United Ireland: flight of fancy or near reality?

Ireland united is not a new concept. If anything, it is the actual partition of the island that to many Irish and Northern Irish citizens feels like the novelty. The centenary of that partition will be celebrated by unionists this coming May, but the significance of it will go far beyond commemoration; it will add fuel to the already burning fire of voices calling for a new, united Ireland, or a return to the “natural” state of the island.

The permanency of Irish division was undermined by its very process of creation , so forgive me for the necessary historical digression. In 1912 a minority in the north-east of Ireland feared the consequences for themselves of other Irish voices calling for more autonomy for the island (imagine the independence from London which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy today). They took up arms, militarily organized and many more signed the famous Ulster Covenant to declare their opposition to any constitutional change and their unending loyalty to the Crown, including two of my great-grandparents. Ireland at this time was, of course, part of the United Kingdom, and there is an interesting argument around whether it would still be part of it had the British government handled the period of 1912-1921 differently, but such is a discussion for another time. 

When it came to the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921, the previous threat of disorder in the north reared its head in response to the even greater moves towards an independent Ireland. To placate such tensions, the British government agreed to exempt six counties in the north east from the new Irish Free State under the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1921. They would go on to become the Northern Ireland we know today. However, this was assumed to be a temporary measure, far from lasting 100 years. The partition thus relied on both the British government ceding to the threat of violence, and that the border was both unplanned and designed to be temporary. With this in mind, the eventual three-decade civil war we now term the “Troubles” seems to have been an inevitable consequence of this poorly thought through haste, with (threats of) violence was now accepted as a way of forcing political change. 

The great irony of course is that this unplanned part of the United Kingdom came about because of the will of a minority within the island of Ireland, a far smaller minority than the 48 percent of us who wish to stay in the EU . Moreover, the laughable consequence of the partition is that Westminster, who then never truly desired nor intended Northern Ireland’s existence, has to contend with this entity as the primary thorn in its side during today’s Brexit negotiations.

Because Brexit, for all its grand slogans, never took into consideration the land border with the EU in Ireland, the physical manifestation of our complicated and violent past. The fact that many English people are indifferent to the complexities between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – some do not even realise any difference exists in the first place – proves how far Irish history is from Britain’s conscience. Not that I begrudge the vast majority of the population of Great Britain this ignorance; why should they care about those who do not even live on their island? Such seems to be one of the predominant themes of Brexit anyway. No, it is those who sold the Brexit dream who I charge with reckless negligence in forgetting Northern Ireland, a part of the world still fragile from conflict, our peace process only being four months older than myself. 

So, does Brexit bring a United Ireland closer? And if so, why? Sinn Féin and the like have been banging on about the concept for years, yet it has remained elusive while the Unionists in Northern Ireland hold on to an ever-diminishing demographic majority. The changes now concern economics, politics and – as always with Northern Ireland – identity. There are little to no discernible benefits of any form of Brexit for Northern Ireland, but a host of disadvantages. It can only hamper our trade north to south and east to west, our seamless movement of people across a barely noticeable border, and our peace. 

The EU was fundamental in the peace process, funding projects, building better connections on the island and, with both Northern Ireland and the Republic in the EU, making the border disappear in many senses. All this placated the nationalist population in the north. All who are born and live in Northern Ireland can hold either British or Irish citizenship, or both. How will this function after Brexit, with roughly half of the population here holding an Irish, EU passport? Now the unionists in Northern Ireland are being forced to choose between their national identity (often inherited rather than chosen after consideration in the northern context) and their economic well-being, as well as between their British and European identity. Certainly, in the past, a British identity may have pulled up trumps – but in the current global context the UK’s status as a global power is waning faster than ever thanks to Brexit disruption.  It has also shown those faithful unionists how little their “fellow countrymen” actually care about their fate. Such blatant disregard can only be a painful blow. 

It need not be repeated that both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU – the subsequent surges of nationalist sentiment in these nations comes as no surprise. The majorities in these two countries up until now tended to side with the status quo – but they are waking up to the realisation that they prefer to be European than British in many cases, particularly when Britishness is defined as some sort of Farage-Johnson hybrid of rash decisions and self-importance.

Given this conundrum, we face a potential change in the Northern Irish electorate. There are, of course, the nationalists who have always desired the removal of the border which symbolizes for them centuries of oppression and British occupation. One can only imagine Sinn Féin licking its lips at the shambles into which the Brexit negotiations have descended. They know that comfort and content in a society does not bring about such dramatic change as that which they seek. 

Conversely, there are those who will follow the British government to the last – the same people who coined the now meme-able phrase here in the North: “No Surrender”. And then we have the unknown quantity, the silent, politically-on-the-fence middle. It is this group who could potentially change the course of Irish history. Their priorities still remain to be seen however and will become easier to predict as the Brexit saga reaches its conclusion, and the reality of the decision taken by the British people sees the harsh light of day.

I am an Irish nationalist and desire the United Ireland that will probably come to be one day. But what I seek is a successful United Ireland, one based on integration and peace, which on this island can only come about with slow and measured steps. The catalyst that Brexit may or may not prove to be will disturb this and could force Ireland to reunite in bitterness and avoidable violence. It may cost the stability both north and south and the fragile peace many have fought hard to maintain. 

That being said, we now have a blueprint of what not to do. Having seen the dangers of not planning for a referendum, alongside the consequences of not planning for a stable border, any such unity referendum in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to fall into the same chaos. Planning is imperative and must begin now, for that referendum day is looming in the not-too-distant future. Brexit, what is meant to be the “ultimate declaration of Britishness”, has paved the way for the destruction of the United Kingdom, with Northern Ireland and Scotland leading the charge. Once more, Ireland united is no longer a fanciful idea – but the realisation of an Ireland successfully and peacefully united remains to be seen.

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