As the concept of Irish unity continues to go mainstream, Kevin Meagher explores the state of the debate.
Although I have never read any of Lee Child’s ‘Jack Reacher’ novels, I have listened to lots of Elvis Costello over the years. Apart from the pair sharing an Irish background, the connection between them might appear tenuous. However, both were at Buckingham Palace recently to receive honours from the Queen. Perhaps incongruously given the setting, the two were also asked about their views on Irish unity.
‘I make no distinction between north and south and I really hope the island is unified soon,’ said Child, picking up a CBE for services to literature. ‘I hope that’s going to be the positive outcome of Brexit. It’s hundreds of years overdue.’ Irish unity was ‘an inevitability,’ according to Costello, picking up an OBE. ‘Maybe in my lifetime, in the lifetime of my children…’
During the dark decades of Northern Ireland’s troubles, voicing support for Irish unity, particularly as IRA bombs were going off, would have been a marginal pursuit, to put it mildly. But these are different times.
Neither man saw any contradiction between standing in front of the British Monarch to be honoured, while also supporting the peaceful reunification of the island of Ireland. A portent, perhaps, of how these countries, with their overlapping cultures, intertwined history and familial bonds will, in due course, make sense of a managed transfer of sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
That a process, of sorts, is underway to reunify the island of Ireland has now become received opinion. It must be in order to make it onto the front cover of The Economist. Back in February, the bulletin board of the international political and corporate elite claimed that:
‘Scottish independence has grabbed headlines since Brexit, but it is time to recognise the chances of a different secession from the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein’s success at the [Irish general] election is just the latest reason to think that a united Ireland within a decade or so is a real — and growing — possibility.’
It is not their style to offer endorsements; they speculate, intelligently, on what is likely to happen, explore whether it is feasible and then tell their readers if they should be concerned or not. An illustration, perhaps, that Irish unity is now being ‘priced in’ by policy makers and business leaders. We will continue to see animated discussions about the timeline, but the direction of travel is increasingly accepted. There is a magnetic effect pulling us towards a border poll — a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status — and an ever-widening body of opinion is becoming accustomed to that reality.
But if this is mood music then lets also consider hard power developments. Sinn Fein’s strong showing in the Irish General Election back in February — topping the poll and tying for top spot in terms of seats with Fianna Fail — is potentially game-changing. Even if the increasingly beleaguered Fianna Fail leader, Micheál Martin, manages to patch together a deal with Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael to form a new government (FF has propped-up a FG minority government since 2016 in a confidence and supply arrangement), it will simply amount to a final twirl around the dancefloor for the south’s ancien régime.
Martin and Varadkar will hope the result of the election is a blip, a reaction to their tin-eared approach to domestic concerns around cost of living issues these past few years. But it feels more significant than that. Sinn Fein overcame the implacable hostility of Dublin’s political and media elite and still prevailed. So long the outsiders — marginalised and unrespectable as ‘the political wing of the IRA’ — it feels as though something structural has now changed.
A tilting of the field, certainly, towards the interests of younger voters and centre-left prescriptions. And, perhaps, a demystifying of Sinn Fein as something ‘other’ in southern politics. It helps that the party’s new leader, Mary-Lou McDonald is unconnected to her party’s militant past and brilliantly articulated the frustrations of ordinary families around the economic inequalities blighting modern Ireland. As a vignette, a video of her first speech in the Dail following the election garnered two million hits.
Anyway, how would a coalition of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael — rival civil war era parties that have dominated the past century in Irish politics — even work? The idea being floated of a rotating leadership, with Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar taking turns at being Taoiseach, seems unfeasible and certainly unsustainable. (Not to mention it appears poor form to freeze out the actual winners of the election).
Meanwhile, the former Fianna Fail Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement, has said Irish unity in the next few years is — that word again — ‘inevitable.’ Given the plan to form a coalition with Varadkar is unpopular with much of Fianna Fail’s grassroots, might a successor to Martin change tack and throw their lot in with McDonald instead, if not immediately then at some stage over the next couple of years?
