses.