Brexit, Covid-19 and the North of Ireland

October 19th, 2020

Dr Dawn Walsh (pictured above) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations and Director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies at University College Dublin. She is currently the holder of an Irish Research Council Laureate Award for her project 'Power-sharing and independent commissions in post-conflict societies'. 


On the morning we speak with Dawn Walsh, the Northern Ireland Executive meets in Stormont to discuss the Covid-19 crisis - and later that day announces a four-week lockdown as a record 1,217 coronavirus cases are reported. 

With the worst pandemic figures in the UK, and Brexit looming, these are uniquely challenging times in Northern Ireland’s long and fraught history. 

“For quite a long time the numbers in Northern Ireland per head of population were quite similar to the numbers in the Republic but it really has diverged in the past few weeks and there doesn’t seem to be any particularly logical reason for it,” observes Dawn. She does not think any fault necessarily lies with power-sharing tensions between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the finer points, such as how long schools should remain closed. 

“I think that coalition governments in general make it more difficult to govern. We’ve seen in the Republic as well that when you’ve got a coalition government it is much harder to have decisive leadership or to get consensus as to the best way forward, because all options are so hard and not very popular.”

Dawn’s academic expertise is in post-conflict societies, where power-sharing and independent commissions have been notable features of the political landscape. 

“The reason I was interested in power-sharing is that it did not necessarily eradicate political violence in Northern Ireland but it really dramatically decreased it. Also, it sought, in a really strategic way, to turn what had been a violent conflict into a kind of normal political conflict where people had differing aspirations that could be pursued through ordinary political means.”

She has done extensive research into the delegation of IRA disarmament to an international commission for decommissioning, and looked at the establishment of Northern Ireland’s institutions which were “extremely wobbly” initially. 

“But then from 2007 to 2017 there was a period of stable power-sharing government. This is particularly surprising because during this period we moved from the more moderate UUP and SDLP parties as being the main parties representing the two main communities to the DUP and Sinn Fein,” she says, of the parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum. So it is “quite a pity” that the Assembly came apart following the so-called cash for ash scandal and disagreements over the Irish Language Act.

“This led again to a prolonged period of dissension and one of the things that prolonged it wasn’t necessarily the difficulty of issues in Northern Ireland but it was, of course, the elephant in the room - Brexit - which has led to, unfortunately, a dramatic deterioration in the Anglo-Irish relationship.”

The Stormont stalemate was “very worrying because it meant that Northern Ireland was without a formal voice in the Brexit negotiations even though they were going to be one of the most affected”.

Dissent now between the two communities is “quite difficult to measure” and “in terms of the threat of violence you don’t actually need large numbers of people to be dissatisfied”.

For this reason she believes we won’t be “going down the route of a referendum on Irish unity any time soon”. Even if Sinn Fein forms a government in the Republic, the Good Friday Agreement says only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can call that referendum. 

“There’s no way, I think, that a Secretary of State is going to ask for there to be a referendum on Irish unity.” 

As we hurtle towards yet another Brexit negotiation deadline without a deal between the UK and Europe, the implications for Northern Ireland are stark.  

“It is really serious, not necessarily in terms of the immediate recurrence of violence, but in terms of the everyday effect on people’s lives in the border regions. A lot of people cross the border for healthcare, schools, college, jobs, to see family. That border hardening would really impact people’s daily lives as well as the macroeconomic picture for Northern Ireland.”

The Northern Irish workforce relies more heavily on public sector jobs, has not enjoyed the same tech and pharma investment as the Republic and has fewer indigenous industries. 

“There would be concern that if you shutter them for a short period of time and then they have another blow because of Brexit that that would be incredibly difficult to come back from.”

While it is “an interesting time to be a political scientist”, there are challenges when “the ground is constantly shifting”. Dawn has an Irish Research Council grant for a comparative study on peace commissions in post-conflict societies - but her international fieldwork has been postponed. 

“I got one case in before lockdown - a trip to Liberia back in December. But trips to Columbia, Uganda, the Philippines are all on the long finger indefinitely.”

In the meantime she has created a live data set with over 580 peace commissions.

“The idea was to go to these countries and interview these commission members and see if there is something unique or not in these commissions that’s helping them contribute to peaceful outcomes. What’s the dynamic? What is the decision making process? Why do they not seem to become as adversarial as, for example, power-sharing in an executive?”

Until Covid-19 allows for travel, there is still plenty of food for academic thought in the post-conflict society closest to home.

“There was a period where people thought the interesting times had passed for Northern Ireland. But they have definitely returned, unfortunately.”


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