Is Brexit making the way for a united Ireland?

Is Brexit making the way for a united Ireland?

08/2018  | Reading time: 12 minutes

From 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union. Although the date seems sure, the whole Brexit process is proving to be more complicated than expected. Moreover, it has also had a divisive effect within British society and among the parts forming the UK. The clearest example is Northern Ireland, where the issue resulted in a deeper polarization of an already divided society. As it is highly possible that the UK will leave the EU without a deal, and a hard border will be drawn between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the dormant question of Irish unification has yet again been rekindled.

As expected, the United Kingdom’s exit process from the EU brought the issue of relations between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland back into the spotlight. In fact, it cannot be excluded that a hard Brexit or a no-deal Brexit could jeopardise the achievements reached in Ireland in the last decades and represent a serious threat to the stability of the area.

Since 1921, the Irish island has been divided into two separate units. The southern and western parts formed the Republic of Ireland, while in the north, Northern Ireland was created as part of the United Kingdom by cutting out six of the nine Ulster counties where Protestants were in the majority. Since that moment, sectarian violence spread across the island, and armed attacks between Unionists and Nationalists made Northern Ireland the theatre of a shameful civil war.

The first big step towards normalisation happened in 1973, when the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Community. The common market allowed Irish people on both sides to move freely, making military checkpoints and watchtowers along the 499-km border unnecessary. But it was only in 1998, with the signing of the Belfast Agreement, a.k.a the Good Friday Agreement, that a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process was reached. In fact, at that time, with the supervision of the Irish and British government and the blessing of Washington, all the main Northern Irish political parties agreed to put an end to violence and to use “exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues,” as it is stated in the text of the British–Irish Agreement signed on 10 April 1998.

Orange Order Members during the Ulster Covenant Commemoration Parade in Belfast
Source: Wikimedia Commons, author: Ardfern, licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite these important results, the question of sovereignty over Northern Ireland remained unresolved, and the Brexit process will hardly help to resolve it either. In fact, since the fateful 23 June 2016, political debate in Northern Ireland turned more heated than it had been in years, and requests for a united Ireland have increased. According to the Good Friday Agreement, referendums can be held in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland over this issue, and should the majority consulted choose to have a unified Ireland, British sovereignty over Northern Ireland will come to an end.

Even if “Brexiters” like to claim that the Brexit vote has to be considered only from a national perspective (meaning that the Brexit option did not lose in Northern Ireland because it is part of the UK), it is important to observe that in Northern Ireland, the 55.8% of the voters supported the notion of the country staying in the EU. Support for EU membership went beyond the existing religious dividing line in the country, since only 45.1% of the northern Irish declare themselves Catholics—traditionally supporters of the European integration—while the Protestant community usually backs the Eurosceptic Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has been ruling the country since 2007.

Northern Ireland election seats 1997–2017
Source: Wikimedia Commons, author: Nickshanks, licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

The situation became even more complicated in the aftermath of the 2 March 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election. In fact, for the first time since 1921, Unionist parties did not win a majority of seats, and Nationalist party Sinn Féin closed the gap with the Democratic Unionist Party, gaining 27 seats, only one less than its main opponent. This result caused a stalemate, and the failure of Sinn Féin and the DUP to find an agreement left Northern Ireland without an executive for the last 16 months. In this scenario, it is likely that London will restore direct rule, even though it will hardly happen before the delicate issue of the Irish border have been resolved within Brexit talks.

Westminster and Brussels have promised to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it is not clear yet how it will be possible. Both sides agreed to a “backstop” solution which would be introduced if no Brexit deal were reached. The backstop would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and the single market, avoiding the need for border checks on this very delicate frontier. But Unionist in Northern Ireland have since branded the solution unacceptable and argued it would effectively lead to the break-up of the UK by creating a border in the Irish Sea.

The May government’s uncertain moves are making the prospect of a hard border more realistic every day and resulted in strengthening the position of those Northern Irish who want to remain part of the EU. According to a study released by Queen’s University, Belfast, this support has now risen to 69%. Following these statistics, some political actors believe that the time has come to put up the question whether the unification of the island is a preferable option directly to citizens. At the same time, a declaration of Taoiseach (i.e. the prime minister) Enda Kenny in Brussels showed that the Republic of Ireland is ready to discuss the matter and to consider that the Northern Irish have a right to be part of the EU.

While more than the two-thirds of the Northern Irish wish to remain in the EU, things are different if they are asked whether in case of a border poll, they will support the unification with the Republic of Ireland or stay in the United Kingdom. There have been a number of opinion polls and surveys on the question since the Brexit referendum in June 2016 with greatly differing results. A recent survey by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) showed that support for Irish unity was only at 22%, a result also shared by the Queen’s University, which put preferences for unification at 21%. Differently, a YouGov study commissioned by the BBC showed that over a quarter of the people in the six counties said that they had changed their opinion since the Brexit vote and supported a united Ireland. In fact, according to this study, 42% of the Northern Irish would now support Irish unification—only 3% less than those who still consider being part of the United Kingdom the best option for their country. Two other surveys have also arrived at somewhat similar conclusions. A Lucid Talk survey carried out in December 2017 placed support for unity (albeit conditional on a “hard Brexit,” a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland) at 48%, while a survey conducted by Lord Ashcroft puts the rate of people favourable to an Irish unification at 44%. As we can see, the final outcome of these surveys varies markedly, and if we take the YouGOV, Lucid Talk, or Lord Ashcroft results as the most realistic, Irish unity is an option that going to happen in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, according to Paul Nolan, an academic and independent researcher known for the three Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Reports, Catholics will probably outnumber Protestants already by 2021. While the 2011 official census showed that the Protestant population amounted to 48%, and Catholics to 45%, more recent figures from 2016 show that 44% of the working age adults are Catholic, and 40% are Protestant. Among schoolchildren, 51% are Catholic, and 37% are Protestant. This proportion is only reversed among the more than 60-year-old population, with 57% being Protestant, and 35% Catholic. Even though these predictions does not offer an evidence that the rise of Catholic population will mean stronger support for a united Ireland, it is hard to deny, especially after recent developments in London–Brussels negotiations and the less-than-optimistic predictions for Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit economic future, that bringing back the six Ulster counties in the Republic—and hence in the EU—could represent a most viable solution.


Opening pic: Shutterstock

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