Brexit and the Future of Northern Ireland

Brexit and the Future of Northern Ireland

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Jonathan Stevenson, managing editor of Survival, senior fellow for U.S. defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and author of the Foreign Affairs review “The Price of Peace in Northern Ireland,” discusses Brexit and the future of Northern Ireland, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Jonathan Stevenson

Managing Editor, Survival; Senior Fellow for U.S. Defense, International Institute for Strategic Studies; Author, “The Price of Peace in Northern Ireland” 


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York. And welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Jonathan Stevenson with us today. Jonathan Stevenson is the managing editor of the journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy and senior fellow for U.S. defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he conducts research, publishes, and comments on U.S. defense, Middle East security, and counterterrorism. Mr. Stevenson was previously professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and from 2011 to 2013 he served as National Security Council director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa at the White House. He has published in journals such as Foreign Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations’ magazine Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and Survival. And during the 1990s he covered sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Ireland as a journalist for the Economist, Newsweek, the New Republic, and other publications. Mr. Stevenson is also the author of We Wrecked the Place, a book on politics and violence in Northern Ireland.

Jonathan, thanks very much for being with us today.

STEVENSON: My pleasure.

FASKIANOS: Last week there was the general election in the United Kingdom. I thought you could talk about the results of that election, what it means for Boris Johnson, Brexit, and the future for Northern Ireland.

STEVENSON: Yes. I’m planning to talk about that. And I thought a little bit beforehand I’d give a little more context about Northern Ireland’s history and politics in the light of Brexit.

So let me first move back to June 2016, when the United Kingdom electorate voted in favor of Brexit in the referendum. Since that point I think one of Brexit’s most acute sticking points has been how to deal with the disruption of the 1998 Good Friday Agreements, arrangements for Northern Ireland, which as part of the U.K. of course would no longer be in the European Union while the Republic of Ireland would remain an EU member. In the Brexit referendum, some 56 percent of Northern Irish voters favored the United Kingdom’s remaining in the EU, so I think it’s clear that Brexit threatens the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement and possibly even peace in Northern Ireland, as well as the political and territorial cohesion of the United Kingdom. And of course, last week’s U.K. election makes Brexit practically inevitable.

Northern Ireland’s EU subsidy totals about 3.5 billion euros for the 2014 to 2020 budget, or averages out to about 600 million euros a year, and that’s higher per capita than it is for any other U.K. constituent— England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland—indicating that Northern Irish residents materially have the most to lose from Brexit.

But I think Brexit’s political impact is even more substantial than its economic effect. It was the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland’s common membership in the EU that relaxed sovereign and religious tensions through shared social values, economic benefits, and soft borders under the single market, and thus helped condition and sustain the Good Friday Agreement, which of course brought substantial peace to Northern Ireland in the wake of twenty-five years of the Troubles. The agreement contemplates a permeable border between the plurality Protestant and pro-British Northern Ireland and the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland, and incorporates cross-border arrangements regulating areas such as agriculture, education, and tourism on a bi-consensual basis between the two entities, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

I think there was an informed hope that the heavy investment by all of the parties in peace and the process of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement had made peace well-nigh irreversible. But there was also solemn recognition that the deal had been made in historically propitious and extraordinarily fastidious political circumstances that needed to be preserved for the agreement to resist durable and quite ominous dissident forces.

Remember that Sinn Fein had a hard time getting all of the Provisional IRA elements to agree to the peace process. And so these residual forces included groups known as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, the latter of which perpetrated Irish Republicans’ most lethal single attack in Omagh, County Tyrone, killing twenty-eight people in a bombing on August 15, 1998. And that was four months after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. Later, dissidents from these groups formed other groups, various mergers—the Real Continuity IRA and the New IRA.

Loyalist groups also stayed quite active—that is, armed loyalist paramilitaries, as they’re called. On account of the refusal of the Provisional IRA to disarm to Unionists’ satisfaction, it took until 2005, when the IRA renounced violence and independent weapons inspectors verified that its weapons were beyond use, for Unionist parties and Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political alter ego, to agree to govern Northern Ireland under the devolved arrangements provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. So it really took seven years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Irish Republicans and Northern Irish Unionists to get together on governing the province, which I think is some indicator of how tenuous the agreement can be and has been.

