Brexit ignites the debate about a united Ireland

This is the fourth part of an FT series asking whether the UK is heading for break-up.

Dawn had barely broken on the morning after the June 2016 Brexit referendum when Martin McGuinness demanded a plebiscite on whether Northern Ireland should leave the UK and unite with the Irish Republic.

The leader of the nationalist Sinn Féin party told the media that because 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters had voted to remain in the EU, the British government must now accept there was a “democratic imperative” to hold a so-called border poll.

McGuinness was swiftly rebuffed by the British government, and the former IRA commander died in 2017. But less than five years after the Brexit referendum, the debate about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future is raging with a new intensity as stresses caused by Brexit and the possibility of an independent Scotland reopen questions of identity and allegiance that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had looked to push off into the distant future.

The agreement aligned London and Dublin behind power-sharing in Northern Ireland between mainly Protestant unionists, who aim to preserve the region’s place in the UK, and largely Catholic nationalists, who want it to join the Irish Republic. The deal largely brought an end to 30 years of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

But Brexit created new trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that have simultaneously unnerved unionists and, opinion polls show, emboldened nationalists who see the region’s placement within the bloc’s economic orbit as another stepping stone towards a united Ireland. The centenary of Ireland’s partition falls on May 3.

Even those in the middle ground, such as Stephen Farry of the cross-community Alliance party, recognise that Brexit has upset the delicate equilibrium of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Brexit has cracked Northern Ireland even though its constitutional status hasn’t changed,” Farry, the MP for North Down, told the Financial Times.

The Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement sought to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland that would damage the peace process. But by placing Northern Ireland under the EU’s customs rules and single market for goods, the protocol created a regulatory border between the region and Great Britain in the Irish Sea, which infuriated unionists.

Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, has called for the suspension of the protocol. Such has been the controversy that checks on food arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain were briefly suspended in February after threats were made against border inspection officials. Recent violence in parts of the region has been partly blamed on unionist anger at the Brexit deal, although other factors appear to have had a major role in the disturbances.

Whether the fallout from Brexit will trigger a border poll on a united Ireland — which under the Good Friday Agreement is widely interpreted to mean referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — is difficult to predict.

The agreement states that a decision to hold a referendum in Northern Ireland rests solely in the hands of the UK secretary of state responsible for the region, who is required to trigger a plebiscite “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting” would support a united Ireland.

A January survey by pollster LucidTalk found 47 per cent of respondents in Northern Ireland wanted the region to remain in the UK, with 42 per cent favouring it becoming part of a united Ireland — an outcome that shows the criteria for a referendum are currently not met.

The more deeply researched Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, conducted annually by Queen’s and Ulster universities since 1998, have consistently found support for unification at a little over 20 per cent.

A stacked area chart of Northern Ireland citizens' views on the long-term future of Ireland showing that unification has had minority support since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement

Lord Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest party, said there were no grounds for a border poll and “I don’t see it happening anytime soon”. Foster went further, saying last month that a united Ireland would be an “act of self harm”.

But Gerry Carlile, chief executive of Ireland’s Future, a campaign group set up after Brexit to push for a border poll, said broad metrics indicate that Northern Ireland is rapidly closing in on the point where a referendum will be necessary.

He highlighted how Northern Ireland returned nine nationalist MPs to Westminster at the last election — compared with eight unionists — and said this year’s census was widely expected to show Catholics making up a majority of the region’s population for the first time.

Gerry Carlile says metrics suggest a referendum will soon be necessary © Charles McQuillan/FT

Next year’s elections to the Northern Ireland assembly also raise the prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party at Stormont, meaning the nationalists will take the position of first minister.

Other potential factors, such as a repeat of the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive that happened between 2017 and 2020, might also shift public opinion enough to trigger a border poll.

Proponents of a referendum sooner rather than later, such as Carlile, also say that US president Joe Biden’s proud declaration of his Irish ancestry could add impetus to the case for a border poll, since a united Ireland would hope to tap some funding from Washington to cushion the costs of transition.

Another key factor in any poll is how the Irish government approaches the topic. 

