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Northern Ireland Marks a Century. Will It Last Another?

A combination of Brexit, demographic trends, and British apathy could push public opinion toward a united Ireland.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A defaced Welcome to Northern Ireland sign
A defaced Welcome to Northern Ireland sign is seen on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on Sept. 14, 2020. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Northern Ireland commemorates its 100th anniversary, the European Council and NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels, and U.S. border arrests reach record highs.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Northern Ireland’s Second Century

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Northern Ireland commemorates its 100th anniversary, the European Council and NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels, and U.S. border arrests reach record highs.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Northern Ireland’s Second Century

British and Irish political and religious leaders mark the centenary of Northern Ireland’s founding today at a church service in County Armagh. As the U.K. constituent country enters its second century, its not clear whether it will last the full hundred.

Created as a compromise between the British government and Irish revolutionaries following the Irish War of Independence in 1921, Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom has been a point of contention for generations, most recently regarding its status in a post-Brexit Britain.

Disagreements between Britain and the European Union over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, itself a Brexit workaround developed to prevent a hard border on Ireland’s island while keeping to the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement, have posed existential questions over where Northern Ireland stands in the United Kingdom.

Stepping into the local row from thousands of miles away is U.S. President Joe Biden. The issue of peace in his ancestral homeland is such a concern that he has reportedly, unprompted, asked for updates from his staff on the progress of U.K.-EU talks, asking them to remind the British government not to do anything to upend peace in Ireland.

According to the New York Times, Biden didn’t wait until his full bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in September to bring it up, preferring to broach it in a one-on-one discussion just before.

It is an awkward commemoration for the Republic of Ireland, where the two major parties have gone from opposing sides of a civil war almost a century ago to becoming coalition partners for the first time in 2020.

The union of parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael came in the face of a resurgent Sinn Fein party, whose unapologetic vision of a united Ireland, coupled with a center-left political pitch, has found a receptive audience. The party won the most votes in Ireland’s last election, and the latest opinion poll shows Sinn Fein is the most popular party in the country, with a 10 percentage point lead over its nearest rival.

With those delicate politics in mind, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney will make the 80-mile journey north to attend today’s service rather than the Irish prime minister or his deputy.

Ireland’s head of state, President Michael Higgins, declined his invitation, viewing the event as too politicized. Queen Elizabeth II had been scheduled to attend as recently as Wednesday but will instead stay home on doctor’s orders.

Although the queen has shown a rare instance of vulnerability, the accelerating forces unleashed by Brexit, coupled with the demographic changes afoot, mean the monarchy seems more likely to endure the next hundred years than Northern Ireland.

Although new census figures are due next year, the trend toward a majority Catholic population in Northern Ireland—a group traditionally more in favor of Irish unity—is already apparent. The 2011 census figures showed over 60s as the only demographic group disproportionately identifying as Protestant. Schoolchildren were measured as 51 percent Catholic with only 37 percent identifying as Protestants (the remainder reflecting a growing aspiration to identify as neither).

Whether that demographic shift will translate into support for a united Ireland isn’t clear in opinion polls. A survey published in May found 2 of 3 voters in Ireland’s south support unification while only 35 percent in Northern Ireland supported the proposition. (Even among the north’s self-identified nationalists, only 3 in 4 people supported unification.)

If this is to be Northern Ireland’s final century, it will take a new spirit of generosity from citizens in the Republic of Ireland to make it happen, with Britain currently spending roughly $15 billion supporting Northern Ireland annually. When Irish voters in the same survey were asked if they were willing to pay a tax to support unification, only 22 percent said they would.

And how would other British citizens feel if they no longer could call Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom? A YouGov poll asked this very question in April; 46 percent of respondents said: “It would not bother me either way.”

What We’re Following Today

The European Council convenes. EU heads of state and government gather today in Brussels for a two-day summit of the European Council. Today’s meeting is expected to cover Poland’s legal challenge to the primacy of EU law as well as a growing energy crisis that could lead to the formation of an EU strategic gas reserve.

As Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson wrote on Tuesday, the energy crunch could be with us for some time: “The good news is the 1970s aren’t back just yet. The bad news is this fall’s energy crisis may be a harbinger of what’s to come: years of rising prices, pinched consumers, and struggling businesses.”

NATO’s defense summit. Less than five miles away from the European Council, NATO defense ministers, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, come together for two days of meetings. The gathering comes as tensions with Russia continue to simmer after Moscow suspended its diplomatic mission to NATO earlier this week. Although no attack is imminent, NATO defense leaders expect to agree to a new master plan to handle a possible Russian assault in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

Keep an Eye On

The U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. border authorities arrested a record number of migrants along the border with Mexico during the recently ended 2021 fiscal year, according to unpublished data seen by theWashington Post. The 1.66 million migrants arrested breaks the record set in 2000, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection made 1.64 million arrests. The increase appears to be driven by two factors: an overall rise in migration toward the United States in the months following Biden’s inauguration as well as an upsurge in repeat illegal crossings after migrants were initially expelled. 

Assad in from the cold. Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan took a phone call from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday in a sign of warming ties between two leaders previously on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war. It’s the second high-profile call between Assad and an Arab leader in recent weeks, coming after Assad and King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke in early October.

Odds and Ends

Scientists can now definitively date the earliest known Transatlantic crossing as 1021, exactly 1,000 years ago and 471 years before Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola. A study led by Michael Dee of the University of Groningen used wood from a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the Canadian island of Newfoundland to determine the precise year the voyagers made their camp.

The wood-dating technique uses marks left from a solar storm from the year 993 as a reference point, allowing researchers to simply count the tree rings on wood samples to ascertain the settlement’s founding date.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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