It’s no secret that England and Ireland have historically endured a bitter relationship. Northern Ireland, the offspring of their centuries-old row, traumatized by decades of violence, is today cause for concern for both of its progenitors. As cascading political upheavals have passions running high, cries for re–examining the custody of the country have been growing louder by the day. Is it high time for Northern Ireland to take its leave of the United Kingdom and unite the Irish Isle once more? The answer begs a brief review of the Anglo-Irish drama.
The first encounter took place way back in the 12th century when Ireland was but a functional mess of Gaelic and Celtic kingdoms and England was going through its Anglo-Norman phase (after William the Conqueror’s 1066 intrusion). Blessed with a charter to “civilize” from the Catholic Church, the English king Henry II plucked up the courage to invade in 1169. It was blood at first sight. Swept off their feet and onto their knees, the Irish peoples were first bound to the Crown under the Lordship of Ireland. After 400 years of relatively harmonious communion, Henry VIII (of sextuple wife fame) broke away from the Catholic Church and transferred mystical authority to his own Anglican Protestant Church of England (more lenient on polygamy, thank God). Of course, Ireland was subjected to this lifestyle change and revamped into the Kingdom of Ireland in 1542. The new routine consisted of planting English Protestants, each of whom wielding a mandate to repress and dispossess the Roman Catholic locals. This cruel treatment eventually provoked the Irish Rebellion of 1798, calling for equality and fairness by virtue of legitimate unification. By the Acts of Union 1800, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became a lawfully wedded sovereign nation... alas, till treaty do them part. After a brief contented honeymoon, desire for self-governance and resentment festered, culminating in the Irish War of Independence from in 1919 (fought by the original Irish Republican Army). The settlement took the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, separating the Irish Free State from the Union in 1922 (yet still indentured to the British Empire as a Commonwealth Dominion). However, a key clause in the arrangement allowed Northern Ireland (an area comprising most of the ancient North Eastern province of Ulster) to pick a side in the split. Populated by a Unionist (allegiant to the United Kingdom) and Protestant majority, the immediate exercise of this right partitioned the island. As Belfast embraced mastery by London, Dublin championed Éamon de Valera as he drafted the constitutional changes that founded the definitively independent Republic of Ireland that exists to this day, finalizing the divorce from the United Kingdom on December 29th 1937.
If only all could be well that ended well. By the late 1960’s, animosity between ethnic and political groups in Northern Ireland had reached a fever pitch. Unionists were facing off against Irish republicans (also known as nationalists, of primarily Catholic persuasion, whose core political aim is the unity and independence of Ireland and the rejection of all British interference) in what would degenerate into a 30–year conflict known as The Troubles. 1969 saw dramatic escalation as a campaign by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association against allegedly brutal discrimination by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the local detachment of the UK police force) led to eight fatalities and several hundred wounded. The subsequent rioting militarized the conflict from both sides: a full-scale deployment of the British Army (who resigned to building the infamous “peace walls”) was countered by the mobilization of the Provisional IRA (a violent paramilitary resurgence of the original). Designated terrorists by the UK government, in 1971 they began an offensive campaign of bombings and guerrilla warfare aimed at expelling the British from Northern Ireland. Catastrophe struck when British soldiers shot twenty-six unarmed civilians (who all happened to be Catholic), killing fourteen, as they fled a protest march on January 30th 1972, a date that lives in infamy as Bloody Sunday. From the early 1970’s, the political arm of the P–IRA was embodied by Sinn Féin, who sought to publicize and legitimize their republican agenda (the party ever since maintaining an abstentionist policy of refusing to vote or sit in The House of Commons in protest). Only when Sinn Féin was invited to participate in peace talks in July 1997 did the P-IRA declare a ceasefire. On April 10th 1998 the Good Friday Agreement finally quelled The Troubles and created a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly to preside at Stormont, also represented by 18 MPs in Westminster. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political party to oppose the agreement, due to a consequential provision promising that if both sides should vote in favour of reunification in a border-poll referendum, it shall happen.
And everyone lived happily ever after… until Brexit. Article 50 was triggered despite Northern Ireland voting 55.8% to Remain a member of the European Union. During the subsequent negotiations, the all-too-real fear that a hard border between the two Irelands would set off a relapse of bloodshed became a major sticking point, coined the Irish Backstop. Freshly elected British PM Boris Johnson’s plan to “get Brexit done”, unveiled in October of last year, instead placed the UK/EU border along the Irish Sea. In effect this sealed off Northern Ireland from Great Britain economically, whilst also hauling them out of the EU politically. Understandably, this was perceived as neglectful and exposed that Number 10 considered Northern Ireland expendable: DUP leader Arlene Foster responded “This is very concerning for us as it goes to the heart of the act of union”. The Northern Ireland Assembly will have the opportunity to vote on the arrangement, but not until 2024. During the UK general election in December, Irish republican parties Sinn Féin and the SDLP carved out a majority in Northern Ireland for the first time, at the expense of the DUP. After some amendments to the proposed bill, the United Kingdom, including a reluctant Northern Ireland (not to mention a positively defiant Scotland), officially left the European Union on January 31st 2020. Has this set the stage for an encore to the Anglo-Irish drama, one with reunification as the final curtain call?
