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Major research study compares the impact of Brexit on the two remain-supporting areas of the UK

A major new research paper published today (Tuesday, 24 April) compares the impact of Brexit so far and its implications for the two remain-supporting areas of the UK: Northern Ireland and Scotland.


The paper has been co-authored by Dr Kirsty Hughes, Director at the Scottish Centre on European Relations, Edinburgh and Dr Katy Hayward, Reader in Sociology, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast.

The study notes that there are obvious differences – Northern Ireland faces a unique complex of problems associated with the Irish border and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, but there are also important similarities. For both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the impact of Brexit revolves around the exacerbation of internal political divisions, economic and social consequences, and increased tensions vis-a-vis Westminster and the UK government. Devolution – and the implications of two devolved areas voting remain – appears to have been viewed more as an irritation than a central concern in the UK’s Brexit planning to date.

Dr Hughes said: “The UK government has, in essence, ignored how to reconcile Scotland’s strong support for ‘remain’ with the hard Brexit route the UK is on.

“An all-UK, unitary and centralising approach to Brexit only serves to further alienate the majority view in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are striking parallels here with Northern Ireland, despite the different political dynamics.”

The research paper argues that Brexit has contributed to political polarisation in Scotland and Northern Ireland which has not been helpful in ensuring the ‘remain’ viewpoint in both is adequately represented.

Politically, the leave/remain divide has added to and reinforced existing divisions regarding the (UK) Union between political parties in both: Sinn Fein supporting Irish reunification and opposing Brexit versus the DUP in Northern Ireland supporting the Union and Brexit; in Scotland, the SNP supporting independence and opposing Brexit versus Labour and the Conservatives supporting or accepting Brexit and supporting the union.

Dr Hayward commented: “Brexit has brought the Irish border back to the centre of politics in Northern Ireland, and the consequences of this are impossible to manage from Westminster alone.”

The research study debates that, if there is to be a Brexit deal then, despite DUP concerns, a differentiated solution is highly likely for Northern Ireland – perhaps along the lines proposed already by Brussels. If so, that will keep Northern Ireland closer to the EU than any other part of the UK. Unless the UK government changes tack to a ‘soft’ Brexit, a differentiated solution means a border (to some extent) in the Irish Sea.

“The challenges faced in Northern Ireland require pragmatism and flexibility from the UK. The starting point for this should be the principle of differentiation that already exists in the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement,” Dr Hayward says.

For Scotland, any differentiated outcome is highly unlikely (lacking political support both of the UK government and in Brussels) – and while some in Scotland hope they too could benefit from such a deal, it would be likely to imply some border checks between England and Scotland.

The paper argues that the Brexit process so far has posed challenges and threats to the devolution settlement. Northern Ireland has been centre stage in Brexit talks and debates, in ways that Scotland has not, both due to the Good Friday Agreement and the supportive role played by Ireland and the EU27. However, the Scottish government and parliament have had more of a role to play (even if so far with little influence) through their participation in the Joint Ministerial Committee, while in the absence of a Northern Ireland executive and assembly, Northern Ireland has been under-represented in debates over return of EU powers in devolved areas and the creation of new common frameworks.

The study says that a ‘soft’ Brexit of staying in both the EU’s customs union and its single market would ease the political divisions in both Northern Ireland and Scotland – but it would create a major democratic deficit as the UK becomes a rule-taker rather than rule-maker in the EU. A ‘no deal’ Brexit would have deeply divisive political consequences for the remain-voting areas of the UK in particular.

Dr Hughes added: “The UK’s current direction of travel towards a deep and comprehensive free trade deal means that the likely outcome of Brexit is a differentiated deal for Northern Ireland, keeping it closer to the EU than the rest of the UK, while Scotland remains fully tied to a hard Brexit UK based around a free trade deal.”

The paper ‘Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland Comparing Political Dynamics and Prospects in the Two ‘Remain’ Areas’ is available from the Scottish Centre on European Relations: and from the Queen’s University Belfast Brexit Resource Guide:



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