The damages of Brexit in Northern Ireland

Catriona Shelly and Orla Muldoon with a social psychological analysis.

Across the UK, the reality of Brexit is increasingly becoming a threat. Food and fuel shortages, and concerns about energy prices, are tangible worries. Here, we use a social identity approach to highlight this Brexit threat is amplified and takes on additional meaning in Northern Ireland because of the identities that are writ large – not least because of the country’s tumultuous past. We argue that Brexit is problematic in Northern Ireland because of people’s loyalty to their social identities, as much as protocols and backstops.

Identities have taken centre stage in Brexit – not just those pertaining to Northern Ireland. What was originally just a voting decision, to leave or to remain, has taken on the mantle of identity. In particular, we now have people who self-categorise as ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’. These newly fashioned identities separate people into groups by virtue of their voting preference. 

In reality, however, when a person identifies with one of these groups, they are not only signalling their feelings but also earmarking opposition (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Leavers and remainers can be easily observed in debate online and in the media. Both groups are motivated to promote and defend their position against the opposition group, whose members are often seen as both threatening and to blame for the prevailing political situation. ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ are therefore not just category labels but road maps for how people may act in a given situation or debate. These identities are meaningful. And because of the high stakes of the Brexit referendum, people have all too quickly become polarised and polarising. Of concern to us, especially for Northern Ireland, is that polarised identities are often harmful for society as people can come to demonise each other based on political views (Flynn et al., 2017).

The roots of conflict

In 1921, Ireland was divided into two separate regions by the UK government in a process referred to as the partition of Ireland. In the south, the overwhelming majority of Catholics were Nationalists who saw themselves as Irish and wanted to secede from British rule and become a free state. In 1949, it broke away further to form the Republic of Ireland – following its departure from the British Commonwealth. For both strategic military reasons and because of a substantial Protestant Unionist population who perceived themselves as British, the six northern counties remained a part of the UK in 1921. However almost 40 per cent of this northern population saw themselves as Irish and were, like those in the south, Irish and Nationalist. Partition of North and South resulted in a 500km land border between the two jurisdictions, now commonly referred to as ‘the border’. 

Since partition and formation of the border, Northern Ireland has been a largely divided society. It was from its inception comprised of two different ethno-national identities sometimes characterised as British Protestant Unionists and Irish Catholic Nationalists. Initially, the Protestant community were the majority group and had preferential access to resources such as employment, housing, and education (Mac Ginty et al., 2007). In fact, some commentators argue Northern Ireland’s political institutions were designed to scaffold this Protestant dominance (Hayward & McManus, 2020). In response to this inequality, and also inspired by the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association began to organise protests for a more equal society (Peroff & Hewitt, 1980). The government of the time, eager to maintain Protestant control, reacted with what was understood by those with Republican sympathies to be a heavy-handed response to these civil rights efforts. This sparked outbreaks of violence in the region from the late 1960’s onwards (Hayward & McManus, 2020).

Towards the Peace Agreement

The ‘Troubles’ refers to the 30 years of political instability and conflict which ensued and resulted in over 3,500 deaths. The divisive question of Northern Ireland’s status within the UK became a focal point of the conflict. After the negotiation of the 1998 Belfast/GoodFriday Agreement, much of the violence subsided, and this underpinned what is known as the peace process. The Agreement pledged political stability for Northern Ireland through a devolved power-sharing government and a better quality of life for those most affected by earlier political violence (Knox, 2016). For the Protestant community, the changing power dynamics, built on the many legislative reforms that had resulted in a burgeoning Catholic middle class, were sometimes perceived as threatening (Mac Ginty & Du Toit, 2007). And because of a zero-sum mentality – for one side to win, the other has to lose – and the visibility of class in traditional Catholic–Protestant relations, a growing Catholic middle class heightened the sense of relative deprivation among the Protestant working class community (Loyalists). In reality, inequality has meant declining living standards across the UK and globally (Jay et al., 2019). As such, many from the Protestant community perceived that the Agreement only benefitted those from the Catholic side of the divide, whilst at the same time, diluting claims to their British identity in Northern Ireland (Knox, 2016).

Nevertheless, the Agreement also appeared to offer Northern Ireland an opportunity to transcend its usual zero-sum approach to politics (Mac Ginty & Du Toit, 2007). Notably, it acknowledged the birth right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as British or Irish or both. In this way, it can be seen to have depolarised British and Irish identities (Lowe & Muldoon, 2014) as it allowed them to co-exist in the same way as people can see themselves as Scottish and British or Welsh and British (Cairns & Darby, 1988; for a relevant discussion see Berry, 2005). 