The dilemma for Unionists
The overarching problem for unionists is that Northern Ireland was not built to last. The entity was only ever created in 1921 as cover for what would otherwise have been an even more humiliating exit from Ireland by the British state. (Even Churchill expected the six counties to reunite with the south, as Paul Bew makes clear in his recent book, ‘Churchill and Ireland’).
It was carefully constructed to maintain a Protestant-Unionist ascendancy that is fast-eroding as a poll on Irish unity looms into view. Moreover, there is a clear — and agreed — mechanism in the Good Friday Agreement to bring one about. Not to mention the demographic and electoral changes underway that will help assemble a majority vote for it in due course.
But what has fundamentally changed in recent years is that the argument for Irish unity has developed into an evidence-based proposition. There are clear benefits to governing Ireland as a single state — from economics to epidemiology — while Brexit has provided a powerful fillip, widening the constituency of people, who, if not wishing to see it on principle, can certainly accommodate themselves to the reality of it.
Particularly, as it involves automatic readmission to the European Union and the reacquiring of associated benefits that will be carelessly forfeited as Northern Ireland leaves with the rest of the UK. (Not least of which includes €600m a year in EU funding). As a minimum, the constitutional status quo requires the tacit support of the British state. But this is a different Britain from even a generation ago. There is little kinship for unionists to call upon. A poll last month from YouGov showed that:
‘…in principle, more Brits are supportive of a border poll taking place in Northern Ireland than against it by 36% to 25%. A further 39% responded that they didn’t know, showing a strong element of disinterest amongst the British public.’
Put simply, not enough Britons care about what happens to Northern Ireland. Do unionists understand this? The false dawn of the Democratic Unionist Party’s deal with Theresa May should have disabused them of any lingering illusions. The future’s bright, ‘the future’s orange’ quipped one of their MPs, Ian Paisley, when the arrangement to support the Conservatives was first agreed after the 2017 general election, seemingly unaware it was a defunct marketing slogan from a company that had ceased to exist. As a metaphor for the state of Unionism, it takes some beating. Out of time and place, reciting yesterday’s slogans.
After all, we are few months away from new Irish Sea border arrangements, following Boris Johnson’s decision to renege on commitments he had previously made to the DUP. He delighted their conference in 2018 by claiming that an Irish Sea border, with checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, would amount to making Northern Ireland ‘an economic semi-colony of the EU and would be damaging to the fabric of the Union.’
Yet last December he agreed to just that. Northern Ireland will effectively be treated as part of a united Ireland by the British state for the import and export of agri-produce and manufactured goods. A small but highly symbolic step, courtesy of a Prime Minister representing the Conservative and Unionist Party.
An illustration, then, that the problems unionists face in maintaining their position are now systemic. Peter Robinson scolded the DUP about this as much a decade ago. The party’s former leader explicitly warned that they could not rely on having the numbers to maintain the Union by dint of a sectarian headcount. ‘Our task is not to defeat but to persuade,’ he told the DUP conference.
‘But when have we as unionists actually sought to persuade? And not just by words but by creating the kind of inviting society which everyone will want to be a part of.’ Robinson was remarkably sagacious, yet his successors have their fingers jammed in their ears, resolutely refusing to appeal to Catholic-Nationalists.
Latterly, he has likened engaging in debate about a future border poll to an insurance policy. ‘I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen,’ he said in typically forthright fashion.
But he is not alone. Mike Nesbitt, the former Ulster Unionist leader has spoken of Brexit being unionism’s ‘biggest own goal’ and potentially paving the way for Irish unity. He has said that he knows people ‘of a unionist background who are now ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and asking, ‘would I be worse off?’
Even Billy Hutchinson, leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, has said unionism must not ‘bury its head in the sand like an ostrich’ as the debate around Irish unity intensifies.
Of course, Unionists signed up for a border poll as part of the Good Friday Agreement. The Union and the very existence of Northern Ireland has been entirely conditional — and time-limited — from that point onwards. The British Government will eventually honour a referendum — and stay well clear when it is held.
