Will Ireland Reunify After Brexit?

To begin with, Great Britain is part of Europe. This is a cartological fact which anyone with a grade-school grasp of geography knows. One is a subset of the other. Three countries (England, Wales, and Scotland) make up the island of Great Britain, and when you add in Northern Ireland (more on them in a moment), you get the United Kingdom. All are located on islands, but those islands are undoubtedly part of the continent of Europe. While Britain may leave the European Union political federation, they will always remain European.

You might think I’m stating some fairly obvious facts here, but an astounding poll appeared in the midst of the run-up to the Brexit vote — only one in seven Brits considered themselves “European.” Even in the middle of a hard-fought and emotional political campaign, that’s a pretty jaw-droppingly low percentage.

I have first-hand experience with this attitude, both from visits to Britain over the last quarter-century and from when I lived in Europe in the early 1990s. I’d listen to BBC radio in the mornings back then (for news in English) and encounter this strange attitude on a daily basis. News, for example was either local (British) or “…from Europe today….” In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the British considered Europe to be a completely separate entity from them. This was back when the idea of consolidating Europe financially and economically was still very much a work in progress (the Euro wouldn’t appear for years). Time and time again, the British essentially wanted an outsized amount of control before agreeing to any new political unification of Europe. Britain was only ever half-heartedly in the European Union, to put this another way. The best example of this was the fact that Britain never adopted the Euro at all, retaining their Pound instead. And even back then, the “Eurosceptic” faction already existed in British politics.

Historians would no doubt ascribe at least some of this attitude to the “hangover of empire.” Britain used to “rule the waves,” and they used their military might to carve out the biggest empire of all — indeed, one “the sun never set on.” They haven’t forgotten those halcyon days, to put it mildly. But the depth of these feelings differs across the four countries which make up the United Kingdom. In England, the feelings run highest, which is why the vote there was no real surprise. Everyone knew the “Leave” faction would do best in England, to put it another way. Scotland, however, is already on the brink of declaring its independence from the other three countries, and now may hold a second referendum on the issue. The Scots have their own long and storied history, and much of that history involves fighting with the English. If the economic fallout from Brexit gets worse (or continues without end in sight), the Scottish people may very well vote themselves out of the United Kingdom to rejoin the European Union as an independent country instead.

What interests me more, however, is what Northern Ireland will do. Because if Scotland bolts, Ireland may actually unite once again as well. I have no idea what the chances of this actually happening really are, but the least you can say is that the chances would certainly be higher if Scotland does decide to go its own way.

This involves another short detour into geography, since most Americans are fuzzy (at best) on what these labels mean. The island to the west of the island of Great Britain (across the Irish Sea) is known as Ireland (or, more properly, “Eire”). However, the label “Ireland” is also loosely used to describe the Republic of Ireland, which is the part of the island that is independent from Britain. It is, in fact, now the centennial of the start of their successful war of independence (see: 1916 Easter Rising). There are six counties on the north end of the island of Ireland, however, which were retained by Great Britain when the Republic of Ireland became an independent state. These six counties (of the province of Ulster) became Northern Ireland, a country within the United Kingdom. The Brits essentially wanted to keep their heavy industry in Belfast (the Titanic was built in Belfast shipyards). Of course, there is more to it than that, and a full history of the Irish-British relationship would fill many volumes. But for now, picture two countries (“Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”) on the same island. Northern Irish citizens are British, and follow British laws and use the Pound Sterling. Ireland (the Republic) is an independent country that fully adopted the European Union and uses the Euro. As of the moment, there are no border controls between the two entities — a remarkable victory for peace, after all the guerrilla warfare over the past 50 years or so.