The ground level cross-community situation in Northern Ireland remains flammable. Protests that erupted over the removal of the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall in December 2012 are still unresolved. Persistent disturbances during the April to August marching season, as well as the shrinkage of Protestants’ proportion of the population in Northern Ireland—it’s now about 48 percent versus 45 percent for Catholics—have reinforced this sort of reputed Protestant siege mentality. Residual terrorist activity has occurred throughout the ostensible twenty-year peace, reflecting a latent rebelliousness. During the runup to the Scottish referendum in 2014, dissident Republicans increased the frequency of their attacks, several of which were lethal. Despite the IRA’s decommissioning of its weapons, it probably would not be too hard for it to restore its arsenal.

Furthermore, there is plenty of legacy militant knowhow in the Republican as well as the loyalist community, and dissident groups have retained a military capability. Over the past decade or so they have launched periodic gun and bomb attacks on security forces, mainly police, and killed at least five. In January of this year a car bomb exploded in front of a courthouse in Derry—Londonderry to Unionists. Police suspected an IRA splinter group. More recently, economic stagnation, political stagnation as reflected in the fact that the devolved assembly has been suspended since January 2017, and the prospect of Brexit have prompted increases in violence from both Republican and loyalist groups.

Less than three weeks after the Brexit vote, Gerry Adams—he was then still Sinn Fein’s leader, as well as member—a member of the Irish Dáil, published an op-ed in the New York Times that raised deep political issues. His contention was essentially that Brexit had sabotaged the Good Friday Agreement by first and foremost prospectively reimposing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that would involve the reestablishment of security checkpoints, possibly military bases, and customs houses. These were the very things that symbolized the stark sovereign, physical, and administrative separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland, and which nationalists found so vexing. In addition, Adams noted, the evolved fluidity of goods, services, and workers would end. Also, Northern Ireland would suffer severe economic costs due to its loss of the trade advantages of the single market. And as EU funding for peace programs dried up on the Northern Irish side, cross-border cooperation would atrophy.

So Sinn Fein’s argument is that Brexit should trigger referendums on Irish unification in the North and the South because it materially undercuts a fundamental premise of the Good Friday Agreement that the Northern Ireland vote to remain reinforces, and that premise is the shared membership of the U.K. and the Irish Republic in the EU. Now, as a juridical position that may be a little unsteady. As political realism, however, it is formidable. Checkpoints, military installations, customs houses would constitute to Republicans flagrant provocations and, more pointedly, prime targets for a revived physical-force Republican movement that has neither disappeared from the Ulster landscape nor forgotten long-practiced military modus operandi.

Furthermore, Irish Republicans now enjoy historically potent political strength in Northern Ireland. In the snap election in March 2017, Sinn Fein won twenty-seven of ninety Northern Ireland assembly seats against twenty-eight for the largest Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which lost ten seats. Adams asserted that this unprecedented virtual tie was a watershed moment, indicating that—and I’m quoting now—“the notion of a perpetual Unionist majority has been demolished,” calling for a step change and an end to the status quo. In the U.K. general election last week, Sinn Fein retained its seven seats in the House of Commons while the Democratic Unionist Party lost two of its nine seats to the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party. So for the first time in history, nationalist MPs in the House of Commons outnumber Unionist ones for Northern Ireland. In addition, the Conservative Party’s overwhelming victory means that the Democratic Unionist Party’s leverage in the House of Commons, where it held the balance of power since 2017, has dwindled.

Now, one mildly salutary election result is that both Sinn Fein and the DUP—the Democratic Unionist Party—lost ground to the nonsectarian Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, which was a marginal party throughout the Troubles and even since has, I think, struggled to gain traction, although it’s I think maintained its position. Although nominally Unionist, the Alliance Party is above all pragmatic and conciliatory, and seems to have generated some energy behind restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved government, on which talks began yesterday. But Alliance is also anti-Brexit, and as pressure builds for referendums Northern Irish politics are likely to become more polarized between hard Unionism and Republicanism.

It would be nice if the respective religious communities could play a moderating role, but looking at history, the political conflict, though often simplified as a Catholic-Protestant one, ceased being about religious doctrine generations ago, if that was ever really the issue. Now the two religions are mainly markers of competing nationalisms, British and Irish, and cues to the memories of past political violence that keep resentments and vengefulness alive.