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which share power in Dublin, both trace their roots to the ideology of a united Ireland but are tepid on pushing for a poll now. 

Micheál Martin, Irish taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, told the FT the Good Friday Agreement had not yet achieved its full potential because of the stop-start nature of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

He wants to see further progress with the agreement, along with greater all-island co-operation on education, research, sport, tourism and trade, before opening a conversation about a united Ireland.

Martin said a border poll would not happen in the lifetime of his government, which runs to 2025. If people wanted to move faster “that’s the rock people will perish on”, he added. “Patience is what is required if you want to get agreement.”

Is the UK heading for break-up?

Ahead of elections to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments on May 6, the FT is examining whether the UK’s four nations are likely to stick together.

Part 1: What is the economic cost of Scottish independence and can the country afford it?

Part 2: Has Boris Johnson got a plan to save the UK from break-up?

Part 3: What is the future shape of government in Wales as interest in independence rises?

Part 4: Is Northern Ireland on an inexorable path to a united Ireland?

John Bruton, Ireland’s Fine Gael taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, said his back of the envelope calculations suggested it could cost Ireland “€13bn or €14bn” a year to support Northern Ireland after unification, but added any financial obstacles could be overcome.

Sinn Féin, the second-biggest party in the Irish parliament, wants the government to begin laying the groundwork now for a border poll that could happen within five years. 

Pearse Doherty, deputy leader of Sinn Féin’s parliamentary group, said the referendum preparations were vital to addressing “really hard questions”, including how to reassure unionists that “their Britishness will not be eroded . . . their identity, their traditions, their customs will be valued in a new type of Ireland”. 

If and when a border poll is called, experts are clear that the result will paradoxically not be determined in Northern Ireland’s old bastions of sectarianism, but by a new centre ground.

Chart of Norther Ireland citizen's sense of identity which reveals a dual identity. 33% see themselves as Irish or 'more Irish than British',  45% see themselves as British or 'more British than Irish', 12% seeing themselves as equally British and Irish.

Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, who processes the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, said it was a “non-aligned” group in the region — comprised of about a third of Protestants and Catholics who do not think of themselves as either unionists or nationalists — that would have the casting vote on Irish unity.

“It is this middle ground that will make the difference in a border poll,” she added. “The question is firstly, will they vote? And, secondly, what will persuade them to vote one way or another?”

The answer to the second question can be found in places such as Lisburn, a market town on the river Lagan eight miles south-west of Belfast that was once a DUP stronghold but is rapidly shifting to the centre ground. 

At the 2019 general election, Sorcha Eastwood of the Alliance party saw its vote grow by 17 per cent across the Lagan Valley constituency, as she campaigned on better public services while embracing socially liberal attitudes to issues such as abortion.

She said a “conversation” about what a united Ireland might look like had begun — but that it must continue slowly and avoid repeating the mistake of the Brexit referendum that caused upheaval without any real planning for what the future could involve. 

Sorcha Eastwood: ‘If you frame [a] conversation about a possible new future in a longer term way, then it moves to a different place’ © Charles McQuillan/FT

Eastwood, a councillor in Lisburn, highlighted the back of the British army’s Thiepval barracks across a rugby playing field that today is pristine grassy stripes but in October 1996 was covered in rubble after a double IRA car bombing.

“If you go too fast, some people here will always see a united Ireland as rewarding those horrific acts of the past, but if you frame that conversation about a possible new future in a longer term way, then it moves to a different place,” she said.

For this all-important unaligned section of the electorate, it will be policies including healthcare and pensions, rather than unionist or nationalist identity, that decide the way votes are cast. 

Samantha Evans, a 37-year-old suicide prevention counsellor in Lisburn who grew up in a staunchly unionist family but has since pulled away from those roots, said she was typical of the new post-identity Northern Irish voter. 

Samantha Evans has pulled away from her unionist roots © Charles McQuillan/FT

“If it ever came down to a border poll, I would want to know where the financial benefits would be coming from,” she added, listing her top concerns as Ireland’s membership of the euro and the risk of losing access to free NHS healthcare.

“There will have to be huge questions and guarantees before any middle of the line Protestant or Catholic like me would decide either way.”

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