With Parliament Voting for Brexit, Is Irish Unification Inevitable?

Republican sentiment is rising over fears that Brexit will tank the economy, but Northern Ireland’s unionists won’t go quietly.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald sits alongside deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, North Belfast MP John Finucane and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (second from left) sits alongside deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (second from right), North Belfast MP John Finucane (left), and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew (right) during Sinn Fein’s election launch on Nov. 11, 2019, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Almost a century after partition carved two separate political entities out of Ireland, Brexit has revived the prospect of unification in a serious way. On Thursday, the British House of Commons passed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal bill by 330 votes to 231—an outcome even many Protestant unionists don’t want—thereby putting the United Kingdom on course to leave the European Union on Jan. 31. As Irish nationalist politicians find themselves increasingly in the ascendancy in Northern Ireland, this sets the stage for a renewed debate on Irish unity.

The argument for unity is closely tied to the strong economic underpinnings that argue for it in the face of the Brexit threat. Northern Ireland has received more than 600 million pounds ($780 million) a year in funding from the EU aimed at supporting agricultural projects, economic growth, cultural development, and peace initiatives. The open border with the Republic of Ireland in the south facilitates annual exports worth 3.4 billion pounds ($4.4 billion), and some academics have argued that the elimination of economic barriers across Britain and Ireland helped support peace efforts in the 1990s.

The Northern Irish electorate, by and large, seemed to recognize these benefits, and despite the United Kingdom as a whole voting Leave in the June 2016 Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted Remain with a 55.8 percent majority.

Those results sparked immediate calls for a border poll—the mechanism by which voters in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic can vote through referendum to unify. Then-Northern Ireland deputy leader Martin McGuinness declared in the aftermath of the result 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.’”Even if nationalists do get a border poll, if they lose, the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that another one can’t be held for seven years.

Even so, political union with the Irish Republic could take a long time—perhaps a decade or more. Johnson and his Conservative government have strong unionist sympathies, and they are unlikely to hold a border poll in the absence of external pressure. After a recent breakthrough to restore power-sharing, nationalists might decide to work through the north’s devolved administration at Stormont (which would at least give them an institutional voice), but they are still a minority in that body. In the republic itself, questions over the cost of onboarding Northern Ireland have fueled skepticism about unity, and given the overwhelming backlash against the Irish government’s recent decision to commemorate police officers who fought on the British side during the War of Independence, it is doubtful that nationalist Ireland is ready to incorporate a substantial unionist minority. Even if nationalists do get a border poll, if they lose, the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that another one can’t be held for seven years.

Notwithstanding the difficulties they face, nationalists have argued that unity is the only way to maintain the standard of living Northern Ireland has grown into because unifying with the republic will secure its EU membership and thus, by extension, protect the benefits it has accrued since accession. Brussels has affirmed that Northern Ireland would automatically regain EU membership in the event of unity.

Election results since the referendum seem to suggest that pro-EU voters are turning the tide in favor of unity. In March 2017, unionists—who are largely pro-Leave—lost their majority in the north’s devolved assembly. Perhaps more significantly, nationalists won a plurality of Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats at the recent British elections for the first time in history.

Sinn Fein—Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party—was quick to suggest that the election results represented a mandate for a border poll. “[I]t is now impossible to ignore the growing demand for a referendum on Irish Unity,” party leader Mary Lou McDonald said in an official statement after the election. “I want to reiterate Sinn Fein’s call for the Irish government to establish an All-Ireland Forum on Irish Unity without delay.”Nationalists won a plurality of Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats at the recent British elections for the first time in history.

The decision to hold a border poll is ultimately dependent on the discretion of Northern Ireland’s secretary of state—whose feelings toward unity might change one way or the other depending on the political mood in London. But certain facts are undeniable. The fortunes of nationalist politicians are growing, and although public attitudes are difficult to pinpoint, some polls do suggest that a majority of people now favor unity. One survey from the independent pollster Lord Ashcroft found that 51 percent of people would vote for unity if a border poll were held the next day. Another poll commissioned by the pro-EU advocacy group Our Future Our Choice said 52 percent of people it surveyed backed a united Ireland. At the very least, recent opinion polls show that a large majority of the public believes Brexit has made unity more likely, regardless of their individual feelings on the issue.

Getting a border poll on the agenda is the first step; the next is actually winning it. While the great bulk of nationalists are expected to support a border poll, they still comprise only 21 percent of the Northern Irish population, so any campaign that places unity as its objective will necessarily need to find a way to attract voters from other traditions.

Niall O Donnghaile is a Sinn Fein senator and the party’s spokesman on uniting Ireland and Brexit. Although he acknowledged that Brexit and the prospect of losing EU membership have made unity more likely, he was clear that any move toward unification first would require an all-encompassing debate “that includes the entirety of Irish life right across our island, right across our diaspora.”

Key to this process, he said, is assuring the country’s unionist community that their identities would be “protected and cherished” inside a united Ireland. Unionists are still the largest single community in Northern Ireland, and their prevailing fear over unification is that their British and Protestant identities would be subsumed inside an overwhelming Irish Catholic-majority state. For O Donnghaile, assuaging unionist fears is critical not only to winning a border poll but also to creating a united Ireland that is “competent, inclusive, modern, and progressive.”