Now, from the larger perspective the hope was that a coherent compromise would arise to mollify Republicans and Unionists alike. No viable solution, it seems to me, has thus far materialized. Theresa May’s government came up with the so-called backstop whereby the U.K. would have remained in the EU Customs Union—or, I’m sorry, Northern Ireland would have remained in the EU Customs Union, obviating the need for hardened visible border security arrangements until a new trade relationship between the U.K. and the EU, and the technical means of enforcing it without such arrangements, could be established. Hardline Brexiteers didn’t like that, and Boris Johnson’s government is looking to finesse the Customs Union by giving Northern Ireland the right to vote every four years on whether to maintain its alignment with EU market rules while maintaining—while instituting U.K. checks on goods flowing between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain in the Irish Sea. Unionists still see these plans as severing Northern Ireland from the U.K. At best, it seems to me they reflect an obtusely unconcerned British government kicking the can down the road on an issue that seems unlikely to recede without a far more considered political solution.

Finally, there’s the Scottish factor. Although Scots voted against independence in the 2014 referendum, Brexit has changed their political outlook. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 62 percent of Scottish voters wanted Scotland to stay in the EU. And with Brexit looming, a plurality of Scottish voters now support independence. In last week’s election, the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party took forty-eight of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the House of Commons, and the Tories losing seven of their thirteen Scottish seats.

Scottish First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has already demanded another referendum on independence. Should it occur and yield independence, Northern Irish nationalists’ insistence on referendums would intensify and British resistance would be all the more likely to produce appreciable political violence. A failed Scottish referendum or an accommodation between London and Edinburgh could quell Republican agitation. But given Sinn Fein’s political strength and the viable core of Republican dissent extant in the province, the British government and the mainland electorate’s lack of interest in the effect of Brexit on Northern Irish politics does appear cavalier and dangerous.

So I think I’ll just leave it there and we can open it up to Q&A.

FASKIANOS: Terrific. Thank you very much for that overview. Let’s open it up to the group for questions, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

FASKIANOS: While we’re waiting for people to queue up I’ll take the first question, Jonathan. So Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit plan has been criticized for failing to understand the complexities of identity and sectarianism in Northern Ireland. What are the risks of that failure to understand the nuances?

STEVENSON: Well, I think the clear risk is that British complacency about continued relative peace in Northern Ireland is going to—without addressing the Brexit questions and Northern Irish concerns about it are—and without, for example, acknowledging on the Republican side the increasing urgency of a referendum, which is provided for under the Good Friday Agreement—is going to make  violence more likely, especially if Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the U.K., suffers economic consequences. I think those will provide added fuel beyond the political insult of Brexit to  a resurgence of violence initially probably on the Republican side, but that will of course lead to violence in response by loyalists.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have a question in the queue.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

The first question will come from Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. Please go ahead.

KNOTTS: Hello. This is Bruce Knotts. Thank you very much for your outlining of what’s going on.

The one issue or the one sector that you really haven’t addressed is the opinion and attitude of the Republic of Ireland. I was just there last year, and they definitely do have some thoughts about this. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on the Irish Republic’s view of all of this.

STEVENSON: Well, the Republic, I think, is quite sensitive to the concerns of Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland. I think that it probably has a realistic view of the need to accommodate Brexit certainly at this point, after last week’s election, and therefore. In realistic terms, I don’t think it’s looking for an immediate referendum, although it’s politically constrained from voicing overt  discouragement of that kind of thing among Irish nationalists in the North. So I think it shares the general view with Northern Irish nationalists and Republicans that the problem needs to be addressed in some concrete and considered way that doesn’t merely kick the can down the road, and that does deal withthe reality that the U.K. is leaving the European Union and the need to maintain some kind of connection in the spirt of the Good Friday Agreement between Northern Irish and the Irish Republic. But again, that is not something the U.K. itself has addressed, and I think Dublin would therefore continue to have issues with London on that.

But I’m happy to hear, actually, from you any further wisdom about that, your having recently been in Ireland.

