Between Two Unions: The constitutional future of the islands after Brexit

The Challenge

At 4.39 on the morning of 24th June 2016, veteran BBC broadcaster David Dimbleby confirmed that, by a slim margin of 52 to 48 percent, ‘the decision taken in 1975 by [the UK] to join the Common Market [had] been reversed by this referendum to leave the EU’. This decision generated political shock waves which continue to be felt not only in the UK itself, but right across Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world.

Nowhere have these shock waves been more deeply felt than on the island of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, where a majority voted to remain in the EU, Brexit has raised once again the spectres of division and conflict. At the same time, the Republic has been forced to grapple with what life in the EU will be like without its closest neighbour and trading partner.

Brexit represents perhaps the most profound challenge to political relationships within and between these islands since the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s. It has radically disrupted the peace and political settlement reached on Good Friday in 1998; threatened the open border and forms of co-operation between North and South which the Belfast Agreement both facilitates and replies upon; and fundamentally reshaped relationships between Unionists and Nationalists, Northern Ireland and the Republic, Ireland and the UK, and Ireland and the EU. It is therefore a seminal event in the history of these islands. And it represents a real-time experiment in constitutional reinvention with, as yet, unknown outcomes


The Research

As part of the ‘Between Two Unions’ international project team, which includes partners in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stirling, Cambridge and Cardiff, Drs Murphy and Evershed have sought to analyse Brexit’s complex political dynamics and map, in real time, their consequences for the island of Ireland. Specifically, the project has sought to address a series of inter-related and overlapping research questions:

What are Brexit’s consequences for (i) community relations and relationships within and between political parties in Northern Ireland; (ii) North-South relations on the island of Ireland; (iii) East-West relations between the UK and Ireland; and (iv) relationships between Northern Ireland, Ireland and the European Union?

This has been a complex study conducted in real-time, based on a two-stranded methodology: an empirical study of processes and outcomes; and a conceptual analysis of the arguments and normative principles at play. The collection of data has been based on:

  1. Documentary analysis
  2. Elite interviews

Documentary analysis has focused on books; journal articles; press and media commentary; official government documents; EU statements and positions; parliamentary debates; parliamentary written and oral questions; party policy documents/statements; bilateral/EU political meetings; political speeches; and legal rulings.

Semi-structured elite interviews have engaged key figures and representatives from:

  • Political parties in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland (Cllrs, MLAs, MPs, TDs, Senators and MEPs)
  • The Northern Ireland Executive Office
  • The Northern Ireland Office
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • The Joint Secretariat for the North-South Ministerial Council
  • The Secretariat for the British-Irish Council
  • The UK and Irish Permanent Representations to the European Union
  • The EU Brexit Task Force and wider European Commission
  • Relevant Select Committees of the UK Parliament and the Oireachtas
  • Non-governmental organisations with a substantive stake in Brexit and/or North-South and East-West relationships (e.g. Co-operation Ireland, Border Communities Against Brexit, CBI Northern Ireland, Ulster Farmers’ Union)
  • Political commentators and others with a professional stake in and insight on the Brexit process

Particular attention has been paid to how the Brexit process has served to (re)shape contemporary party politics on the island of Ireland (and vice versa), and Drs Murphy and Evershed have published leading research on the part played by the DUP in Brexit’s complex political theatre. This case-study approach has now been extended to examine Sinn Féin’s impact on the Brexit process.

The project is ultimately concerned with how Brexit has impacted on Ireland’s political future, and its role in the burgeoning debate about Irish (re)unification. The final project output will be a co-authored, book-length study on ‘Brexit and Ireland’s Constitutional Future’.

The Impact

The project has generated a number of peer-reviewed publications in leading academic journals, including Ethnopolitics, Global Discourse, British Politics and Irish Political Studies, and book chapters in edited volumes including, The Routledge Handbook on Brexit (Routledge, 2018), How Ireland Voted 2020  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives: The Scottish Tory Party 2011-2019 (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Over the course of the project both researchers have also published their own monographs: Dr Evershed’s Ghosts of the Somme: Commemoration and Culture War in Northern Ireland (Notre Dame University Press: 2018) examines the contemporary politics of Ulster Loyalism, while Dr Murphy’s Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future: Negotiating Brexit’s Unique Case (Agenda Publishing: 2018) provides a clear and critical assessment of the nature of the political and economic risks that Brexit represents for Northern Ireland.

Dr Evershed’s research has played a key role in promoting public understanding of the politics of commemoration in post-conflict Northern Ireland, and of the nuances and complexity of Ulster Loyalist political culture in the moment of Brexit. It has fed in to shaping exhibitions at the Ulster Museum and Belfast City Hall, and community projects, including Co-operation Ireland’s Entwined Histories programme.

Dr Murphy’s Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future has been pivotal in shaping policy responses to Brexit, cultivating understanding across government, the civil service and political parties about the nature of the challenge posed by Brexit. Paschal Donohue TD, Minister for Finance, welcomed the book’s publication: ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the book. This book is an invaluable map to understand the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland and provides an exemplary compass for appreciating what the future may hold. It further establishes Mary C. Murphy as the leading scholar of the complex nexus that is the relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU.’

Both researchers have deliberately and consistently sought to contribute to public debate and promote deeper public understanding of Brexit and its complex political and constitutional dynamics. This has included developing and delivering an Adult Continuing Education module at UCC: Stuck in the Middle with EU: Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Politics of Brexit. Research on this project has also informed (and been informed by) the design and delivery of the Department of Government and Politics’ Jean Monnet series of public lectures.

Drs Evershed and Murphy maintain an active and research-informed social media presence; are regular contributors to the widely read UK in a Changing Europe and Centre on Constitutional Change blogs; and regularly appear in the media in Ireland and beyond. Dr Murphy has appeared on RTÉ radio and TV, Sky News, the BBC, Bloomberg and France 24, and has contributed to the leading US periodical Foreign Affairs. Dr Evershed has provided expert commentary on Brexit and its role in Irish politics for the Associated Press, Agence France-Press, Politico and the BBC, among others. Their work on the DUP, published with British Politics, has received particularly extensive media coverage, forming the basis of stories by both RTÉ’s Tony Connelly and the Belfast News Letter’s Sam McBride. Both journalists have attested to the importance of this work in informing their reporting on the DUP, and in promoting a more nuanced and well-developed public understanding of the party’s role in the Brexit process.

Work on this project has also fed directly into policy-making. Both researchers have cultivated long-term and collaborative engagement with policy-makers in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and Dr Murphy has presented expert evidence to Oireachtas and House of Lords committees and the UCL Constitution Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. Durable research collaborations have been built over the course of the project with colleagues working on Brexit at Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, Maynooth University, Dublin City University’s Brexit Institute and University College Dublin’s Institute of British-Irish Studies.

For more information

‘Between Two Unions: The constitutional future of the islands after Brexit’ has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The Irish dimension of the project has been led by:

Dr Mary C. Murphy, Senior Lecturer ( and Jonathan Evershed, Postdoctoral Researcher ( in the Department of Government and Politics. Their co-authored paper in British Politics, “Between the Devil and the DUP: The Democratic Unionist Party and the Politics of Brexit” is available here.


Mary C. Murphy and Jonathan Evershed's research about the DUP's role in the Brexit process was really important. Its value lay in it being based on actually talking to people in the DUP - which in my experience of academics is too rare - and then laying out the facts pretty dispassionately."

– Sam McBride, Political Editor, Belfast News Letter

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