O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times and author of The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism

In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave himself an additional title no predecessor had assumed: Minister for the Union. The union in question is not the European one which Johnson is determined to leave. It is simply his own country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The title betrays a deep anxiety.

For in breaking one union with Europe, Brexit is endangering another: the centuries-old union of England with Wales, Scotland and (part of) Ireland. Assuming, as the polls predict, that Johnson’s Conservative Party wins the U.K. general election on Dec. 12, he will have to grapple with that contradiction.

Five years ago, it was clear where the danger to the Union was coming from–mainly Scottish and Irish nationalism. Although Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K. in its 2014 plebiscite, the 45% who backed independence made it clear that the cause was now a mainstream proposition. And then there was, as always, the Irish Question. The 1998 peace deal that brought an end to the long civil conflict known as the Troubles acknowledged that the six northeastern counties that make up Northern Ireland can leave the U.K. whenever a majority of its population wishes to do so.

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