Recent UK Governments are consistently not fulfilling their ‘rigorous impartiality’ role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

In the Good Friday Peace Agreement (1998) the UK Government pledged to operate with ‘rigorous impartiality on behalf of all people’ in Northern Ireland. The Government’s own political interests with Brexit is the latest sign they are not fulfilling this pledge.  

What has Brexit got to do with current disorder in Northern Ireland?

The disorder has multiple causes. These include: a sense of disadvantage in British Protestant Loyalist communities with the peace process; and Ulster Unionist anger at the decision not to prosecute Irish Republican leaders for attending a large republican funeral during lockdown restrictions in June 2020. Nevertheless, the UK Government’s handling of Brexit adds a further element of contention.

In 2016’s EU referendum, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP - Northern Ireland’s largest British Unionist party) supported Brexit. In contrast, most of Northern Ireland’s people voted remain (55.8 per cent). Yet in June 2017, Theresa May’s Conservatives created a confidence and supply deal with the DUP to keep the Conservatives in power. This arrangement overlooked how the UK Government is supposed to provide ‘rigorous impartiality’ in Northern Ireland’s political affairs.  

The DUP eventually disagreed with May’s Brexit plans; as did Boris Johnson. In November 2018, he told the DUP he would not let Northern Ireland become an ‘economic semi-colony of the EU’ with trade borders in the Irish sea. But the DUP believe Johnson has allowed this to happen. The EU stood firm on maintaining a frictionless Irish border. Opinion polls such as YouGov in 2019 also showed Conservative Party members at 59 per cent, saying they would rather Brexit takes place even if Northern Ireland had to unify with the Republic. These factors can help explain why Johnson changed his mind. Ulster Unionists and Loyalists saw Johnson’s Brexit deal as a ‘betrayal’ and an ‘economic united Ireland’.

I grew-up in a vote leave and Conservative constituency in England. For this reason, I am familiar with the view of many Conservative voters living there that Brexit was the priority, not Northern Ireland. To deliver Brexit and a Westminster majority, the Conservatives simply responded to what leave voters in England and Wales wanted. The question is: was this approach to Brexit showing ‘rigorous impartiality’ towards the different communities in Northern Ireland? The political parties in Northern Ireland certainly do not think so.

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From a historical perspective, this UK Government is not the first to be viewed as partisan in Northern Ireland even by Ulster Unionism. In 1985, Unionists organised mass protests following the UK and Irish Governments’ Anglo-Irish Agreement. They believed Margaret Thatcher was permitting Irish Government influence over Northern Irish affairs without Unionist consent.

Irish Republicans have always viewed the UK Government’s role in Ireland as partisan. Examples include disagreements over whether the Irish Republican Army (IRA) should relinquish its weapons before or during peace talks in the 1990s. The IRA temporarily broke its ceasefire between 1996 and 1997. They perceived John Major’s demand for some IRA weapons to be handed over before peace talks as partisan. Republicans believed it was a policy influenced by Conservative reliance on Ulster Unionist Party votes in Westminster at the time.

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We do not have to go far back in history (and we certainly could) to demonstrate how the UK Government’s perceived or actual partisan approaches contribute to political instability on the island of Ireland. The UK Governments’ decision to first work with and later abandon the DUP from 2017 is not the first (and nor likely the last) impartial act.

In fairness, some UK Government ministers have assisted the peace process during Brexit. Julian Smith MP was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between July 2019 and February 2020. His efforts with all parties helped power-sharing return after a three-year absence. His reward was to be sacked in February 2020. Internal disagreements within the UK Government were at work. Smith was unusually well regarded by many Irish Nationalist and Unionist parties. His sacking further indicates Westminster politics taking priority.

What are the implications for Northern Ireland following recent events?

My book supports the view that an armed and political stalemate led to a political compromise between major parties in Northern Ireland from 1998. The stalemate situation persists. For this and other reasons, widespread violence returning is therefore unlikely.  

Ulster Unionists, however, will have to rely on themselves, politically and strategically. Their current vision for Unionism related to Brexit and other matters is not shared by this UK Government.

The BrexitLawNI Policy Report (2018) and some Unionists recognise how at primary school level there is a potential Irish Nationalist majority. In the last Northern Ireland Assembly election in March 2017, the Unionist majority was lost. Northern Ireland’s place in the UK relies on Unionists offering an alternative to Irish unity to appeal to everyone there.

Here in Wales, Welsh Labour’s Mark Drakeford suggests a new framework for the UK is needed. Factors including the UK Government’s coronavirus approach, Westminster’s socio-economic policy differences to Cardiff Bay, and UK Government interactions (or lack thereof) with Welsh and Scottish leaders influenced his thinking.

Drakeford seems to envisage a voluntary union. His call for a new unionist vision further demonstrates the UK Government not facilitating an equal union of nations in the eyes of all pro-UK parties. For many unionists in Northern Ireland and Wales, the current UK Government is not perceived as providing ‘rigorous impartiality’ to maintain the UK. Instead, the UK Government focuses on its own priorities first.   

Dr Thomas Leahy is senior lecturer in British and Irish Politics/Contemporary History at Cardiff University. His book ‘The Intelligence War Against the IRA’ is out now with Cambridge University Press.