There is no prospect of a united Ireland soon. Under the terms of the 1998 Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement, a Border Poll referendum – determining whether Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom or joins the Republic of Ireland – can only be called by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he or she believes in the likelihood of majority support for Irish unity. Despite all the instability surrounding Brexit, recent polls put pro-unity sentiment at 21 per cent – and while other surveys pitch support for a united Ireland higher, we are talking about a process which is many decades, rather than years, away.
However, the UK’s Brexit vote has disturbed the constitutional tectonic plates. With a declining Protestant population, the Union rests on the support of Northern Irish Catholics, as publicly admitted in 2011 by former First Minister – and Unionist premier – Peter Robinson.
Northern Irish Catholics used to be content within the Union, but Brexit has smashed that to pieces. The Good Friday Agreement had sewn it up; Northern Irish Catholics had the best of both worlds. They could be culturally Irish (with rights to passports), but also avail of the best benefits of Union – most especially that colossal gift of the National Health Service.
And the Irish referendum vote on 25 May 2018 to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution has sharpened the issue of whether anyone can seriously claim that living in Northern Ireland, with its failed devolved government, segregated schooling, and lack of access to abortion and same-sex marriage, could conceivably be viewed as preferable to the increasingly confident, liberal European democracy in the Republic. To put it bluntly, only the under-strain NHS allows Northern Ireland to continue to claim any progressive superiority.
Time to start the conversation
For the above reasons, the UK must start a conversation about where it sees the future of Northern Ireland. This conversation has recently begun in Ireland. What plans exist for Northern Ireland’s long-term place within the UK? Do English citizens want to retain Northern Ireland? If they do not, how best to move towards disengagement in a way which will not lead to severe conflict? How might the British state work with the Irish government in this eventual situation?
The nascent Irish dialogue on unification is not without flaws. Even prior to the Brexit game-changer, Sinn Féin will push for a Border Poll whatever the circumstances, though they realize the current crisis presents a particular ‘opportunity’ (as Gerry Adams himself stated). Even those more sophisticated Irish voices who have begun the discussion provide remarkably little detail as to what a united Ireland would really look like, how it could be afforded, and – most seriously of all – how the Republic would deal with the security ramifications. Only former Taoiseach John Bruton has really addressed this. But conversations, like fires, have been started.
Hardline Unionists will insist Northern Ireland simply remains a part of the UK and will follow the same route out of the European Union as ‘the mainland’, but this is far too important to be left to these same local-minded representatives who have proven themselves incapable of forming a basic government, electorally safe in fighting old ‘us vs. them’ battles with each other.
If the hysterical reaction to the Democratic Unionist Party’s agreeing to prop up Theresa May’s Conservative government – and their securing of £1bn as part of the deal – in June 2017 is anything to go by, many British people do not see the Unionists as part of their future. It was a point cogently outlined by Jonathan Tonge’s recent analysis of the DUP-Conservative agreement in the Political Quarterly, in which he notes that given more money was already being spent on citizens per head in Northern Ireland, ‘the prising of yet more financial assistance by the DUP to maintain a government was unlikely to be popular elsewhere in the UK’.
This feeling is most pronounced amongst Conservative MPs who have had to defend their government’s austerity programme to hard-up constituents, and it is telling to see the same Tory backbenchers now offering support to bills extending same-sex marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Tonge was among many commentators to identify that from June 2017 the DUP would be subject to an unprecedented level of scrutiny from the British public. So far, the party has not weathered its collision with actual Britishness terribly successfully.
Lack of historical understanding
Having taught the Northern Ireland Troubles in various British universities, I am often struck by the brilliant students who arrive at this subject with no grounding whatsoever in Irish history. Though this has its advantages, the curriculum in England for most lacks substantive Irish content, despite the fact Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK and Irish affairs were indivisible from the UK’s until 1921 and beyond.
There is little general understanding in the British populace of imperial legacies, and particularly notable is the lack of empathy many English students have for those who continuingly identify as ‘British’ in Northern Ireland: Ulster Unionists and Loyalists. However, they will not just go away, and whatever the fall-out from Brexit, the vast majority of Unionists will not stop feeling British.
The most attractive solution to many British citizens, as Unionists are acutely aware, is withdrawal. A recent ESRC-funded report compiled by academics from Queen’s University Belfast carries quotes from a middle-aged Protestant woman who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum: ‘The British don’t want us. They’d be glad to get rid of us… given half the chance the British would be jumping up and down saying “yippee”…if it went to a united Ireland.’
However, leaving aside the sudden loss of a £10bn annual block grant (which the Irish government would be unable to replicate), to leave the union so would cause enormous uncertainty and a probable civil war that would make the violence of 1969–98 seem like a walk in the park. And it would abandon those who see themselves as British, who the state has responsibilities to. This is something the British Left, currently embodied by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, especially needs to get its head round (though Corbyn encouragingly reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and neutrality in any Border Poll on a recent visit to Belfast).
A British dialogue must begin, complementing what is happening in Ireland, which reflects on Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. It should occur across society, in schools, offices, and in the media, among political elites and ordinary citizens.
Right now, all people have to go on is the assurances of the DUP that everything will be fine – indeed will be rosy in the garden – with Brexit and the future. This simply is not good enough and in fact tricks (and offends) those who most identify with the Union. In the end, the British government will override Ulster Unionists when they need to. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed herself the most pro-Unionist of Prime Ministers yet went over their heads to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, repairing Anglo-Irish relations for the next three decades. Unionists went berserk (importing arms from apartheid South Africa berserk), their rage fuelled by feelings of betrayal.
One thing Northern Ireland has always shown is that change too quickly leads to social upheaval and serious violence. This is a hard and complicated conversation, but one which needs to begin.