Commons and goings: May, Brokenshire and Northern Ireland

15 Jul 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Jul 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

The reshuffle in Westminster’s House of Cards is over. Scope looks at what this means for Northern Ireland – including a possible intriguing border carve up.

David Cameron’s decision to make an EU referendum an election promise provided the opportunity, but it started in earnest when Boris Johnson announced he was campaigning for Leave.

However you describe it – uncertainty, tumult, political bloodletting - it is now over.

Theresa May is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and has appointed James Brokenshire as our local Secretary of State.

In what was effectively her victory speech, May focused on social and economic justice, coming across as a liberal and a someway skeptic of the ever-increasing power of big money, and its effect on working people.

She also mentioned that “the word unionist is very important” to her and spoke in support of the continuing strength of the United Kingdom.

"Not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party and that word unionist is very important to me. It means we believe in the union, the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"But it means something else just as important, it means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all our citizens, everyone of us, whoever we are and wherever we're from."

Unionism locally might take heart from this – but it might not be aimed at them. Much more important for Westminster are relations with Scotland and Theresa May is heading there today to speak with Nicola Sturgeon.

Fundamentally, opening speeches mean nothing. The new PM will have to corral support across her party at an extremely tricky time, and to do this arch pragmatism will be necessary.

Local issues

Despite some equivocation from Sinn Fein, both they and the DUP continue to support devolution of corporation tax powers.

The effectiveness of this is of questionable merit anyway – with our low skills base and productivity, we cannot be sure simply shaving a few percentage points off our tax rate will bring in any significant investment – and this becomes even more dubious when our membership of the EU and ultimately the single market look set to disappear.

As with corporation tax, on every policy all roads lead to Brexit. Trying to get the best deal for Northern Ireland, and ensure maximum mitigations against any local losses suffered as a result of withdrawing from the EU, are the heart of the political relationship between Stormont and Westminster right now.

The new SoS, meanwhile, will want to press forward with the full implementation of Fresh Start. James Brokenshire is a former Immigration Minister and MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, at the Kent edge of London’s suburban sprawl.

His opening gambit as NI Minister was also meaningless, and by that no offence is meant: "It is vital that Northern Ireland's interests are fully protected and advanced including in relation to the border” – what else is he meant to say?

However, it does reach to the most intriguing aspect of Brexit for Northern Ireland: the border.

A favoured solution

What does the SoS mean by our “best interests”?

Any deal cut with the EU that sees the continuation of freedom of movement appears politically untenable. Immigration being too high was the main pillar of the victorious Leave campaign.

So, there needs to be a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Or, maybe not quite. The land border between NI and RoI is long and, in reality, impossible to police. At the same time, a significant increase in checkpoints, etc, will be socially unacceptable to many local people.

This “many” could mean nationalists, or those with a personal interest in being able to cross the border easily, such as those who live near it.

Even more straightforward is the fact that the economic impacts of a hard border would be broadly negative.

But what if the hard border was elsewhere? What if the border existed between the island of Ireland and Great Britain? It is much easier to police a handful of air and sea ports – which already have security infrastructure and checks – than hundreds of miles of land border, most of which is rural.

Increased effectiveness of security appeals to the new PM – whose Snoopers’ Charter was her most controversial and vigorously pursued policy while Home Secretary – she is said to be “alive” to the border issues, while the new SoS is philosophically on a similar page.

For this to work, anyone travelling from the island of Ireland to elsewhere in the EU would probably also need to be subjected to checks – but, again, this would be at established ports rather than along a land border.

Politicians in London and Dublin will inevitably consider this solution. Economically it makes the most immediate sense – policing a border change along these lines is much more simple, and it removes some, perhaps most, of the negative economic impacts locally.

It is also a solution that would make sense to both Westminster and the Dail – bearing in mind that relations between those two and probably stronger, and considered more important, than either of their relationships with Stormont – so obviously it would be very attractive to them and, therefore, will become a live consideration if it can be made legally viable.

The local reaction would be loud and predictable. The idea that the UK leaving the EU would lead to NI becoming no further away from the south but materially more removed from GB will invoke unionist rage. There will also be bewilderment that a return to security oversight redolent of the Troubles, when violence is so low in comparison, would become a reality.

At the same time, Sinn Fein would be laughing. However, they should keep the champagne on ice for now. The biggest threat to such an arrangement – other than it being predicated on a number of things yet to be confirmed – is the reaction in NI. But that only cuts so much ice.

Theresa May views freedom, security and opportunity as the three pillars of conservatism and it is possible that a border like this might win on all three counts compared with a return to checkpoints from Carlingford to Foyle.


If that idea comes across as fanciful, think again. Northern Ireland will not be at the forefront of Westminster thinking.

Theresa May will not want to put extra pressure on the Union but her main concern will be trying to unite a Conservative Party that has gone beyond a healthy variation of opinions and now has a clear split between internationalist and nationalist halves.

Uniting the Tories will go hand in hand with her other chief aim: maintaining party support at the polls. Per Lord Ashcroft, Conservative supporters were split 58-42 in favour of Leave, so as with the members of parliament the new PM has to reconcile two significant groups that are in disagreement.

Truthfully, Northern Ireland is only a concern insofar as it impacts on those objectives.

And while the tumult caused by the referendum is over, it won’t be the last. Leaving the EU – whatever happens – will put tremendous strain on UK politics while it seems likely most leave voters were actually voting against their personal experiences of globalisation, and globalisation will not stop with us leaving the EU.

There are huge political pressures down the line. It is not just the Tories experiencing an internal battle, the Labour party is in the midst of its own civil war, with the leader and majority of party members on one side, and large majority of MPs on the other.

These political wrangles are themselves a symptom of changing alignments within our democracy.

The tumult following the referendum was one spike in volatility as tectonic plates shift. They will continue to move, destination unknown, all that is clear is that we’re not finished yet.

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