Another crux of the Agreement was the demilitarisation of the border. During The Troubles, the border was a focal point for violence but following the Agreement, its salience receded due to absences of checks mandated by the free movement of people moving within Europe. Importantly then, the demilitarisation of border checkpoints had a substantial peace dividend. Indeed, in recent years, the border has remained virtually absent and cross-community relations have improved. 


Northern Ireland’s identities have a long history of being polarised and entrenched. The years after the Agreement saw some promising changes suggestive of less dichotomous identity constellations (Lowe & Muldoon, 2014). Brexit however, facilitates repolarisation in Northern Ireland by superimposing another layer of identity onto existing national and religious divisions. The leaver vote is almost exclusively associated with British Protestant Unionists and Loyalists who support the division of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and see Brexit as solidifying their position within the UK. (Of course, the sea border – which we will discuss – impacts this, but generally this group wanted to leave the EU). There is no doubt a middle ground comprising Catholics and Protestants who wish to remain, as indicated by the large vote to remain within Northern 

Ireland (55.8 per cent). However, there is also a group of Nationalists and Republicans – mainly Irish Catholics – who see Brexit as an opportunity for unification with the Republic of Ireland. 

Brexit therefore accentuates the underlying division between these existing groups because it raises the question of Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. And in this polarised context, it is difficult to be both Irish and British in ways imagined by the Agreement.

Identity Threat

The looming return of the ‘border question’ (Gormley-Heenan & Aughey, 2017) quintessentially produces issues of identity and associated identity threat for those who embrace these long-standing political, religious, and national identities. 

Through the lens of self-categorisation theory (Turner et al., 1987), the border creates a context that is essential to understanding the threat – serving as it does both to make social identities salient and to render them a focus for contestation (Hopkins & Reicher, 2011; Oakes et al., 1994). On the one hand, the newly established Northern Ireland Protocol, is threatening for Unionists because it places a border in the Irish Sea. The sea border is in effect a political solution to handle trade between the EU and the UK. In practice, this means that checks are required on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Symbolically, the sea border is also problematic for Unionists as it distances Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and undermines Unionism’s claim that Northern Ireland and the people that live there are as British as those living in England, Scotland, or Wales. In other words, the border is perceived not only as a threat to the integrity of the union but also as a threat to who ‘we’ are. On the other hand, at the same time, were a hard border dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland to return, Nationalists would feel as though their right to travel freely within Ireland, guaranteed under the Agreement, was threatened. This ability to travel freely within ‘our own country’ is centrally important to those who see themselves as Irish and cross the border regularly to live, work, and play (Muldoon et al., 2007). Accordingly, as the location of the border changes so does the nature of the threat that it poses for particular groups.


Despite the hope that the peace process would deliver better conditions for the deprived communities most directly affected by the conflict (Muldoon & Downes, 2007), there remains a significant disparity between their quality of life and the rest of Northern Ireland (Knox, 2016). In socially disadvantaged Protestant communities, feelings of inequality have been increasing since the Agreement (Knox, 2016). Brexit feeds into this inequality as many Protestant Loyalists feel left behind by the Protocol. Jay and colleagues (2019) argue that these rising feelings of inequality can align people more closely with the group from which they derive security and safety, for example Loyalism in this case, and strengthen alignment with preferred ideological positions. Further, the limited prospects for young people in these disadvantaged areas leave them vulnerable to paramilitary recruitment (Knox, 2016). In this way, inequality is also relevant to the understanding of Brexit in Northern Ireland.

Violent Collective Action

The reality is that the current uncertain situation has grown the potential for violent conflict to return to Northern Ireland. Last April we saw some indication of this when rioting and protests – attributed mainly to Loyalists (BBC, 2021) – remerged on the streets in Northern Ireland. This pattern is consistent with research that tells us groups founded on their political views (e.g., as Loyalists/Unionists or Republicans/Nationalists) are more easily mobilised to collective action than other groups (van Zomeren et al., 2008). It also tells us that feelings of anger are a potent force in driving groups to participate in hostile and violent behaviour. From a Loyalist perspective, the Protocol and sea border are unjust. Avoiding a hard border in Ireland is seen as a move to appease the Nationalist community and, therefore, because of the increasing polarisation, is perceived to be damaging to Unionists. In reality, the Protocol, at least in terms of trade and economics, would appear to benefit everyone in Northern Ireland. But the changed status of Northern Ireland within the union undermines Unionists’ sense of security in their position in the UK. The leader of the largest Unionist party (the DUP) – Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – exemplified this ongoing concern when he stated that ‘it would be an act of folly to believe that the [Unionist] anger has receded, or the danger has passed’ (DUP, 2021a). 