To prolong the status quo, unionists need to be able to project their appeal across the aisle. Does the DUP have the temperament to do so? Perhaps, in all honesty, they simply do not want to. It speaks to their insularity and inherent lack of confidence, which is replaced by a bravado which, invariably, manifests itself as tribal drum beating, which, ironically, further erodes the political ground beneath their feet.
The dilemma, then, is whether they can break the habit of a lifetime and make an offer to nationalists that can sustain Northern Ireland, along the lines that Peter Robinson urged in 2011. Either that, or they give serious consideration to their bargaining position in the growing conversation about a new all-Ireland/island settlement. Either option is toxic to many of their supporters. But change is now unstoppable.
The problem for United Irelanders
None of which is to claim that it is all plain sailing for those who want to achieve Irish reunification in the next few years. They have, in part, lost control of the narrative over the last year or so, allowing critics to characterise their position as ‘border poll now’ rather than ‘have-the-necessary-dialogue-about-an-eventual-border-poll.’ The difference is significant.
The confusion about whether there ought to be a border poll as an immediate response to Brexit (as some campaigners want) allows southern politicians to say: ‘It’s not the right time.’ So, they need to be clearer about the time frame they envisage. Mary-Lou McDonald says a poll is potentially five years away. This would allow adequate space for discussion about what new Ireland would emerge, while reflecting the impacts of Brexit as well as the growing levels of support for reunification.
Is five years long enough? If Irish history tells us anything, it that a lot can change in half a decade. (The period from the Easter Rising in 1916 to the partition of the country in 1921 shows that). It is also worth bearing in mind where we were in 2015. David Cameron had just won the British general election with a comfortable majority, while no-one had even heard the term ‘Brexit.’ Two prime ministers later and four years on from the referendum vote, its outworking has still to be concluded. Northern Ireland has not yet felt the bow waves from that decision, but they will shake its economy to its shallow foundations. By, say, 2023, opinion in favour of a border poll may be beyond doubt.
There are, then, three main challenges for those supporting Irish unity. The first is to push for greater clarity around the mechanism for securing the poll. The Good Friday Agreement was always meant to be a blueprint for bringing about Irish unity through exclusively peaceful and democratic means. It contains the provision for a vote on Irish reunification, ‘if at any time it appears likely to [the Secretary of State] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’
It’s an elusively-worded phrase, but its meaning is crystal clear: There will be a vote called when there is sufficient prospect of a majority of voters in Northern Ireland — and through a parallel referendum in the south — voting for one. Developing a shared and objective assumption around the metrics and processes that take us to and through a border poll is now urgently required. (Especially as a legal challenge attempting to codify the process was rejected only last month).
The former Northern Ireland Office official, Alan Whysall, writing a paper last year on the prospects of a border poll for The Constitution Unit at University College London, made the point that although the exact trigger for a poll in the Good Friday Agreement remains opaque, there are several criteria that offer a reasonable justification for calling one.
He cites a ‘clear majority in a succession of reliable opinion polls;’ a ‘Catholic majority in a census;’ a ‘majority of members in the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the general election, from nationalist parties;’ and ‘a vote by a majority in the Assembly in favour of a poll.’ As he points out ‘none of them [are] straightforward.’ However, most of these are already in prospect.
Numerous opinion polls have shown support is evening out between those who want a united Ireland those who do not. Tick.
Using data from the census and quarterly labour-force survey, The Economist calculates that ‘Catholics are now the single biggest confessional grouping in Northern Ireland…’ Tick.
The gap between pro-Irish unity and anti-Irish unity parties at the last assembly election in 2017 was just 30,000 votes, while the former now has a majority of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats. Partial tick.
Whysall’s analysis may provide a glimpse of the final recommendations that will come back from The Constitution Unit’s review into how a border poll would work in practice. They may recommend elongating the process, with the equivalent of an ‘Article 50’ process, where after a vote to leave the UK takes place, there is then a time lag to negotiate the finer details, with this package being put back to the voters in a confirmatory ballot.
Such a recommendation would be implacably rejected by United Irelanders, who have the fortuitous precedent of the British Government’s own Brexit referendum, carried, famously (or infamously depending on taste), by just 52/48 per cent. It provides a powerful legal basis for honouring a straightforward 50 per cent +1 result.
