Brexit, the border, and peace in Northern Ireland


Barring a last minute reprieve, in three days Britain will crash out of the European Union without a deal on the terms of withdrawal. Overnight, EU laws will no longer apply to Britain, with impacts extending from trade to immigration to residency rights and beyond.

A no-deal Brexit could lead to shortages of both food and medicines in the UK, skyrocketing prices of EU imports for British consumers, a plunge in exports to the EU, disruption of travel between the UK and the rest of Europe, a collapse of British housing prices, and more.

The crisis will be especially acute along the single land border that separates the UK from an EU member state, the border between the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland and the 26 counties that make up the Republic of Ireland. And it is the debate over the status of that border that has been responsible for much of the policy paralysis since British voters approved the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

I wrote about that border back in July 2016, and last week at a conference in Toronto, a colleague and I presented research on the relationship between Brexit and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

What follows is a short overview of that work. (If you are interested in reading the whole thing, drop me a note in the comments and I will send you our current draft.)

Brexit has raised very real fears of a return to political violence in Northern Ireland. Few predict that the level of violence will rise to that which characterized the worst of the period known as The Troubles. But events of the last few months have led to legitimate fear. Events like the detonation of a car bomb in front of a courthouse in Derry, the mailing of parcel bombs to commercial and military recruiting targets in Britain and Scotland, the discovery of arms caches along the border, and reports that armed dissident Republican groups are searching for old arms dumps left over from the last round of conflict.

Whether violence reignites or not, however, some things are already clear. Brexit has already done significant damage to the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace settlement which ended The Troubles, and that damage has brought latent intergroup conflict back to the surface. Opposing sides have seized upon Brexit has a megaphone to amplify their preferred conflict narratives and political agendas.

image-3The weakening of the GFA has critical implications for the further outworking of the peace process. First, no one wants to see a return to the scale of violence of the past, so the vitality of the peace process and the institutions which secure it are critical. But the institutions themselves were predicated on an assumption of common membership in the European Union. This eased the way both for cooperation between the British and Irish governments, and the governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic. The collapse of cross-border institutions puts the governing institutions of Northern Ireland at risk of a similar fate.

We also argue that Brexit threatens to undo the constructive ambiguity that is one of the key characteristics of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA allowed all parties to claim the agreement had moved them closer to achieving their core goals.

Unionists were ensured that they would continue to play a role in self-government and could claim that the union with Britain was reaffirmed and secured from the threat of Irish unification. Nationalists could likewise claim that the agreement established a trajectory long-term Irish unification and gave them a share in governance they had not previously enjoyed. Key third parties, in particular the European Union, underwrote the agreement and its ambiguities, both politically and in material terms to the tune of nearly $2 billion through 2020 for ongoing peace building initiatives.

There is little to suggest that this was given any meaningful consideration in advance of the referendum or over the more than two years since.

In Northern Ireland, identity and territory and intimately linked, but the Good Friday Agreement lessened tensions by partially decoupling territory from identity. Under the terms of the GFA, the people of Northern Ireland could choose to identify as British citizens, Irish citizens, or both. As long as the border between the North and the Republic was an invisible line on a map between territories sharing common European Union membership, this was an uncomplicated arrangement.

Brexit, however, requires a real border, with customs checks and immigration controls, and true territorial differentiation. The question of citizenship and identity has now become far more complicated.

NI-mapWhen Northern Ireland voted in the 2016 referendum, the Remain position won an overall majority even as Unionists voted overwhelmingly for Leave. Supporters of Nationalist parties voted just as overwhelmingly for Remain. More significantly, the seven voting constituencies that went for Leave in 2016 are dominated both by British identity and Unionist political sentiment.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which has enjoyed considerable leverage over Brexit policy, and has used that leverage to insist that the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic be a real, meaningful one. They, and other Unionist and Loyalist parties and activists, have seized upon Brexit as an opportunity to reassert their identity as British, to harden the impediments to Irish unification, and to break the Good Friday Agreement institutions that allow for Irish involvement in Northern affairs.

