Irish unity is on people’s minds and lips in a way it hasn’t been for decades. The referendum on abortion reform in the Republic of Ireland on May 26 is the latest in a series of developments (Brexit, Stormont’s collapse, the DUP-Conservative deal) that some believe could nudge opinion in Northern Ireland towards leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic.
But before any rush to a border poll, four things should happen.
1. Debate it properly
Right now that’s not what’s happening. It’s just the old spectre called Irish unity spooking or charming politicians and survey respondents. It’s an engaging sport, as the media well know – all the more so in these fast moving political times. But there’s nothing about what a flesh and blood united Ireland could actually be like or how it would affect people’s lives.
This is nothing new. Coherent arguments for and against Irish unity and the Union with Great Britain have always been scarce. Protestant unionists have had an advantage – the status quo – but they’ve squandered it. After 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, all they had to do was sit back, make the North as inclusive as possible, and watch as Catholic nationalists – or enough of them – made peace with British sovereignty continuing indefinitely.
Meanwhile, nationalists have made little effort to spell out to unionists (or even nationalists) how their daily lives would improve in a united Ireland. Easier perhaps to just rely on unionist self-sabotage and shifting demographics to create the required nationalist voting majority, sooner or later.
The Good Friday Agreement’s vision was persuasion through accommodation. But it hasn’t been much in evidence, and the parties have failed to make compelling arguments which make sense beyond their faithful.
2. Unite Ireland
Since Brexit raised the possibility of security and trade checks returning to the Irish border, there’s been a lot of talk about the seamlessness of the boundary line. It is seamless, and it must remain so. But drive a little further, among people and towns, and you’ll feel the discontinuities, the jolt of otherness. A “soft border” simply means people can move more easily between two very different places.
Twenty years ago, nationalists – and some unionists – hoped that an invisible border and all-Ireland links would bring north and south into closer fellowship. But how much has been achieved in that short period?
Are the bulk of northern Protestants any more familiar with Irish history or Roman Catholicism or Gaelic sports? Are southerners better versed in unionist traditions and culture? Has the porous border led to any convergence in how public services and public spaces are experienced north and south?
There could be a border poll tomorrow which puts divided Ireland into the constitutional washing machine, but it will still come out looking like, yes, a divided Ireland. This is not necessarily an argument against Irish unity. But a united Ireland, in current circumstances, could be a strange and conflicted place.
3. Consider alternatives
Northern Ireland is a divided society, almost evenly split between two nationalities. Unification would simply replace one exclusive sovereignty in the north with another. The novelty would be that a different set of people would be unhappy.
Surely, then, fairer constitutional futures would be, say, joint British-Irish authority, international involvement, or even independence. Or some other arrangement not yet imagined. The cross-community Alliance Party, for one, has argued that the principle of majority consent for Northern Ireland’s status should be used to test support for alternatives other than just the UK or a united Ireland. These alternatives may sound farfetched, but they deserve to be part of the debate as an acknowledgement of Northern Ireland’s complex condition.
4. Get back to the Agreement
But the best alternative is the full flourishing of the settlement that already exists. The one tortuously negotiated and popularly endorsed. The one that addressed the multiplicity of identities, established creative institutions, and sustained a broad consensus right up until Brexit.
The Good Friday Agreement has not yet had space and time to thrive. Due to disagreement over the deal’s implementation, power-sharing only functioned for 12 out of 20 years. The institutions created to promote cooperation between the north and south of Ireland, and Britain and Ireland, were underused. Clashes over culture and the legacy of violence stifled the Agreement again and again.
If that deal is operated honourably by political leaders, and survives Brexit, it could become clear that another grand nationalist project is the last thing anyone should be entertaining. Like Brexit, a vote for Irish unity would sap the energy of the public, media and the state, and distract from all else for years to come.
Right now, normal, everyday politics – the more boring the better – is what Northern Ireland badly needs.