KNOTTS: I was actually hosted by the Irish Senate, so my views are probably mostly reflective of the senators that I met. But I’d say your assessment is pretty accurate. I don’t think they want to get dramatically involved with this. I think they see this mostly as a U.K. issue. And so I think they’re going to kind of sit back and watch it. They really don’t want a hard border.

STEVENSON: No, that’s right.

KNOTTS: The open border has been enormously advantageous, I’d say, to both the North and the Republic, and so I think they’ll be happy that that not take place. They certainly don’t want a return of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And they will step in, I’m sure, with London if they take actions which would be detrimental to the Republic. But the general impression I got was a wait-and-see attitude for the time being.

STEVENSON: Yes, I think that’s right. You know, and they have to walk a careful balance. The EU has been a great force multiplier politically and diplomatically for the Irish Republic, and they don’t want to retrogress into an identity of we hate the U.K. At the same time, I think they do need to support nationalists in Northern Ireland who have legitimate concerns about the consequences of Brexit. So, as you say, they need to take a wait-and-see attitude but maintain a very vigilant watching brief on what goes on.

KNOTTS: Yeah, I agree.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question. Thanks both.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Oxford University. Please go ahead.

LYNAM: Hi. Can you hear me?



LYNAM: Great. This is Tereska Lynam. Thank you so much for taking my question. What a wonderful presentation, so cohesive

I have been hoping for a pillow-soft Brexit. I’m a Remainer, but you know, the election was pretty final. And economically, it seems the only way really sensibly is to have a really, really pillow-soft Brexit because I think the question about Brexit ultimately has been one of—it was always poorly defined. Literally, no one knows what it means in the world—(laughs)—including Boris Johnson. It’s like the elephant—the monster under the bed; no one really knows what it is. So what I’ve been hoping for is a pillow-soft Brexit in which—because if it goes badly, if it’s very hard and creates further pressure on the economy, I believe that Northern Ireland will want its independence, as will Scotland.

And I’m just wondering if you’ve heard anything from your studies or your investigations: How seriously is Johnson taking kind of the Irish feelings about all of this, how they don’t want a harder border at all, really? And do you have any sense of how he’s been preparing? And how concerned are you about the way that Boris Johnson has been signaling his Brexit preparations over the past few days?

STEVENSON: Well, my sense is that he’s still not taking it terribly seriously. And part of that is that he has the cushion of the reality that even though the U.K. has finally settled their Brexit vocation, it’s still going to take quite a while to figure out the nuts and bolts of how it happens, and that that gives him a little bit of breathing room in terms of figuring out what the accommodations will be for Northern Ireland.

You know, what he’s floated so far, it seems to me, is a palliative for people who were uncertain about how to vote, and a way of defusing intra-Tory conflict over exactly how Brexit should go in order to facilitate the election. I don’t think that the four-year plan and the Irish Sea checkpoint idea is really a serious solution to the problem, and in particular insofar as it does not very intimately involve the Northern Irish polity itself.

So, the short answer to your question is I don’t think he’s thought about it very seriously at all. And I think that the  relative peace in the province over the past twenty years has  in some ways lulled the mainland into a false sense of the Good Friday Agreement’s—I don’t say permanence, but its strength and its lack of brittleness, which I think is not true. I think there’s a sequence of things that could happen that all of a sudden could produce an uptick in violence, and it can be self-sustaining given the community elements that are willing to keep up the fight on both sides.

LYNAM: Right. And also in the U.K., I mean, it just was stoking nationalism on this level. So I guess kind of wait and see—my view has been wait and see on how deftly he deals with this incredibly intricate situation. And if it doesn’t go well, I guess that the United Kingdom will no longer—

STEVENSON: Yeah. And I think the other factor that I think has perhaps lent some artificial relaxation to London about Northern Ireland is the fact that its own devolved government has been paralyzed for the last three years, and that therefore it’s effectively been subject to direct rule and less of a problem. Now that, you know, think that Brexit has focused minds among Northern Irish politicians about trying to get the devolved government up and running again, in which case—and if that happens and politicians within Northern Ireland from both sides of the divide actually come up with some ideas of their own and they’re able to present them to London in a serious way, I think that will focus London’s mind as well. So that’s another thing on the wait-and-see list.

