Brexit, Northern Ireland and Scotland: Comparing Political Dynamics and Prospects in the Two ‘Remain’ Areas – New Policy Paper

24 April 2018
Policy paper from the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER) and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) by Dr Kirsty Hughes and Dr Katy Hayward
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A major new research paper published today compares the impact of Brexit so far and its implications for the two Remain-supporting areas of the UK: Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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-à-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 Kirsty Hughes (Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations, Edinburgh) 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.”

She added:

“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.”

Dr Katy Hayward (Reader in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast) said:

“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.”

She added:

“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.”

Political divisions deepened

The two authors argue 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 Féin 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.

In Northern Ireland, the constitutional question over the Irish border has been brought centre stage by the Brexit process.


The paper argues 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 NI 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. 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.

Undermining devolution

The paper argues that the Brexit process so far has posed challenges and threats to the devolution settlement.

On the one hand, 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. But, on the other hand, 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, NI has been under-represented in debates over return of EU powers in devolved areas and the creation of new common frameworks.

The paper describes the process of returning EU powers in devolved areas to the UK as shambolic. Partly intentionally and partly unintentionally, the UK government’s handling of the Brexit process has reinforced and underlined the centralised nature of the UK political system and the dominant power of Westminster even after 20 years of devolution.

Possible Brexit outcomes

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.

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.

How these outcomes will impact on future political dynamics in both is an open question, but in themselves they would substantially change the current devolution settlement. The paper concludes that Brexit is likely to mean much more than just Brexit for both Scotland and Northern Ireland.


Dr Kirsty Hughes · Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations – Paper co-author
Contact Dr Hughes by email
Dr Katy Hayward · Reader in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast – Paper co-author
Contact Dr Hayward by email

The Scottish Centre on European Relations is an independent and unaligned EU think tank, based in Edinburgh.