This certainly appears to be the case at present. In the aftermath of the referendum result, Former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (and P-IRA leader) Martin McGuinness declared that “the British government now has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the North” and “that there is a democratic imperative for a border poll”. This sentiment is echoed among the people of Northern Ireland according to a Lord Ashcroft poll held late last year: 65% believe Brexit has made unification more likely, and 51% support leaving the UK and joining the Republic, rising to 60% among the 18-24 demographic. Indeed, in line with approval of the EU, younger generations are more likely to back unification, a trend reflected in increased support for Sinn Féin among youths (who have little if any recollection of their shady past). Although Unionists remain the largest community in Northern Ireland, Kevin Meagher in the New Statesman claims that “Catholics now outnumber Protestants at every level of the education system” and that “Northern Ireland’s in-built Protestant unionist majority is shrinking; while the integrative logic of an all-Ireland offering to the outside world, essential in terms of investment and tourism, makes the gerrymandered border seem an anachronism.”. Earlier this year, Sinn Féin MP and former Mayor of Belfast John Finucane stressed that “the next Irish government needs to begin actively preparing for unity.” adding that “Failure to do so would be a dereliction of duty.”. However, the political class in the South seems far less committal, with a government spokesman quoted as saying “The Irish government very firmly does not see Brexit as a vehicle for achieving a united Ireland—they are separate and distinct issues”. But given the results of their general election in February, that inclination seems poised to fall the other way...
Fixated upon the perils of Brexit, the fragile coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the two predominant centre-right parties in Irish politics, had endured. However, as soon as the deal passed and the uncertainty abated, the spotlight sharply reverted to internal affairs. Domestic crises in healthcare, housing (with rents soaring, especially in Dublin) and homelessness (the Irish government pays for a large number of families to live in hotel rooms) quickly tore the alliance apart. Despite a political victory in avoiding a hard–border, head of Fine Gael’s minority government and PM Leo Varadkar, was compelled to call a snap election for February 8th. An ascendant Sinn Féin won the largest share of the popular vote (with 24.5%) and 37 seats in the Dáil (the 160-seat Irish lower house), surpassing Varadkar’s party Fine Gael (20.9% share and 35 seats) and Eamon de Valera’s own Fianna Fail (22.2% and 37 seats). The result marked the first time in a century that Fine Gael or Fianna Fail hadn’t been dominant, dividing the chamber more than ever. Before the vote, both had pledged not to enter into a coalition with Sinn Féin, historically shunned and shamed for their dubious allegiances. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald, who claims to have turned a new leaf for her All-Ireland party, has instead been seeking support among the smaller left-wing parties, and has personally appealed for a reunification referendum by 2025, enshrining it as a prerequisite for entering any coalition. On February 20th, as the hung parliament entered a deadlock over the choice of Premier, Varadakar resigned, and the Dáil adjourned until March 5th to find a viable solution. One clear fact emerges: the majority of the Dáil now ostensibly backs Irish republicanism (as Fine Gael, the self-proclaimed “United Ireland” party, also openly supports Irish reunification, although Varadkar had deemed it unwise for now). The idea also isn’t without popular support in the Republic, as a BBC/RTÉ poll in 2015 found that 66% favoured a united Ireland in their lifetimes.
Is this also Britain’s cup of tea? In a word, no. Beholden to the DUP to secure the majority she desperately sought in 2017, Theresa May’s Conservative government flaunted strong Unionist sympathies. Although Boris Johnson declared himself a “fervent and passionate unionist” during a visit to Northern Ireland last year, his motives have been brought into question following the details of his controversial Irish border plan: the whole of the UK leaves the EU customs union (the no-tariff trading bloc), but checks are to be performed upon crossing the Irish Sea, with taxes applied only to goods “at-risk” of subsequently entering the Republic of Ireland. In what some consider a deceitful ploy to push back against the idea of abandoning Northern Ireland, Johnson has recently revived plans for a 20–mile bridge between the latter and Scotland (a plan engineer Chris Wise derided as “socially admirable but technically clueless”). Nevertheless, the official position of the British government is that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remain so. Yet with the added complexity of the Brexit equation and the attitudes of the majority, one can’t deny that a unified Ireland within the EU glimmers as a reasonable, simple and durable solution for all parties. This begs the question, why is it so rarely acknowledged as being on the table? What are the cold hard facts underpinning a hypothetical reunification in the future?
