A United Ireland is something Irish Nationalists have craved, and Unionists have feared in equal measure for centuries. Until recently, it seemed an impossible idea…something that could never be achieved given the opposition of the Loyalist community in the North.
Now, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has added a new impetus to the issue, not least because the Brexit decision is looking increasingly like a disaster for all concerned, and with the British unable to agree among themselves what kind of deal they want with their European neighbours.
There have been a number of developments that have changed the political and social landscape in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement brought peace at last to the North. A whole generation have since grown up in both the North and South who have no memory of the Troubles with all its killings and bombings. Of course, tensions remain, but nothing like in the past.
The demographics are also changing in the North. Protestants are still in the majority but not overwhelmingly so.
At the time of partition on 3 May 1921, the population of Northern Ireland was 65% Protestant and 35% Catholic. It now stands at about 48% Protestant to 45% Catholic.
The DUP only got 1,168 more votes than Sinn Féin to become the majority party Northern Ireland in the UK General Election of 2017. It’s not inconceivable to think that Sinn Féin could overtake their Loyalist rivals by the time of the next election.
There has also been a huge influx of European migrants, many of them from Catholic countries like Poland. Their religion is unlikely to turn them into Nationalists, but they are likely to favour continuing membership of the European Union, which affords them the right to live and work anywhere in Ireland.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU puts the future of these migrants in doubt. They may retain their rights after Brexit, but they can’t be certain. For this reason, they are likely to favour a United Ireland, which would remain in the EU.
We must also factor in the more moderate Loyalists, those who would like to remain British but are unhappy with the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Northern Ireland voted by a majority of 56% to 44% to remain. For a vote of that margin, a significant number of Loyalists must have made up the 56%.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they would vote for a United Ireland as a way of staying in the EU, but some might, and it has to be taken into consideration.
Of course, it should also be remembered that not all Catholics are Nationalists. In the past, about 20% tended to favour remaining British because they felt they would be better off financially. However, economists across the world are predicting that Brexit will be bad for the British economy so that may also sway people’s thinking.
The only point we can be sure of is that the political situation and attitude to reunification is fluid and constantly changing.
If the public mood turns towards a United Ireland, the mechanism for achieving it already exists. The Good Friday Agreement, as a way of allaying fears of the Loyalist community, ensured that reunification could only happen if 50% plus 1 of the people of Northern Ireland voted for it in a referendum.
That plus one majority would still be difficult to achieve, but it’s no longer looking impossible.
So much so that both Nationalists and Loyalists are starting to think what would have been the unthinkable a few years ago.
No less a Unionist than Northern Ireland’s former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson recently warned that Loyalists needed to take a potential border referendum seriously and to start preparing to oppose it. He said: “I don’t expect my own house to burn down, but I still insure it because it could happen.”
It was a signal that the political campaigns are already being planned to win the hearts and minds of the moderate Nationalists and Loyalists and persuade them that they are better off sticking with Britain, Brexit or not.
Sinn Féin too have shown they’re too thinking how to win over those same moderates and convince them that throwing their lot in with the Republic may not be such a bad idea after all.
The party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, believes that Brexit will be bad for all of Ireland and will hasten the move towards unity. She told the Irish Journal: “The genie is out of the bottle. I think the discussion around a new Ireland, how we might get there, and what it might look like is already underway.”
She recognises that there will have to be compromises and potentially unpalatable concessions on both sides to make reunification possible, but it’s a step she’s willing to take, even to the point of considering whether Ireland should re-join British Commonwealth, if that would provide some comfort to Unionists.
At the moment, we’re only seeing the opening shots of the potential reunification debate. There are major stumbling blocks in place that may yet prove impossible to cross, at least in the foreseeable future.
Not least is the £10billion that the UK government pours into Northern Ireland each year as a devolved government. There’s very little appetite in the South for the Irish government to take over that commitment.
There’s also the issue of emotion. While it’s interesting to speculate how Loyalists would weigh up the pros and cons of reunification in a rational way, it’s more likely many of them will revert to type with fears of being a Protestant minority amid a Catholic majority being the main factor behind how they vote and making them choose to stay in the UK.
Yet, the fact that people on all sides are starting to speak about the mere possibility and take it seriously is a sign of how far we’ve come in just the last few years.