LYNAM: Right. Thank you so much for answering—for the entire presentation, but answering me so comprehensively. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

STEVENSON: My pleasure, and a good question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Frances Flannery with James Madison University. Please go ahead with your question.

FLANNERY: Thank you so much for your comprehensive interview, which was excellent.

I have two questions, and you can choose either one. But I can’t speak to these, and I’m wondering if you can explain to me a little bit about two drivers of the system, and explain how the various stakeholders line up with regards to climate change, looking beyond Brexit to something that could exacerbate tensions in the entire region and in Europe, and climate change migration—maybe outlining the various parties’ positions on immigration, which of course was a big part of the appeal of Brexit for those who voted for it. And with climate change migration expected to reach anywhere between a quarter of a billion or a billion people in the next few decades, how do you see that influencing the dynamics of these various parties?

STEVENSON: Oh, the parties within Northern Ireland?

FLANNERY: Sure. And actually, if we’re thinking about it as a whole system, the Republic of Ireland, the EU, Northern Ireland, and those parties. But you can answer it any way that you’d like.

STEVENSON: Yeah. I mean, I think the fact that  the EU as a unit is  collectively engaged on climate change, and Europe in general is certainly more alert to it than, say, the United States, which withdrew from the Paris Agreement. And so,  I think that you can transitively infer that  56 percent voted in favor of staying in the EU does imply that in Northern Ireland itself there’s a lot of—there is some concern about climate change, and also about the demographic disruptions that could go with it.

, In terms of immigration generally, there’s some provincial xenophobia that exists in Northern Ireland, but on balance I don’t think it’s—again, looking at the 2016 vote, I don’t think that the sort of xenophobic panic that seemed to sweep over England in informing the pro-Brexit vote had as big an effect in Northern Ireland. So—

FLANNERY: Right. Thank you.

STEVENSON: You know, I think, again, in Northern Ireland you have—perhaps somewhat ironically given that it’s viewed as not the most cosmopolitan element of the United Kingdom—a much more European attitude towards issues such as the ones you mentioned. And in part—

FLANNERY: That’s very helpful. Thank you.

STEVENSON: You know, in part that comes from the benefits that it’s received from the EU, but it also reflects an evolution in political awareness and attitude.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

The next question will come from Nancy Ammerman with Boston University. Please go ahead with your question.

AMMERMAN: Thank you. I was struck by your statement that religion has long since receded as the primary driver of the division and violence; that what we’re really looking at are competing nationalisms. And no argument there, but I wonder what we know today about the role of the churches in Northern Ireland and about other religious and voluntary organizations in the country. Are those religious organizations part of the potential problem of reemerging violence and division, or are there ecumenical bridges that have been built over the years that can potentially mitigate the current dangers?

STEVENSON: I think that since the heyday of the Troubles from 1969 through 1993/94, there have been ecumenical and sort of interfaith bridges that have been enhanced. During the Troubles, for example, Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church was undoubtedly an antagonistic factor in the Troubles. It stirred up Protestant fears, denigrated the Catholic faith. And I guess, on the Republican side you could say that there were at times some passive support or sort of stealthy support for physical force nationalism that came from some elements of the Catholic Church. And, those have certainly receded. And even during the Troubles there were efforts by the churches to moderate and to encourage nonviolence, and more constitutional solutions to the problems and nonviolent constitutional solutions to Northern Ireland’s profound political problems. And since the Good Friday Agreement, I think there have been more interfaith bridges built in the province.

But I think my remark about the fact that religious doctrine isn’t really the big driver of the conflict was meant to suggest that those bridges and the participation of the church in trying to moderate the political dialogue and political solutions, they won’t have such a—might not have such a huge impact, particularly if the situation gets stirred up again and violence arises again. In other words, the more unstable the situation, I think, the less the churches tend to get listened to. And it’s stability and relative nonviolence that has—that has opened up avenues for interfaith and intercommunity initiatives.

Does that answer the question?

AMMERMAN: Yes. I would just suggest that one of the things we know from the history of ecumenical dialogues and such is that the dialogues about doctrine, about trying to figure out what do we believe about this or that, really don’t necessarily have a lot of impact. But the efforts where there’s a concrete project that brings people together across religious lines do tend to have long-lasting effects. So it may be really interesting to keep an eye out for the places and the organizations that have not so much been sitting around thinking do we like Catholics or not, but trying to engage in those kinds of concrete initiatives across sectarian lines.

