By Colin Gannon
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has been the single largest and most transformative event to happen to Northern Irish politics since the Good Friday Agreement.
For years now, Northern Ireland, which voted to remain, attempted to arrive at a mature political consensus — with a majority from both nationalists and unionists — for pivotal decisions.
Brexit was different: Northern Ireland, as a single entity, voted to remain, aligning itself further with the pro-European Republic. Unsurprisingly, British parliament’s handling of Brexit — with past-haunted references to a hard border, coupled with overt ignorance over Ireland in general — has ignited calls for reunification on the island.
A bungling Tory party, whose leader habitually trumpets her commitment to British unionism, may have inadvertently hastened the reunification of Ireland.
“It’s out there, the when of it we do not know but nonetheless, it’s on the horizon, ahead of us,” Mary McAleese, the former Irish President, said last week of the debate surrounding a united Ireland.
Beneath the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to decades to decades of sectarian violence, lies the principle of consent. Irish unity is a decision to be made on and of the island of Ireland, the principle asserts, and may only come about by the consent of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland.
Although discontent was bubbling in nationalist communities years prior to the Brexit vote, it is only now, after years of parliamentary chaos, pigheadedness and continued uncertainty, that a border poll is no longer an impossibility. In January, a 1,500-strong crowd attended a weekend conference in Belfast, “Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland” — one of many civic society events arising up from the ashes of Brexit in the past 12 months.
The revved-up discourse surrounding the possibility of a border poll usually presents two diametrically opposed arguments: A border poll is too early or impossible (typically unionists), while others demand an early vote (usually Sinn Fein).
Demographic changes (it is estimated self-identifying Catholics will outnumber self-identifying Protestants in the near feature), the moderation of views in young people born post-conflict and recent political developments — namely Brexit and the long-term collapse of the devolved institutions at Stormont — have meant that the North can no longer be easily defined by binary identities.
It is, most experts argue, almost impossible to gauge the region’s mood towards a united Ireland.
Calcified views are becoming less entrenched in some areas and a widening grey area — an undefined, much-sought-after middle-ground of voters — is likely to define the region’s constitutional status for generations to come.
Squint and you’ll find hardened views softening across political and community divides: Unionist farmers and businesspeople who receive, and rely upon, EU subsistence grants or trade would be appalled at the notion of a united Ireland, yet their livelihoods may depend on EU membership; comfortably Catholic-majority communities who, post-1998, favoured the status quo and rejected major upheaval, are being tempted into supporting a united, European Ireland.
Through the lens of social issues, there is further alignment: the North’s political representatives in London — the staunchly conservative DUP party who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion — are, from merely glimpsing at polling, completely out of step with the population.
Brexit thus far has shown no signs of benefitting citizens in the North in any tangible way, quite the opposite in fact: Business groups support the backstop as protection against a hard border, which may have catastrophic effects on business and households; the Ulster Farmers Union has implored the UK government to “allow us to continue trading with the EU-27 on the basis of open borders”; while trade unions are unanimously against any hard border.
Last week, Alan Whysall, a retired Northern Ireland Office civil servant who has present during many of the peace process discussions, penned a report for the University College London — ‘A Border Poll in Northern Ireland’ — setting out the “key issues, and stimulate discussion” and he identifies many pitfalls in the current frameworks for future referendums.
He tells the Irish World that Brexit has “sucked the life out of everything but Brexit” and warns that Westminster has not been “applying itself to finding ways forward” since the Assembly collapsed. In other words, Northern Ireland — the focus of much of the consternation surrounding Theresa May’s current Brexit deal, since the DUP party prop up her government — and it’s very many social and economic frailties have been abandoned, deprioritised and forgotten by the ruling Conservative government.
According to Whysall, who worked as civil servant in Belfast for over three decades, the Brexit process has also shown many people precisely how not to launch into a “big political process without a clear plan”.
“Enormous damage has been done by the way that the British political machine has dealt with Brexit…much of what has been said during the course of the Brexit debate often exhibits profound ignorance about both parts of Ireland, which is absolutely poisonous,” Whysall says.
In 2018, Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, warned Northern unionists that they should be preparing for the possibility of reunification. He said unionists would accept the result of a border poll that unified Ireland. “If it were to happen, I think unionists would accept it,” he added, “but I think they would also be looking for certain protections.”