Tensions within Unionism because of conflicting realistic economic and symbolic identity threats are now apparent. These feelings are further amplified by the rising proportion of Catholics within the population (Knox, 2016). Recent polling data points to a sharp fall in support of the DUP, and growing success for Nationalist political party Sinn Féin. Should Loyalists feel they have limited opportunities to achieve change through political action, group members – even in the face of likely failure – will resort to more extreme strategies including the use of violence (Louis et al., 2021; Tausch et al., 2011).


Ultimately, how the situation develops in Northern Ireland and the UK more generally depends heavily on the quality and nature of leadership that emerges. Social identity theorists describe leaders as identity entrepreneurs: they play a critical role in designing a vision and steering group members, particularly during uncertain times (Haslam et al., 2011, 2020). In Northern Ireland, political leaders have capitalised on Brexit by translating it into a vision of opportunity: to achieve a united Ireland for Nationalists, or to strengthen the union for Unionists (Evershed & Murphy, 2021; Gormley-Heenan & Aughey, 2017). But by sculpting Brexit in this way, leaders have prioritised their own groups’ political agenda over intergroup harmony. 

Here, the rhetoric used by leaders exemplifies an ‘us vs them’ social reality. And they are fuelling this reality: in July 2021, the DUP leader stated, ‘too often Unionism has been on the back foot in the constitutional battle with a Nationalism that is already planning and preparing for the future’ (DUP, 2021b). At the same time, the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, undermined Unionism when she stated, ‘The Unionist electoral majority is gone. The days of domination are over… And good riddance’ (Sinn Féin, 2021). Indeed, the ‘Unionist’ vs ‘Nationalist’ zero-sum rhetoric is likely to escalate with the recent collapse of Northern Ireland’s political institutions and upcoming battleground of assembly elections.

At the same time, the current British government is offering divisive leadership. Leaders supporting a leave agenda have harnessed the English national identity to garner support for Brexit from the early days of the process (for a relevant discussion see Reicher and Hopkins, 2001). Indeed, the desire for restoring Englishness was a significant driver behind the UK’s choice for Leave (Henderson et al., 2017). However, leaders that deploy Englishness exclude communities who see themselves as British or Irish, or indeed Scottish or Welsh, from the Brexit project. Waning Britishness and the rise in Englishness (Kenny, 2016) is particularly problematic for British people in Northern Ireland who already experience their national identity as a point of contestation (Stevenson & Muldoon, 2010). This exclusion from the Brexit narrative is amplified by deteriorating relations with current Tory leadership. The Conservative and Unionist party, as it is formally known, promised no border in the Irish Sea only to deliver this in the form of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This lack of trust in London government and Boris Johnsons’ capitulations, despite claiming to be a ‘committed Unionist’ leader, offers little by the way of reassurance to anyone – Nationalist or Unionist in Northern Ireland.

An uncertain future

All parties involved in Brexit negotiations should recognise that the current fragmented approach will not work in Northern Ireland. After all, the innovation of the Peace Agreement was its ability to bring together communities in Northern Ireland, through co-operation and a shared agenda, that all leaders in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, the UK, as well as third parties such as the US and the EU supported. Unfortunately, the current leadership in Ireland and the UK displays no appetite for innovative solutions. Without leadership, and with increasing levels of threat, the potential for conflict is very real. In the Republic of Ireland, a Citizen’s Assembly has helped generate support for constitutional change on various contentious political issues. A similar enterprise on Brexit and the Protocol in Northern Ireland would offer alternative courses of action in accordance with needs in this difficult context (see Suiter, 2021). It may also help tackle some of the democratic deficit that the Brexit crisis has brought on. 

As Northern Ireland marks its 100th anniversary the future looks uncertain. There are powerful identity dynamics afoot. In the rest of the UK, there are equally important identity dynamics at play, but these are not set against the historical backdrop of sectarian conflict. 

- Catriona Shelly is a psychology PhD student at the University of Limerick, an Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholar, and member of the Centre for Social Issues Research. [email protected]

- Orla Muldoon is Professor of Psychology at University of Limerick. She has a BSc and PhD from Queens University Belfast and has published widely on the topic of identity, health and social and political attitudes in Northern Ireland. She is current editor of Political Psychology. [email protected]


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