STEVENSON: I agree a hundred percent with what you say, that discussing substantive doctrine is not going to get you that far but churches taking initiative in more concrete social and community areas will. I think it’s just been difficult—in fact, those efforts have often been blunted by the sheer venom generated by cross-community violence in Northern Ireland. That’s not to say that the churches haven’t often tried, it’s just that they often have been unable to get traction.


FASKIANOS: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Jonathan, can you talk about Prime Minister Johnson’s rationale for creating a border within the Irish Sea?

STEVENSON: (Laughs.) I wish I had some better visibility on it.

I think the idea that that Northern Ireland can vote every four years whether it wants to be aligned with EU customs and trade market rules I think the idea is that that moves the problem of a physical land border in Ireland away to the sea, right? And it’s a very almost simplistic way of literally taking the checkpoints and putting them in the water so that they aren’t a visible antagonist to Irish Republicans. And I think that if Northern Ireland votes to stay aligned with the EU in terms of the market rules, then there will need to be some kind of check on goods flowing between the British mainland, which would be completely separated from the EU, and Northern Ireland itself. And that to make sure, for example, that Northern Ireland doesn’t become a backdoor for EU goods getting into the U.K. without checks, they’d need to have something in the Irish Sea, and it can’t be on the physical border between the Republic and Northern Ireland simply because that would be an attractant to dissident Republicans.

That’s the way I read it. I don’t know if there’s any bigger trick to it than that.


STEVENSON: It’s very superficial, in other words. And of course, it’s antagonized the Unionists, though, because it still creates a separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

FASKIANOS: Right. And can you give any prescriptive steps on what Northern Ireland can do to offset the damage that Brexit may cause to their—

STEVENSON: Well, I do think that, in terms of process, Northern Irish politicians resolving their differences and getting the devolved assembly functioning again is a way to make their voice better heard and more focused and more forceful.

In terms of substance, I think it’s going to be difficult, even if that happens. Assuming Brexit goes forward, which it’s going to, for Unionists to shout down nationalist voices saying, look, now we really do need to have those referendums on the sovereignty question, because the terms of reference for the Good Friday Agreement have been changed. We’re no longer part of the European Union. And my sense is that a strictly economic solution involving a Customs Union exception, let’s say, for Northern Ireland, even if the Tories agreed to it and the EU agrees to it, is going to completely suppress nationalist Republican voices in favor of a referendum. So I think it’s going to require—in other words, assuming Northern Ireland stays part of the UK, it’s going to take very active management and an acceptance of sort of ongoing political vitriol for that to be sustainable. Not necessarily a return to violence, but that becomes ever more likely.

FASKIANOS: The uncertainty surrounding Northern Ireland’s future, has it brought Protestant and Catholic factions together, or are you seeing more hostility between the two groups?

STEVENSON: I would have to say hostility. I mean, using Protestant and Catholic as proxy terms for Unionists and nationalists.

It’s interesting, if you want to look at the finer brushstrokes, to see that the DUP lost seats to the Social Democratic Labour Party, the SDLP, which is the so-called soft nationalists, who were always contrasted with Sinn Fein during the Troubles because while they believed in a united Ireland, they didn’t believe it should be forced by political violence. You know, it indicates perhaps a tilt in the middle of the population towards nationalism, and probably indicates the relative loss of Protestant population. And it may mean that there’s a little bit more room for—and also the Alliance Party’s success. Those two things, the SDLP’s marginal success and the Alliance Party’s greater representation in the vote—could mean that there’s a little bit more room in the middle for trying to figure out a way forward, which is   a mildly salutary signal. But it certainly doesn’t offset the antagonism that Brexit poses to dissident Republicans and restive nationalists.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Tereska Lynam with Oxford University. Please go ahead.

LYNAM: Hi. Just wondering, so as much as I fought against Brexit for years—(laughs)—I have to admit—and I tactical voted and really got into it—I have to admit that a few days later I actually feel a sense of relief; like, I don’t need to do anything anymore, it’s out of my hands, I am no longer responsible for keeping the country together, for stopping violence against immigrants or anything like that. I am no longer responsible because I have done every single thing that I can to get what I want. And I’m wondering if there’s any sense in Ireland that, OK, we now, right, let’s see if Boris can get it done and we can stop talking about Brexit.