While guest-speaking on a podcast recently, Colin Harvey, a professor of human rights in Queen’s University Belfast, even earmarked a possible, symbolic date for unity referendums on the island of Ireland: 22nd May, 2023 — precisely 25 years on from the public votes on the Good Friday Agreement, an ideal moment, Harvey tells the Irish World, to “test the principle of consent”.
“It seems to me that in the context of Brexit it is perfectly sensible to reflect on Irish unity. If the UK ever does leave the EU, it is our way back and that adds a new dimension to the discussions,” he says. “Too many people talk about preparation and planning but do not do anything to advance this work, and it never seems to be the right time to discuss it.”
“Everyone needs to begin to prepare for a profound constitutional conversation about how we share this island in the future,” Harvey adds. “I think this could be a win-win for all.”
The middle-ground of voters, undecideds in polls, clearly must be enticed in the event of any referendum: They poll higher than both for and against a united Ireland in some cases. Sinn Fein, who typically espouse quite a hardline nationalist line, have in recent months dialled down some of the rhetoric, Whysall says. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald’s concessionary comments last week went so far as to that, in the context of reunification, Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth may be a worthwhile decision.
Elsewhere, Whysall believes unionism is failing to go through such a process of self-reflection in the face of a potential border poll. “It could be that a border poll creeps up on them and, at that stage, they’ll find themselves making an appeal not just to their own constituents, but across the community.”
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the executive discretion in triggering a border poll. Karen Bradley, the calamity-prone secretary currently in the role, is obliged — under international law — to do so if it appears that a majority in Ireland support a united Ireland.
However unlikely this may be, Harvey argues it is “inconceivable” that triggering the process could not be preceded by “intensive discussions” between both governments. Otherwise, “effective participation and engagement” across various communities may not be achieved, he notes.
Countless polls have shown that nationalism in Ireland has been re-energised since the Brexit vote. Recent polling has shown a huge swing in voters supporting reunification in the south; while in the north, an increasing minority favour a border poll — if a hard border is erected, this typically rises to a majority.
In his recent report, Whysall references the questionability of polling in general — specifically in Northern Ireland.
The difficulty lies in defining a majority; something that requires “immediate work and clarification,” Whysall says. Determining a majority, as things currently stand, is nigh impossible. If, however, a British government is seen to be resistant to calling one, and if it becomes clear that there is a majority for a united Ireland, they run the risk of “breaking faith” with the Good Friday Agreement, Whysall adds.
Harvey, the author of a similar report to Whysall’s on reunification earlier this year, says that the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference — annual bilateral discussions amongst political leaders of both states — as somewhere early discussions should take place.
“Perhaps setting out via a Framework Document and Joint Declaration how they see the period leading up to these referendums,” he says. “After the necessary consultations, I would hope both governments – and the parties – could agree the framework within which this will be taken forward.”
Asking that the British and Irish governments work as harmoniously and diligently across divides as in the 1990s seems quixotic at this stage. Soured relations, coupled with a lack of ability in “conventional politics to generate new ideas”, means normal citizens are likely to step up to the plate to devise solutions, Whysall believes.
What a reunified Ireland would look like is anyone’s guess. That said, it’s unlikely it will pertain to a simple assimilation of Northern Irish institutions — and people, including hundreds of thousands of unionists — into the Republic.
“The basic model of change might be that you move to a mirror image: You have same institutions in the North doing the same things with the same body of law, but it looks to Dublin rather than London,” Whysall say.
“But you might have London — if anybody wanted it — in the role that Dublin has now in the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference: A sort of right to intervene, perhaps as a guardian of unionist rights.”
Whysall, wary of setting arbitrary dates or proposals himself, believes that now is probably not the time to be “devising constitutional models with such a degree of clarity”
Colin Harvey, meanwhile, is less tentative and wants a meaningful discussion now. Asked about critics who argue that the triggering of a border poll would be “dangerous”, Harvey refers to the fact that principle of consent is at the “heart of the Good Friday Agreement”.
“It should be profoundly concerning if anyone thinks it is ‘dangerous’ to talk about a concept that is at the core of the constitutional compromise here,” he adds.
“It is silly, particularly in the context of Brexit, not to talk about this and why should anyone be afraid of letting the people decide in a way that is in full compliance with the Agreement?”