Does Brexit make a United Ireland inevitable?
Britain’s lurch into populism and the prospect of a new Scottish independence referendum has thrust reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the surface of political discourse, however unwelcome it may be to some.
“Brexit came out of nowhere, it was not in the British political script at all… What it effectively did was highlight that all of the rational arguments are now in favor of Irish reunification,” Kevin Meagher, an author and former special adviser in Northern Ireland tells RT.
While Brexit may have come as a shock to many, Meagher argues that the writing has been on the wall for years and that now, a United Ireland is the only logical outcome which serves the interests of all parties involved.
A referendum on Northern Ireland’s status, often referred to as a border poll, looms large as UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand reaches for the Brexit trigger.
“If you have a border poll and there is a majority in favor of Irish Unity, that is not really the point at which you want to begin this conversation,” Meagher says.
“Before we actually come to that, we can start to intellectually understand how the Irish state may become more federal, with a large amount of devolution, there may be a strengthened constitutional right to different identity .
“That’s the conversation that should start to happen now.”
Since a 1998 peace deal, known as the Good Friday agreement, ended three decades of bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, sporadic periods of unrest and violence have tested the fragile accord as it struggles to fully emerge from its bloody past.
While there is no sign of a return to the tit-for-tat sectarian violence that killed 3,600 people, the frailties of Northern Ireland’s political power-sharing system have once again been exposed by the collapse of its assembly.
Last week, Northern Ireland ventured into the unknown as unionists lost their majority, at least in terms of seats occupied, in national elections – for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921.
Sinn Féin, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and backed predominantly by many of Northern Ireland's Catholics, has surged in popularity and made extraordinary gains amongst the electorate, underpinning an apparent demographic shift in which nationalists could soon become the majority.
Opinion, however, remains divided on whether it was clear evidence of a resurgent Irish nationalism or merely a protest vote at the perceived hubris of unionism and its leading party, the DUP.
“A vote for Sinn Féin does not necessarily approximate to a vote for a United Ireland, you can’t be as crude as that, it’s not as easy as that,” Diarmaid Ferriter, academic, historian and author says of the recent elections.
While the ideological imperative on both sides of the debate in Northern Ireland may not be as strong as it once was, consideration of tradition and cultural identity is essential if the debate on reunification can begin.
“I would never say that reunification is an inevitability. I think it’s very interesting that question of unity has come back into the frame… [but] you cannot coerce or force Unionists into a United Ireland against their will,” Ferriter points out.
Brexit makes governance even more complex as Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic is the UK's only land border with the EU, raising the prospect of border controls that could stoke memories of past violence.
“That issue in itself is problematic,” says Ferriter. “But there are an awful lot of people growing up in Northern Ireland now, post-Troubles, that don’t necessarily see unification as a burning issue.”
“They mightn’t necessarily see it as a good idea to be absorbed into the Republic.”
Northern Ireland had mostly faded into the background of British politics until Brexit, on an economic level it has always struggled to find a firm footing, remaining over-reliant on the public sector and requiring a £10 billion (€11.5 billion) injection every year from London.
A report commissioned by the Northern Ireland assembly showed that over the next 15 to 20 years, Brexit may negatively impact the North’s GDP by 3 percent.
“It’s obviously got a big, structural public sector and that situation has been in place for a long time… [but it is now] unlikely to remain in place post-Brexit. So we know that there’s an immediate financial and economic hit to Northern Ireland,” Meagher says.
“We need to see Northern Ireland diversify its economy, and the best way to do that is to start to shadow how the southern economy works, to integrate where it can,” he continues, referencing the Republic’s knowledge-based economic model.
Taking those practical, economic steps towards Irish unity are vital, not only due to the legal commitment made in the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate reunification when there is a demand but also, he says, because the demographic statistics point to an inevitable change.
"It’s not good enough anymore to just say, 'we’re glad there’s peace.' We now need to say, 'we need to sustain the peace, sustain political dialogue and we need a longer term view. And the long term view is that Britain will not have sovereignty over Northern Ireland.'"