STEVENSON: Hmm. I don’t think so. I think that there’s a greater sense of a need for some kind of accommodation, but I’m not sure what that means. I mean, again, the momentum behind reviving the assembly, restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland, I think, reflects the attitude that last week’s election is a wakeup call for the Northern Irish polity to start trying to solve its own problems within the larger context of Brexit. And I think it’s the opposite of their feeling acquiescent to whatever London’s going to do. I think the feeling is they need to have a greater voice in what London does. And it can’t, obviously—

LYNAM: So maybe it’s—

STEVENSON: That’s right. I mean, for two years the DUP held the whip hand in a very fractious government, and now it doesn’t, and so there’s an opening there for nationalists. But at the same time, time there’s a clarion call for Unionists. So I think while it focuses minds in Northern Ireland, it also holds the potential for, acrimony that tilts back towards the old days about what should be done.

LYNAM: So what I think I’m hearing is that. Spending most of my time in London, for London the kind of everything blew up on June 24, 2016, and we’ve been really wrestling for years, like, what does this mean. And what I’m hearing now is that maybe  Friday the 13th, December 2019, was the day that Ireland—and not just Northern Ireland, but possibly the entire country—is like, wait, wait, wait a minute, what, you know? This is actually going to happen? And so maybe they’re now going to start feeling the—what we’ve been feeling.

STEVENSON: Yeah. I mean, now it’s a reality, and it does change the kind of complexion of the Good Friday Agreement.

LYNAM: Right.

STEVENSON: And I think that that’s certainly being felt in Northern Ireland itself. And as the gentleman who asked the first question about the attitude in the Republic in Ireland, it increases their vigilance while they do still need to see how Britain conducts itself.

LYNAM: Again, thank you so much for your comprehensive answers. This has been a wonderful presentation.

STEVENSON: Thank you. Excellent comment.

FASKIANOS: So, Jonathan, is there any stone that we left unturned?

STEVENSON: You know, I think I covered a fair number of bases, and the ones that I didn’t were very nicely covered by the questions. I don’t know that I have anything salient to add right now unless you can think of something.

FASKIANOS: I guess the final question I would ask is maybe to talk about the U.S. role. Well, as much as we can—

STEVENSON: Yeah. You know, it’s a good question. I mean, I would say it’s an open question whether Donald Trump even knows that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. I don’t think administration is very engaged on the wider political implications of Brexit for the U.K., I mean, and its constitutional implications for the U.K.’s territorial extent and prospective new referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Which is in contrast to previous administrations, particularly the Clinton administration, which provided a lot of political support for the Good Friday Agreement, particularly in the form of George Mitchell as special envoy, who helped broker it.

So, I honestly don’t see a lot of direct U.S. engagement on Washington’s part. And I mean, I know that there’s residual interest in the wider U.S. foreign policy community. I mean, Richard Haass was a special envoy to Northern Ireland for quite a number of years and I know still stays attentive to the issues.


STEVENSON: So there’s a deep enough bench for a U.S. administration to draw on, providing it has the interest. Right now I don’t see it. I just don’t see a lot of awareness of those issues. They may well materialize, perhaps depending on what happens in November 2020.

FASKIANOS: Right. We have actually two more questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Laura Alexander with the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Please go ahead.

ALEXANDER: Hi. Thanks for the discussion.

We had a really good question a few minutes ago about migration and climate change, and I wonder if you could just talk generally, as well, about kind of attitudes around immigration and migration issues in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, and how those compare or contrast with attitudes within Great Britain that we’ve seen have impacted Brexit itself.

STEVENSON: Yeah. I mean, as I was suggesting earlier, I think that throughout the island of Ireland, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic, there is a less-panicked and more liberal attitude towards migration, and greater awareness of climate change issues and how they affect demographics and economics generally. You know, I think in other words, I think Ireland, including both Northern Ireland and the South, have a more continental European vocation about these things than the U.K. does or than mainland Britain does, excluding Scotland, which of course opposed Brexit to an even greater extent than Northern Ireland did.