From Northern Ireland’s perspective, the EU toodeloo may prove paralyzing: the statelet pocketed almost 700€ million annually in EU funding destined for agricultural projects, economic growth, cultural development, and peace initiatives. Crucially, Brussels has affirmed that Northern Ireland would automatically regain EU membership in the event of unity with Ireland (a guarantee denied to Scotland during the build-up to their 2014 independence referendum, that became the main tenant of the case for remaining in the Union). Altogether eliminating the current open border with the South would assimilate annual exports worth around 4€ billion into an All-Ireland GDP, a flow of trade that would be constricted by an intricate system of checks. But it’s not all good news. There would also be conversion costs (or menu costs in economic jargon) to consider, those of reforming the political, economic and fiscal landscapes and adopting the Euro and the metric system. Furthermore, according to Steve Aiken, an Ulster Unionist Party member, the people of Northern Ireland would see their standard of living go down upon leaving the Union, due to higher costs and poorer public services (substituting the free NHS for the aforementioned healthcare nightmare). And this despite the drastically more favourable economic statistics from the Republic…
Indeed, the economic disparity between the two has fuelled scepticism about unity within the Irish government for many years: Northern Irish income per capita is around half that of the Republic, average gross monthly salary stands at 2105€ (NI) versus 3300€ (ROI) and GDP (PPP) per capita is 21800€ (NI) versus 66175€ ROI, according to their respective statistical offices. With the analogy of German reunification in 1991 not too far from mind, there appears to be overwhelming evidence that the citizens of the South would have to bear a considerable cost to raise the North up to their level (it must be acknowledged however that summary economic statistics for the Republic may be somewhat skewed as a large proportion of Ireland’s GDP emanates from foreign-owned multinationals; case in point when capital restructuring by the likes of Apple inflated Irish GDP growth to 26.3% in 2015, up from 1% two years earlier). The same BBC/RTÉ poll that projected 66% support for unification in the Republic, found those numbers dropped to 31% if it meant an increase in taxes. What’s more, Northern Ireland is currently largely sustained by injections of up to 11€ billion per year from British coffers, a level of subsidy many experts believe would be simply impossible for the Irish government to maintain.
In terms of brass tacks, there is little to suggest that Northern Ireland is an asset to the UK government either. As far back as 1990, then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brook claimed that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, the economic imbalance vis-à-vis the Republic of Ireland also features relative to Great Britain. Economically, Northern Ireland is the poorest region in the UK, at great above-mentioned cost. In terms of industry, little remains aside from a modest aerospace sector. Specifically, Belfast, by the turn of the 19th century the largest linen producer in the world (nicknamed “Linenopolis”) and by the turn of the 20th home to the largest shipbuilding yard in the world (albeit with a patchy record including the Titanic), suffered a drastic decline since the World Wars, exacerbated by The Troubles. Politically, the Conservative landslide at last year’s general election all but swept away the weight of the DUP in the Commons. Strategically and militarily, although Derry was a vital stopping point for arriving US convoys during WWII, it bears little relevance today. The only consistent growth sector since the end of The Troubles has been tourism (nudged up by Game of Thrones location tours). In matter of fact then, Northern Ireland appears to be an anchor on Great Britain, tied by popular consent alone, that should dispassionately be cut in due course. So why oh why does the British political establishment still ostensibly voice support for upholding the Union? Because not doing so would be to invite the most dangerous consequence of all: setting a precedent for seceding from the United Kingdom. Should Northern Ireland successfully emerge disentangled from Great Britain and joined in EU matrimony with Ireland, the path shall have been paved for Scotland to do the same. This threat is very real: although both governments had pledged not to hold another referendum for a generation, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made it very clear that that is what the Scottish parliament wants given the change in circumstances, with Brexit now dragging Scotland (that voted 62% Remain) out of the EU kicking and screaming (Scotland would, however, have to re-apply for membership normally). As much as it was in the interests of EU integrity to make Brexit an openly arduous affair to dissuade further heretics, Great Britain shall be compelled to make relinquishing Northern Ireland equally difficult. There’s also the not insignificant matter of national pride. Whereas the dismantling of the far-flung British Empire (unofficially pronounced dead with the Hong Kong handover in 1997) throughout the 20th century was a justified and inevitable pride-pill to swallow, a break-up at home is a nauseating prospect. For the British government, it’s not too far a stretch of the imagination to predict the long-term iterations of the game and factor in the dire consequences of losing Scotland as well as losing Northern Ireland. And then what? Wales? (although support has historically been far lower, recent polling trends do tease). Et tu, Gethin?
Three essential conclusions loom. Firstly, the waves sent across Europe and the wider world from the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union have also rocked the boat within the Kingdom itself. Purportedly a simple in-out decision, disagreements between the realms over what course to charter have stoked fears of a mutiny. Secondly, Northern Ireland stands out as the black sheep of the British Isles: although officially welcomed by the Republic with open arms, scepticism lurks behind closed doors, and although the United Kingdom advertises solidarity, this is potentially just to hold back the tide of a total dissolution. Which brings us to the final takeaway: by law, regardless of bureaucratic appetites, it’s the Irish people who have the decision power in the matter of reunification, and as past scars fade and an All-Ireland future looks ever–more promising, this cherished Irish dream may be ripe to burst into reality. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that if you dare to ask the people, their answer might just surprise you.