Brexit reawakens the sleeping dogs of competing sovereign claims

Is the hard Brexit policy of Britain in the name of sovereignty a more powerful driver of constitutional change than SF nationalism?

When and why will the barking dogs of political sovereignty in Ireland and Britain start to bite? How can they be returned to their sleeping condition and violence avoided? These are among the questions asked by analysts who study kin-states in Europe, and apply their comparative lessons to Ireland.

Kin-states pursue policies aimed at members of co-ethnic groups living abroad. For example, Irish State policy towards the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland or British state policy towards unionists there.

Minorities were scattered over Europe and the rest of the world following the collapse of empires into nation-states after two world wars. They are associated with irredentism – territorial claims based on a national, ethnic or historical basis.

Many such conflicts have been overcome, contained or mitigated by wider schemes of regional integration. Joint membership of the European Union by the Irish and British states from the 1970s is a classic example, echoing those in central and eastern Europe. John Hume’s highly influential politics of reconciliation is based squarely on that proposition.


Brexit’s removal of that peace-making condition reawakens the sleeping dogs of competing sovereign claims. Some say it could let slip the dogs of war.

Would a Sinn Féin first minister in the North combined with a Sinn Féin taoiseach in the South turn that party from a barking to a biting dog? asked a participant at the launch of research findings from a mini-citizens’ assembly by the UCD Institute for British-Irish Studies I was involved in last month.


The research evidence suggests the 50 citizens in the deliberations on a potential united Ireland value reconciliation far ahead of any return to violence. Yet they want to see preparation for possible unity or union referendums combined with reconciliation efforts over the next five to eight years.

They are convinced UK voters’ deep confusion over the actual meaning of Brexit means an Irish government should specify the nature of the proposed union ahead of any referendums – even if this meant there would be a limited Northern Ireland input. They prefer an integrated model of unity to one in which the North would remain devolved.

Canine metaphors, similes or analogies help classify such popular attitudes for analysts – and can dramatise the options available to citizens. One question requiring public discussion is whether the hard Brexit policy being pursued by the British government in the name of sovereignty is a more powerful driver of constitutional change than Sinn Féin nationalism and irredentism? Is that biting dog not more dangerous than a Sinn Féin whose bark may be worse than its bite?

Which is the greater elephant in the Irish-British room?

Insiders say Irish-British relations have deteriorated compared to 20 years ago. European and US diplomats are struck by how uncivil they have become.

That is important because both powers are now legal or political guarantors of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday agreement which determines power-sharing, North-South and East-West relations. Its structure recognises Northern Ireland’s unique status as a place where sovereignty and citizenship are shared. The agreement provides for consent to constitutional change.

Assertive unionism

Those understandings are less and less apparent in Conservative Party policy and attitudes, which have shifted decisively towards an assertive unionism or in a Brexit policy effectively demanding that Northern Ireland has no free access to the EU single market.

The parallel shifts in the Democratic Unionist Party make it a dog in the manger whose tail unsuccessfully wagged Teresa May before being betrayed by Boris Johnson. Does he want to give them back an Irish or Celtic Sea border or will he be content to throw them the bone skilfully proposed by Maros Sefcovic?

In these circumstances the reactive shift among nationalist parties and voters towards a unity option becomes more understandable – and more rational. The emergent question is whether Northern Ireland would be better off in an Ireland with full EU membership or in a UK pursuing absolute sovereignty in a stubbornly interdependent world?

That question, and its looming proximity given the protocol impasse, now actively exercises policy-makers at the highest levels in the EU and the US. They know historical events can speed up at such decisive moments – more so than many in Ireland seem to realise.

If the protocol talks break down in the coming weeks because of British demands for sovereignty, those who deny this factor is the major driver of political change in Ireland will find they are barking up the wrong tree.