For their part, Irish Republican dissidents have similarly used Brexit to advance their political narrative and agenda. As rivals to the mainstream Republican movement led by Sinn Fein, the dissident groups see Brexit as an opportunity, a politically valuable reminder of the reality of Irish partition and Sinn Fein’s failure to overturn it. They welcome the turmoil that Brexit has brought to British politics, arguing that anything that damages the UK is to be welcomed. And, by making questions of Irish unification and sovereignty relevant again, Brexit allows the dissident groups to reclaim the revolutionary Republican  credentials that Sinn Fein has abandoned.

The dissidents also recognize that Brexit, especially if it leads to the reimposition of a “hard border” between the North and the Republic with accompanying physical infrastructure of border posts and customs checkpoints, will serve as a provocation that advances both their narrative and their interests. As a visible sign of partition and foreign occupation, a hard border will potentially boost dissident recruiting, And such infrastructure, and the personnel tasked with manning it, will become targets for armed groups.

So what’s the bottom line? Here are our takeaways:

  • Territory and identity are fundamentally intertwined in Northern Ireland.
  • Brexit, by forcing the territorial question back to the fore in the form of debate over the status of the border, has reinvigorated what had been mostly latent identity-based conflict.
  • Contending groups have leveraged Brexit to advance their preferred conflict narratives and policy agendas.
  • Brexit, and the territorial-identity conflict it has revived, has already damaged the peace process, even without a return to war.

Hey Democrats


Robert Mueller was never going to save you from Donald Trump. Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings make it clear. The full release of Muller’s report, should it come, won’t save you either.

You’re going to have to beat him at the polls.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York is not going to save you from Donald Trump. Nor will the Eastern District of Virginia, nor will the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Division, nor any of the myriad other investigations occurring at the state and federal levels.

You’re going to have to beat him at the polls.

The 25th Amendment is not going to save you from Donald Trump.

You’re going to have to beat him at the polls.

Nancy Pelosi is not going to save you from Donald Trump by initiating impeachment proceedings against him.

You’re going to have to beat him at the polls.

Congressional investigations are not going to save you from Donald Trump.

You’re going to have to beat him at the polls.

You know what’s going to save you from Donald Trump?

Beating him at the polls.

A lot of people watching and a lot of people dead

(Image credit:
(Image credit:


“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote these words in 1974, and for nearly three decades this was common wisdom. The lethality of terrorist groups, Jenkins argued, was a product not simply of limited access to weapons, but also self-restraint.

The logic was straightforward. Acts of violence that are too extreme and produce too many casualties are counterproductive because:

  • They damage group cohesion through the revulsion the group’s own members feel.
  • They alienate the terrorist group’s constituents and supporters.
  • They spark public outrage and harden attitudes among the terrorists’ target population.
  • This outrage triggers intense government crackdown on the group and its supporters, putting the movement’s very survival at risk.

Clearly things have changed, as today’s massacre of 49 people in terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrate. But the attacks today add a deeply troubling new dimension that shows how far the pendulum has swung from that earlier understanding.

The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed video of his attack while it was in progress. It then metastasized, almost instantaneously, across the Internet.

More than eight hours after the shooting video at one of the mosques was first live-streamed on Facebook — apparently by the man who killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch — it still was getting uploaded and re-uploaded continuously by other people onto YouTube.  …

The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Even hours after the shooting, the social-media giants Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continued to host versions of the shooting video, even as New Zealand authorities said they were calling for it to be taken down.

Ahead of the attack, Tarrant posted online a 74-page manifesto in which he described himself as an ethnonationalist and a fascist, rants about “white genocide,” and spews anti-immigrant hate. (I will not post any link to his manifesto here, nor quote his words.)  And, as one terrorism scholar pointed out on Twitter, he orchestrated an online media blitz to spread his message as widely as possible.

Today’s attacks in New Zealand are vivid examples of the changed face of terrorism and the perverse synergies between readily available means of mass killing and access to communications technologies that allow for near-instantaneous dissemination of the terrorists’ message.

