FBB St. Patrick’s Day Special: Are we on the Brink of a United Ireland?

Tom Warwick

“I don’t really like the term ‘luck of the Irish’ because the luck of the Irish is, historically speaking, f****** terrible” – Unknown Irish Writer

In June of last year, after months of campaigning, the subjects of the United Kingdom shocked the world by voting in favor of leaving the European Union, an act of stupidity so immense, that America had to elect Donald Trump as President to top it.  This so called “Brexit” has resulted in an abrupt about-face in conventional liberal-democratic thinking and has unleashed a frantic scramble among politicians, business leaders, and the western order in general.  While the details of the final terms of the “Brexit” deal are yet to be seen, the uncertainty of what is to come has already resulted in major geopolitical shifts – both real and rumored. While some of these rumored shifts are more believable than others, there is one that stands out as particularly interesting given the events of the last century: the reunification of Ireland.

For those of you who chose not to spend your college study abroad experience drinking cheap beer and listening to stories from drunk old men to in a bar off of the Temple Bar district, the history of relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom is an incredibly violent one.  While I could spin you a tale of British imperialism dating back to Cromwellian times, the modern incarnation of the feud begins around the turn of the 20th century.  At the time, Great Britain exercised control over Ireland and, because they didn’t learn any lessons in 1776, instituted a series of oppressive laws stripping the Irish people of the rights the Irish believed they were entitled too. Tensions eventually came to ahead on Easter Monday of 1916, when twelve hundred Irish citizens mustered in Dublin and began to seize important sites around the city. On the steps of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Commandant James Connolly read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and announced that an independent Irish Republic had been established.  While the British Military was initially caught off guard by the uprising, the Irish Volunteers were defeated and the leaders of the insurrection executed by weeks end.  While the initial uprising was a failure, the execution of the rebellion leadership struck a nerve within the people of Ireland and the “Black and Tan” War for Independence followed. After an incredibly bloody three years, a truce was reached and a treaty proposed that would establish an “Irish Free State.”  The treaty was controversial enough to lead to yet another bloody war, this time among the Irish Republicans. In the end, the 26 counties in the south were established as a new commonwealth dominion with home rule (like Canada or Australia today). The remaining six counties in the north chose to remained under direct British control, establishing what would become modern day Northern Ireland. In 1937, the Irish Free State would be dissolved and become the modern day Republic of Ireland – a completely independent and sovereign state with no allegiances to Great Britain.

While the southern 26 counties that make up the Republic of Ireland achieved full independence, the division of the island would remain a point of contention and the catalyst for three decades of violence that would become known as “the Troubles.”  The Troubles began in Northern Ireland around the mid-1960s, after years of bubbling tensions between the pro-British Protestant Unionists and the pro-Irish Catholic Republicans.  The Unionists believed that Northern Ireland’s Republicans were inherently disloyal and were determined to force [the unionists] into a united Ireland against their will. This fear was used as justification for  discrimination against Catholic Republicans in areas such as housing and employment. Increasing tensions naturally followed, and when the Catholics formed a pro-republic armed militia, political violence ensued. By the time a truce was declared, over three thousand people were killed in incidents related to the conflict. It was this truce, commonly referred to as the Good Friday Agreement, that brings us back to our “Brexit” moment.  In the Agreement, both sides of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide had agreed to share power in a new system of provincial self-government underpinned by the British and Irish governments. Under the terms of the deal, the question of unifying Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic could only be settled by a referendum, to be held at a time when there is realistic prospect of a vote in favor of reunification.

Before the Brexit vote, Northern Ireland had very little motivation to rejoin their neighbors to the south. As a member of the European Union, Northern Ireland enjoyed access to the common market, free movement across the continent, and felt relatively  little of the stresses caused by an influx of refugees. As a member of the United Kingdom, they also enjoyed access to the Pound, arguably the world’s most stable currency. As a result, there was very little economic reason to alter the status-quo. However, the Brexit vote has put most of these perks at risk. For one thing, almost two-thirds of NI’s exports are sent to mainland Europe, this means that the inevitable trade barriers that will arise after the Brexit split will disproportionately affect Northern Ireland.  Additionally, NI’s largest sector, agri-food, benefits greatly from European Union agricultural and rural development substities.  North Ireland is about to see that wellspring of cash dry up, and the development funds aren’t likely to be replaced by the U.K. government at Westminster, which now has much larger budgetary problems to worry about. Northern Ireland’s consolation prize in all of this will be the continued use of the Pound, but even that isn’t as tempting an offer as it use to be.  

The decision to leave the European Union also carries with it the potential to cause some serious damage to the Irish peace process. Since the Conservative Government of the UK has made it clear that the decision to close their borders is non-negotiable, it is likely that there would be the reintroduction of checkpoints along the NI-ROI border.  While this may seem like a trivial matter, a significant part of the peace settlement was the process of making the border between the two countries less important. Belonging to the European Union has provided a neutral designation in which the Republic and NI could meet as equals with mutually open borders.  The open market and freedom of movement helped to create a genuine “all-Ireland market,” while EU peace funds have supported reconciliation and regeneration initiatives between the two parties. To disrupt this and reintroduce the “them vs us” mentality could seriously change the currently peaceful dynamic and give rise to a “divided Ireland” sentiment.  

Faced with these challenges, the “simple” solution seems to be readily apparent;trigger the Good Friday Agreement referendum clause and have a border vote to form a united Ireland. It appears to many that the time is finally ripe for a reunified Ireland.  In the Brexit vote,  55.8% of voters (440,000) in Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the European, while 44.2% (349,000) voted to leave,  suggesting to many that the “realistic prospect” requirement of the Good Friday Agreement could be met. If Northern Ireland’s citizens were sufficiently motivated to remain in the European Union, this may be true.  However, it fails to take into consideration a century of social, political, and religious tensions.  In a December 2016 poll, when confronted with the question of if they support a united Ireland, only 22% of those polled in the North favored reunification, while 63% preferred to remain in the UK. The numbers were only marginally better in the Republic where 46% of citizens believed it was the “right time for a unified Ireland.” While many on both sides of the Irish divide would like to think that an United Ireland is possible in the next few years, the truth is that reconciliation is not that easy.

I’ll admit, when I first sat down to write this article, I thought I was going to end with an elegant argument about why the iron was hot, and the time had finally come to seize upon the promises laid out in the Good Friday Accord.  But the truth is that there still remains a deep social and political divide between the North and the Republic.  Less than ten years ago the factions on each side were insisting not only that they alone were exclusively right politically, but also religiously. While these tensions have dissipated in the younger generations, for those who remember Bloody Sunday, the Brighton hotel bombing, or the “shoot to kill” allegations, wounds remain. While it is likely that our generation may one day see a single Irish state, and maybe in hindsight Brexit will be seen as playing a role, a successful unification vote will not be the immediate result of it, as much as we may wish. 


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