But again, in this context I think the Brexit vote in 2016 may turn out to be in some ways a strange aberration. It did involve the harnessing of unusual political forces within England of a kind of an aristocratic nostalgism for the United Kingdom as a global power or as a great power and the sort of Little England notion of island independence. As problems increase that are associated with, say, climate change, attitudes in Britain may come more in line with the EU itself.

As far as migration goes, there’s less xenophobia in the Republic of Ireland and I would say even Northern Ireland than there is in England. That’s probably in part because there are  fewer immigrants, but also because of a closer alignment with Western European norms and that which is a product of, I think, a more unimpeded and uncompromised appreciation for the EU that’s developed over the last twenty years.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Mufti Nayeem Ahmed with NYU. Please go ahead with your question.

AHMED: Thank you. Thank you for your thoughts and perspectives.

From your analysis, your understandings, and your engagement with a number of folks, are people from both sides of the aisle—the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland—how are they thinking about geoeconomics? And I’m thinking about this broader than the European Union, broader than England. How are they thinking about economic ties to South Africa or South America, as well as China, and a number of other issues that are cropping up as we see from an international economics and international trade perspective?

STEVENSON: I don’t specifically know what policy positions are on those—on those issues in each jurisdiction. Again, I would infer from the sort of European vocation of both that they’re onboard with EU concerns, which the EU as a bloc is still fairly globalist and believes in a fairly extroverted attitude about trade and about relationships with the larger South. And I think that, those have, on balance, benefited both Northern Ireland and the Republic. But that’s about all I can say. I certainly don’t have any larger expertise on it, unfortunately.

AHMED: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: We’ll squeeze in one last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The last question will come from Francyl Gawryn with Grace Community Church. Please go ahead with your question.

GAWRYN: Thank you so much for all of this information. I’ve found it really fascinating.

I’d like to know if you have thoughts about what a United States administration could possibly do in the possibly hopeful future if we had a different administration. What measures might be taken by an administration that’s a little better informed than our present one and would be minded to lend a hand?

STEVENSON: Well, I mean, I think that the most obvious answer and probably not an invalid one is to provide diplomatic support for any talks involving Northern Irish parties, the Republic of Ireland, and the U.K., for example on some kind of compromise border or trade arrangement that lowered tensions in Northern Ireland. In other words, in some ways reprising the role that it took in the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, which was  one of very close and involved political support, diplomatic engagement.

So, if there were  a three-way dialogue that materialized in the course of the Brexit process involving exceptional arrangements for Northern Ireland, then that’s a way in which the United States might be able to contribute, although of course it would depend on the receptivity of London, Dublin, and actually Belfast.

GAWRYN: Mmm hmm. Thank you very much.

STEVENSON: But that’s the way it’s worked in the past, really. I mean, the most successful political advance in the Northern Irish conflict was in some ways midwifed by American brokerage. Not completely, but we helped a great deal. And I think that’s the gauge for future involvement, to the extent that some kind of intergovernmental diplomatic process is involved.

GAWRYN: OK. Thanks very much.

FASKIANOS: Well, we have reached the end of our hour, so we will have to leave it there. Jonathan Stevenson, thank you very much for your valuable insights today and analysis. We appreciate it. And to all of you for your really excellent questions and comments.

We encourage you to follow Mr. Stevenson’s work on the future of Northern Ireland as well as his work on counterterrorism and defense. Jonathan, do you tweet? Do you have a Twitter handle?

STEVENSON: I do not. (Laughs.)

Although the IISS does sometimes and my work often appears on the website.

FASKIANOS: OK. So you can follow Jonathan’s work on the IISS website. You can also follow—



STEVENSON: Yeah, no, that’s right. And I write for other publications sometimes, too, recently the New York Review of Books for example.

FASKIANOS: Right. And Foreign Affairs, where you did a review of a book.

STEVENSON: Correct. Yeah.

FASKIANOS: So we also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest Council on Foreign Relations resources. You can reach out to us at [email protected] with any suggestions for topics or speakers for future calls or events.

So thank you all again. We look forward to your participation in future discussions. Thank you to Jonathan. And wishing you all a wonderful holiday season.

STEVENSON: Yes. Happy holidays!

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