Paul Gillespie

Moment, momentary, momentous. These three words crop up more and more in discussions about Brexit and its possible consequences for the United Kingdom’s external and internal sovereignty. Ireland and Northern Ireland and relations between Ireland and Britain are at the centre of these decisions. Whether this period represents a constitutional moment requiring major choices about both states’  future direction and structure is one seam of debate. Another concerns the importance of contingency and political agency in the current high political endgame on the withdrawal agreement between the Conservative government and Brussels – when momentary moves have lasting effects. Depending on how they go the results may be momentous for the UK’s future – and for Ireland’s too.

Externally the UK’s future sovereignty is driven by how close or distant it will be to the EU’s customs union and single market. Its internal dimension concerns the future shape of relations between the UK’s national, territorial and constitutional units. This depends on whether power remains centralised In London or becomes more dispersed. Enoch Powell’s blunt dictum that “power devolved is power retained” remains relevant.

Seen from Ireland the working out of these possible futures is hugely consequential. Brexit has deeply unsettled relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom after a generation in which the two states and peoples grew closer in terms of trust, policy convergence and openness to each other. The Belfast Agreement which transformed the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998 expressed and reinforced that deeper relationship in the years to the Brexit referendum in 2016, which rudely interrupted and have deeply unsettled it. 

The border backstop agreed between the EU and the UK in December 2017 providing that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union and single market to protect the Northern Ireland peace process and the resultant all-Ireland economy became over the last year the defining issue in the UK’s internal debate on what Brexit actually means. It also became the critical test of the EU’s solidarity with the small member-state most directly affected by Brexit against a large state whose bargaining power was decisively weakened when it decided to leave rather than seek exceptional treatment from within.

Both of these contemporary political outcomes have a long historical resonance. That really matters in relations between the two islands, states and peoples. Political power, geographical scale and economic wealth have moulded their relations. They are asymmetrical so far as Ireland is concerned, since it has been the smaller, less populated and poorer island and much the weaker and more peripheral. That was expressed in its conquest and colonisation by Britain in medieval and early modern times, subsequently in its subordinate politics within the developing UK and then in its state-seeking nationalism to depart it. 

The two islands exist within a larger European and transatlantic setting, a geopolitical fact that can mitigate or counteract Britain’s ability to act exclusively in its own interests. Irish nationalism has long sought continental and later transatlantic allies to do just that in furthering its own search for independence and then to protect its interests. Such solidarities compensate for and mitigate those asymmetries by mobilising continental (and now some significant Irish-American transatlantic) forces on Ireland’s side. 

The Institute for British-Irish Studies in University College Dublin has just announced an ambitious research project on Constitutional Futures after Brexit to study the effects of UK change and how they might influence constitutional developments in this State and Northern Ireland (see Arguing that Brexit and associated changes amount to a constitutional moment within both parts of Ireland and in their two most significant neighbouring relationships with the UK and the EU, the project identifies four plausible scenarios of change in the UK. These are based on how its external relationship with the EU develops and on how power is distributed internally: breakup through Scottish independence and Irish unity is the most radical outcome; as against which the union may survive in a renegotiated, differentiated or federal future. The critical issue is whether political leaderships and governing elites committed to the union have the will and capacity to make such reforming change in order to avoid disintegration. The harder the Brexit and the more centralised power remains the less likely that is. 

Consequential and responsive change in Ireland North and South can be mapped out using established and innovatory methods of analysis, including futures studies research into plausible scenarios taking account of possible, probable, preferred and wild card events. Such brainstorming sessions have been shown to make for a more inclusive and less polarising deliberative experience between analysts, stakeholders and policy-makers who support very different and highly contested futures.  A programme of research on comparative unionism is part of the endeavour.

This schema of plausible UK futures is an exploratory starting point to generate typologies of futures specific to Ireland North and South but with their own drivers, dynamics and potential outcomes. They could include unitary, devolved or federal visions of a united Ireland and transitional or hybrid ones as well. They will be worked on together with deliberative citizen mini-publics, public opinion surveys and engagement with policy-makers, where Ireland now has world-class expertise. There is an opportunity to link this research to similar initiatives in the UK and the EU. We need maximum preparedness for such potentially momentous change.


Dr Paul Gillespie is deputy director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies, based in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. His research interests and publications include this field, European integration and political identities and comparative regionalism. He is a columnist and editorial writer on international affairs for The Irish Times, where he was formerly foreign policy editor. 

Image: Simon Haldimann 


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane