Johnson’s Brexit victory leaves huge uncertainty for Northern Ireland and Scotland

After a massively consequential election on 12 December, the UK is now pretty certain to leave the EU within two months. Yet huge uncertainty remains about the UK's future outside the bloc.

The lack of debate over Brexit during the election leaves Johnson with freedom to go far a hard Brexit or pivot to a closer relationship if he chooses. That choice has significant implications for the future of Northern Ireland.

A hard Brexit will mean a customs border with Great Britain, pushing the North towards a deeper All-Ireland economic relationship. A closer relationship will ameliorate those requirements.

Northern Ireland's politicians will have limited leverage over Johnson's approach after an election that delivered a double blow to the DUP.  Not only has it lost the balance of power at Westminster, but its own defeats undermine its claims to speak for Northern Ireland on the subject of Brexit or that potential Irish Sea border. Not only did it lose both North and South Belfast but it was comprehensively defeated in its key target in North Down.

That North Belfast seat was a high-profile gain for Sinn Féin but defeat in Foyle underlined that results were much shakier elesewhere. Both SF and the DUP may now have strong incentives to form a new Stormont executive.

The SDLP's gains in Foyle and South Belfast were aided by a pact in the latter. The two new MPs are associated with different ideas about the party's future direction, but for now it's mission accomplished. 

The SDLP's revival is in stark contrast to the Ulster Unionists' failure to regain South Antrim. they are now Northern Ireland's fifth party and the dilemmas of a party in long-term decline are not getting any easier.

In many of the UUP's former strongholds, Alliance is now the main challenger to the UUP.  Victory in North Down was matched by strong performances in many of the traditionally unionist seats in the east of Northern Ireland as well as inroads in the more nationalist west.

The 'loyalist backlash' against Johnson's Brexit deal may have generated its own backlash from the electorate. Loyalist accusations that Alliance are a nationalist party are wide of the mark. It is a unionist-backed Brexit that is pushing the middle ground towards a closer relationship with Dublin. 

The value of that relationship is underlined by contrast with Scotland, which has no such patron, and where an SNP government looks set for confrontation with Westminster.

In England and Wales the Conservative ascendancy looks unchallengeable for the moment. But many of the most divisive issues for the opposition, such as Brexit and Corbyn's leadership, will now receive an enforced resolution. 

With the easy bit of Brexit done, Johnson will face tougher economic decisions, but constitutional and national questions will remain significant, A new cadre of opposition leaders will have to deal with them.




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