But no-one wants such a close call. So, the second priority must be to maintain the outreach work with unionists and all those who do not instinctively prefer Irish unity. Much good work is already going on in this space, with a genuine attempt by United Irelanders to engage with unionists’ concerns.
The reality is that many unionists will not want to know. To be fair, there is not much point in being a unionist if you meekly acquiesce in the end of Northern Ireland. What is needed, then, is a rapport. Some predictability. A protracted public discussion over the next few years where the issues are clearly and openly discussed. It needs to continue to focus on making a positive case for change, outlining the benefits and opportunities that unity would bring and creating space for unionists to join the discussion. Even if they do not participate, they will at least know what to expect.
Unencumbered by the electoral ramifications, it is much easier for ‘civic’ unionism rather than ‘political’ unionism to occupy a seat at the table. Especially rural voices and parts of the business community, given they will be among the hardest hit by Brexit. The conversation should be open and wide-ranging; without infantilising unionists or the discussion getting lost in the weeds of identity politics.
There are only two stipulations. First, there is no unionist veto. Non-engagement must not limit the legitimate aspirations of United Irelanders. Second, it is reasonable to expect unionists to abide by the result of a border poll. The principle of consent, upon which the Good Friday Agreement is built, is a weathervane. When it finally points south, unionists must honour the decision.
The third priority is allied to this. United Irelanders need to develop ‘proof of concept.’ How will a new Ireland work? What are the benefits? What are the assurances for unionists and others? There needs to be, for instance, a detailed discussion about what institutions a new all-Ireland settlement requires.
There will be a temptation to assume that Stormont should be kept. But is a devolved body, just 100 miles from Ireland’s capital, representing nearly a third of the population of the island, the right model? It would be horribly asymmetrical and lead to all manner of confusion and parallel influence. It would be better to bolster local government across the whole of Ireland, perhaps adopting the British model of ‘metro-mayors’ in major conurbations, providing clustered unionist communities in the north with the realistic prospect of local executive office. (Quite rightly, the Northern Ireland Executive is already inching towards a city-region economic model).
Next, there is a need to agree priorities around the economy, key infrastructure and the harmonisation of public services and entitlements. Integrating the less productive northern economy into the rest of the country by implementing the more dynamic policy model of the south is the straightforward bit. As is ensuring better rail and digital connectivity around Ireland’s principal cities. Again, there is much for unionists to contribute here. Is Ireland to have an equivalent of the NHS, for instance?
What comes next?
If Sinn Fein is frozen out by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in coming days, as seems likely, the debate around Irish reunification will still catalyse. Sinn Fein will then dominate the opposition benches in Leinster House and Fianna Fail’s every instinct, mindful of being superseded by the Shinners, will be to keep them at bay, leading to a general ‘greening’ of the government’s approach to the North. Eventually, we will reach a tipping point and find that everyone in Dublin has been in favour of the reunification of the island all along.
Turning 100 miles north, and the process of normalisation continues. Reunification permeates every discussion. For republicans it becomes the solution to every issue. (To my eternal bemusement, unionist commentators appear to write about little else). All eyes will be on next year’s Census. Will it finally show that Catholics now outnumber Protestants and, if so, what does it now mean in the fast-secularising north? Next year is also Northern Ireland’s centenary. How will unionists, who saw the state carved out in their image respond to the loss of their hegemony?
The following year sees elections to the assembly (although there is a call to push them back to 2023, after a three-year hiatus with the assembly). The effects of Brexit will certainly have been felt by then and so the stakes have never been higher. If unionists can maintain top spot and a plurality of the vote, they will be able to repel calls for a border poll. If Sinn Fein manages to push the DUP into second place (it was just 1,000 votes behind in 2017), then the talk will be of little else.
Given I have written a book predicting the ‘inevitability’ of the reunification of the island of Ireland, I have not left myself much wiggle-room. However, in the full consideration of unfolding events, I would contend that I do not need it.
Kevin Meagher is the author of A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about published by Biteback