Nationalist viewpoints are divergent, however. Gareth Brown was the campaign manager for Claire Hanna, a member of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party who recently won the South Belfast parliamentary seat over incumbent unionist Emma Little-Pengelly. Based on conversations he had with the people of South Belfast—a constituency that voted heavily Remain—Brown concluded that the growing appeal of Irish unity was rooted more in a desire to maintain stability rather than any overarching devotion to the EU.

“What is driving a sentiment towards Irish unity is less this kind of romantic notion of remaining a member of the European Union,” he told Foreign Policy, “and more the prospect of day-to-day life in Northern Ireland changing radically [due to Brexit].”

Most of those voters are not hardcore nationalists. Rather, they are part of a large and growing community that doesn’t align with either of Northern Ireland’s dominant political traditions and whose stance on the constitutional question is largely rooted in a desire to maintain the status quo. According to Brown, the road to unity lies through this community, and the key to winning them over is convincing them that unity is more likely to keep things the way they are.

In this view, the particular form of Brexit matters less than its impact, and the likelihood of unity will depend on how damaging (or not) Brexit is for Northern Ireland. “A Brexit outcome that is very unsettling or very damaging will be a key factor that drives those people to consider Irish unity when they never have potentially before,” Brown said.The particular form of Brexit matters less than its impact, and the likelihood of unity will depend on how damaging (or not) Brexit is for Northern Ireland.

Republican hard-liners—who are increasingly vocal and active—do not believe the election results have changed the prospects for Irish unity because they do not recognize British institutions in the country. Paddy Gallagher is the spokesman of Saoradh, a far-left republican party that police allege maintains links with the New Irish Republican Army, though the party denies this claim. He told Foreign Policy that the performance of nationalist politicians in the recent elections was insignificant and pushed back on the notion that a border poll imposed unilaterally by the British government could serve as a legitimate expression of Irish self-determination.

“As a republican, I am not comfortable asking my British occupier, ‘Can I have my country back?’” he said. “Why should the Irish people be forced to vote in a British border poll to determine whether our country should be free from British rule?”

Although Gallagher rejects a border poll in principle, he is in agreement with other nationalists that Brexit does, indeed, advance the cause of Irish unity. “Any difficulty for Britain, which Brexit has been, is always an opportunity for Ireland. … The fact is, we wouldn’t be talking about Irish unity if it wasn’t for Brexit.”

But nothing about unity is inevitable, and proponents will have to contend with a substantial portion of the population that will not countenance unification under any circumstances. Loyalists are the more hard-line subsection of the unionist community, and they have spearheaded grassroots efforts to resist the latest push for unity. Jamie Bryson is a prominent loyalist activist and blogger who is positioning himself as one of the leading public faces of the loyalist resistance. He told Foreign Policy that the election results were insignificant (with regards to unity) because nationalist politicians campaigned almost exclusively on Brexit—not unity—so the claim that their electoral performance represented a mandate for a border poll, he said, is false.

He is far more concerned about Johnson’s Brexit deal and the prospects of creating an “economic united Ireland” because it could eventually trundle unionists unwittingly into a constitutional united Ireland.

Under Johnson’s deal, Northern Ireland will legally be a part of the new U.K. customs union, but it will continue to be aligned with the EU’s regulatory framework. In practice, that means the Irish border will remain open, but goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland will have to undergo customs checks in the Irish Sea. Unionists are almost universally opposed to this arrangement, and they have held several well-attended rallies since October 2019 protesting it.Proponents [of unity] will have to contend with a substantial portion of the population that will not countenance unification under any circumstances.

Asked about the likelihood of a border poll in the lifetime of the current government, Bryson was nonchalant. “With a Conservative government in power, I don’t think there’s any opportunity or any notion whatsoever of there being a border poll, and I would imagine the government will rule that out pretty quickly.”

Of course, loyalists would oppose a border poll if the government did choose to hold one, and Bryson is confident the numbers simply aren’t there to push it through. Several opinion polls on the issue strongly reinforce that claim.

There is, however, widespread concern that loyalists—under the combined weight of a bad Brexit deal, the receding electoral fortunes of unionists, and negative demographic change—might decide there is no other option but to take to the streets and defend Northern Ireland by whatever means they deem necessary. “When unionists and loyalists feel like their identity—like their place in the world—is being attacked or threatened, then that is sufficient to mobilize loyalism,” said Mary C. Murphy, a lecturer at University College Cork and an expert on Northern Ireland. Bryson went further: “I would imagine there would probably be civil war first before unionists and loyalists would ever walk into a united Ireland.”

What that could mean for the future of Northern Ireland is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that the outlook is as uncertain, complex, and divisive as ever. Nationalists might well get a border poll on the agenda within the next decade, especially as the economic impact of Brexit is realized. But its success will ultimately depend on the articulation of a coherent plan for a united Ireland, and even if nationalists do succeed in that endeavor, don’t expect unionists to go quietly.

Update, Jan. 10, 2020: This article has been updated to reflect news that parties in Northern Ireland reached an agreement to restore power-sharing.

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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