Mass casualties have become the means by which the terrorist cuts through the noise and static of our oversaturated media environment. To publicize the cause it is no longer enough to simply kill “a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day by the American press,” as Ramdane Abane once said in explaining the FLN’s decision to initiate a campaign of urban terrorism in French-occupied Algeria in the 1950s.

Changes in both the organizational structure of terrorist movements and in the types of ideologies that motivate them have also immunized terrorists from what were assumed to be the negative consequences of killing too many people in too horrific a fashion. Radicalized and networked individuals and self-contained cells following the doctrine of leaderless resistance and moving within extremist online circles where mass casualty attacks are hailed, not reviled, have little fear either of alienating fellow true believers or that a government crackdown will silence their movement.

That’s why, writing in 2007, Brian Jenkins updated his earlier dictum to reflect a new reality — many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. New Zealand is now a case in point.

Maybe Ken Waltz was right

(Credit: Emad Hajjaj)
(Credit: Emad Hajjaj)


While we were distracted earlier this week by the Michael Cohen show on Capitol Hill and the failed Trump-Kim love fest in Hanoi, two nuclear-armed rivals tiptoed up to the brink of war and then … stepped back.

On Tuesday, India launched airstrikes into Pakistan, targeting a training camp belonging to the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, in retaliation for a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian soldiers on the outskirts of the city of Srinagar, in the Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir. JeM is a Kashmiri separatist group sponsored by the Pakistani government.

A day later, Pakistani jets crossed into Indian territory, then shot down at least one of the Indian fighters that scrambled in pursuit. The pilot was captured by Pakistani forces. Amid all this, news reports indicated that both sides had activated and reinforced their heavy armor formations along the Line of Control that separates Indian from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Troops exchanged fire across the border.

By Thursday, leaders on both sides began to acknowledge just how much danger everyone was in:

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a televised address that the two sides could not afford a miscalculation “given the weapons we have”.

“We should sit down and talk,” he said.

“If we let it happen, it will remain neither in my nor [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s control.

“Our action is just to let them know that just like they intruded into our territory, we are also capable of going into their territory,” he added.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also said “India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation.”

Today, Pakistan handed their captured Indian pilot over to his own government. The crisis seems to have abated.

So what does this episode tell us? It might tell us that nuclear deterrence actually works.

India and Pakistan each have about 140 nuclear weapons that can be delivered by short or medium-range missiles, cruise missiles, or aircraft. Both are working to develop submarine launched nuclear missile systems. Both countries’ nuclear doctrines emphasize deterrence, promising to deliver an unacceptable level of punishment against anyone that dares attack.

Forty years ago, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear arsenals like these would have the desired effect of forcing caution on states that might otherwise be tempted to escalate a crisis like this week’s between India and Pakistan to full scale war. I wrote about this a month ago in the context of discussing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Given the catastrophic damage that nuclear weapons can inflict, even if used in relatively small numbers, Waltz writes that nuclear weapons make “both sides more cautions and the tensions between them less likely to lead to anything more than a skirmish.” Miscalculation, which Waltz rightly says has historically been an important precipitant of war, become less likely under such conditions due to the disastrous consequences of getting it wrong.

Put it all together, and nuclear-armed rivals like India and Pakistan have every reason to quickly de-escalate any crisis that threatens to get out of hand. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since each won independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But since both became nuclear weapons states, their clashes, while troubling, have stayed contained.

When my students read Waltz’s arguments on the virtues of nuclear weapons, they often come away doubting the logic. And it stands to reason. Our human sensibility argues strongly that the last thing we should want is to see more of these weapons in the world. And yet, we have to acknowledge the reality that nuclear weapons, so far, have only been used in anger once. By us. Before any other countries had these weapons.

More nuclear weapons in the hands of more countries has not led to more use of nuclear weapons. So maybe Kenneth Waltz was right. Maybe nuclear proliferation is good.