Many in Northern Ireland are fiercely British. Most in the Republic are fiercely Irish. But they finally settled their differences enough for peace to take hold in the Good Friday Agreement (a lot of important history in Ireland has happened around Easter, for some reason), which was signed in 1998. Since that point, militant groups on both sides have lain down their arms and differences are now peacefully worked out through the political process (for the most part). But part of this historic agreement concerned the future of Northern Ireland. If, at some future point, a majority of people in both the Republic and Northern Ireland vote to unify, then that is what will happen. Britain will finally give up all claim to any part of the island, and they will be one single nation. When the accords were signed, it was assumed this wouldn’t happen for many generations. A week ago, I still would have thought another generation’s time would have passed before Ireland ever voted to reunify.

Now, though, it looks like it may happen a whole lot sooner — especially if Scotland votes for independence first. The possibility that Northern Ireland will vote to exit the United Kingdom is now within the realm of conceivability. The political calculus has shifted, in a big way. Previous to Brexit, the Republic of Ireland’s best argument for reunification was one of shared history and ethnicity. Now, however, the Republic might have a much more convincing economic argument to make. The prospect of using Euros and enjoying all the benefits of being part of the European Union is a huge enticement that might look better and better to Northern Ireland, especially if the E.U. takes a hardline stance towards Brexit. If the British economy takes a big hit as a direct result, reunification might become a much more popular idea in Northern Ireland — especially if the Scottish economy has already benefited from leaving Great Britain.

There is already one sign (anecdotal, admittedly) that attitudes might have begun to shift. It seems there has been a flood of applications for Irish passports from the Republic of Ireland. Part of the Good Friday Agreement gave citizens of Northern Ireland the choice — they could get British passports or Irish passports. Up until now, this has largely been an academic choice, since both passports guaranteed the same rights in the E.U. However, after Brexit they will indeed be different. Which is why post offices in Northern Ireland have been swamped with requests for forms since the Brexit vote.

The real impetus for reunification might be border controls, though. Right now, travel is free and unrestricted (and without customs duties) between Ireland and Northern Ireland. If Brexit changes this situation (it’d be hard to avoid — the border between the two is the only land border the United Kingdom has with anyone else in Europe, unless you count the Chunnel), then reunification might become even more appealing.

The question of laws and governance would be a dicey one, and how it would be settled will affect the outcome of any referendum. The Republic of Ireland was for a very long time the closest thing in Europe (outside of the Vatican, at any rate) to a theocracy. The Catholic Church had an enormous influence over the Irish government, and this has only begun to change in meaningful ways in the past few decades. Divorce, for instance, was flat-out illegal until 1995 — when a very close referendum changed the law. Abortion is restricted more than any law any state in America’s Deep South has ever passed (saving the life of the mother is the only allowable reason, and even this isn’t perfect — mothers still occasionally die because abortions are so restricted). But the times, even in the Republic, are changing (to understand this swift change, check out this article written on Irish marriage laws). Ireland became the first country in the world to pass gay marriage by referendum, a little over a year ago. The holds the Catholic Church used to have over Irish politics are fast losing their grip, and the population is now the youngest in Europe. Meaning the populace might be open to their laws becoming even less theocratic, especially if that was the price to pay for reunification. Alternatively, Ulster could be given a large degree of autonomy from Dublin, and be allowed to operate under their own laws (they already have their own parliament — another thing the referendum would have to address).

Again, this is all nothing but the sheerest speculation on my part, and I have no way of measuring how likely any of this will be. The reunification of Ireland would be historic, but even if Northern Ireland does hold a referendum within the next few years, it’s impossible to predict how they’d vote. Feelings run deep, and the history of animosity stretches back centuries. An Irish reunification vote would likely be even more contentious than the Brexit vote or a Scottish independence vote. Such a vote would probably only happen if Scotland successfully paved the way by cutting ties with Britain first. The only thing you can predict with any certainty is that the people of the Republic of Ireland would likely vote overwhelmingly to reunify with the six counties of Northern Ireland (both countries would have to hold votes on the issue). A united Ireland, free forever from Britain, has been the dream of Irish rebels for hundreds of years. Brexit may actually have moved things one step closer to this dream becoming a reality a lot sooner than most would have predicted — even last week.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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