Northern Ireland and Brexit: An Explanation by Lisa Claire Whitten


Northern Ireland was at the heart of the protracted UK-EU withdrawal negotiations and the solution that was eventually reached – the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland – has proved controversial. It has caused economic, social and political disruption in Northern Ireland and continues to be a major point of disagreement between the EU and the UK. This new Constitution Society paper argues that Northern Ireland’s present situation and role in Brexit can only be fully understood in reference to its contested constitutional history and unique contemporary constitutional structure.

Dr Lisa Claire Whitten, the paper’s author, provides an accessible account of this history, explaining how Northern Ireland arrived at the particular constitutional arrangements established by the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and how these made it uniquely vulnerable to the outworkings of Brexit. The paper goes on to analyse both the problem that Northern Ireland presented during the EU withdrawal negotiations and the eventually agreed solution: the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

In doing so, Dr Whitten highlights that constitutional experimentation in Northern Ireland challenges the dominant narrative of UK constitutional history, which has typically emphasised gradual change and overall continuity. Attempts are frequently made to fit Northern Ireland into a more general model of UK devolution, but these fail to recognise the complexity and innovation of the 1998 Agreement.

The paper argues that successive UK governments, politicians and academics have overlooked Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional history and arrangements, leading to the difficulties in the EU withdrawal process and resulting in the much-contested Protocol. It concludes, however, that the Protocol’s implications beyond the now (in)famous borders of Northern Ireland mean that it will remain at the centre of Brexit-related discussions for the foreseeable future.

Dr Whitten said: “The unique constitution of contemporary Northern Ireland – deriving from the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – is founded on a compromise between competing visions for the future of the place. By forcing a change in the legal and political context in which the 1998 Agreement operates, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has disrupted the operation of the institutions it established and the still-in-process peace it represents. This fact is due, in part, to a ‘Northern Ireland blindspot’ that has long existed in UK constitutional debates.

One of the hopes in writing this paper is that, as we all continue to move forward, Northern Ireland – for all its complexity, fragility, and potential – can be less often excluded and more often accommodated in the post-Brexit era.”

Dr Lisa Claire Whitten is a Research Fellow on the ESRC-funded project ‘Governance for a ‘place between’: the Multi-Level Dynamics of Implementing the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland’ based at Queen’s University Belfast. She recently completed her doctoral dissertation on the constitutional implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland and contributes frequently to Northern Slant.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.