Now is the time to consider the merits of a United Ireland – Conservative Article
The island of Ireland has seen the most political turmoil of all the British Isles. Since 1921, the island has been divided by a 310-mile-long border, separating the North and the Republic.
The future for the North of the border is uncertain. The impacts of Brexit, coupled with conflicting leadership, means a United Ireland is looking increasingly likely in the coming decades. Now is the time for the public and politicians on both sides of the border to consider the merits of this prospect.
There are two sides to the unity debate. On one side, there are Irish nationalists, traditionally Roman Catholics, who identify as Irish. They believe Ireland should be one country and the six counties should have never been made part of the UK. On the other side, are unionists, traditionally Protestants, who view Northern Ireland as much a part of the UK as England, Wales and Scotland, and typically identify as British.
The Irish border represents a troubled history. Today, there is nothing notable or significant about it. No checkpoints, armoured vehicles or soldiers. Instead, 30,000 people cross it every day using one of 208 road crossings. Anglo-Irish relations over the past 800 years are characterised by political violence arising over territorial claims. Throughout the last century, these have been over the governance and ownership of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.
Since the island was divided, the goal of reunification has remained on the political agenda of nationalists on both sides of the border. Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, is at the forefront of the campaign for reunification. The party’s name is Irish for “We Ourselves”, asserting their desire for Irish sovereignty and self-determination. As an all-island party, Sinn Fein hold seats in the Dáil, Stormont and the House of Commons. However, electees abstain from taking their Westminster seats until Ireland is united.
Sinn Fein’s influence in the Republic grew at the general election this year, gaining 14 extra seats and putting them one seat behind the majority party, Fianna Fail. They also have a strong bearing in the North and hold one seat less than the DUP in Stormont. The increased popularity of the party has surfaced suggestions that there is enough mandate for a border poll. Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s leader, released an official statement saying it is “impossible to ignore the growing demand for a referendum on Irish unity”.
The prospect of reunification has also gained tract following Britain’s departure from the EU. In 2016, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. At the time, First Minister Arlene Foster immediately shut down any prospects of reunification, stating it “will not happen” whilst she was in power. However, four years on, nationalists are still pushing the idea of a border poll and unity.
The leading argument for Irish unity in the wake of Brexit is the detrimental economic impacts the EU withdrawal will have. The North receives over £600 million of EU funding annually, financing “agricultural projects, economic growth, cultural development and peace initiatives”. The EU has also provided significant financial support to the peace process. Since 1989, over €1.3billion of EU money has been spent to create a ‘peaceful and stable society’.
This funding has been paramount in maintaining peace in the six counties and border counties in the Republic. The withdrawal of Northern Ireland from the EU means EU programmes will end at the end of 2020. This raises a number of concerns. Not only will Northern Irish society lose a huge amount of funding, but the peace process and cross-border cooperation are also at risk.
Furthermore, the open trade between the North and the Republic eliminates high trading costs, enabling a free flow of goods and services; Brexit also compromises this. Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK sharing a land border with an EU member state; trading across the border will be forced to change. In 2017, Northern Irish exports to the Republic totalled over £4bn, making up 33% of total exports.
Mutual membership of the customs union and single market has enabled goods to cross the border with no checks. However, change is inevitable – checks on non-EU goods entering the EU, and vice versa, will be required. Any form of border check will not be received well in Northern Ireland and I fear some level of violence would resume if these are introduced.
It is not just the impending question of Brexit that fuels the current arguments for unity. Nationalists have long believed Westminster has “completely ignored” and side-lined the people of Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland currently has the highest levels of deprivation in the UK, with a third of the population living on, or below, the breadline. Losing vital funding from the EU will only worsen this situation and Westminster seems to be doing little to improve these conditions.
In 2019, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into the ‘devastating impact’ severe underfunding has had on Northern Irish schools. The report concluded that a decrease in funding and an increase in the number of pupils entering the education system annually was “deeply unfair” on pupils and teachers. It particularly noted the negligence of the 80,000 children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities forced to attend mainstream schools due to a lack of resources. From 2011 until the completion of the inquiry, Westminster repeatedly ignored concerns from schools in Northern Ireland.
Nationalists have argued that reunification would improve the standard of living in the North after being repeatedly overlooked by Westminster in the past. Furthermore, they have affirmation from Brussels that Northern Ireland would regain EU membership from a reunification.
Whilst reunification would solve the problems of trade, border tensions and EU funding, it would raise many other issues. The Republic has long faced economic troubles, posing the question of whether it could afford Northern Ireland. The Republic’s public debt is over €200bn. Additionally, despite the deep influence of the Catholic Church in the Republic, recent years have seen progressive social change by the government such as referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion. The same has not occurred in the North due to strong conservative beliefs enforced by unionist leaders. This clash of approaches to social development would cause rifts in negotiations between leaders.
Despite this, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement contains provisions specifically relating to reunification. It recognises the right of the people living on the island of Ireland to unite if there is consent on both sides of the border. It contains specific provisions stating border polls must be held in the North and the Republic for this to occur.
Brexit is set to have a profound impact on Northern Ireland. I firmly believe a United Ireland could limit the extensive economic decline the region is likely to suffer.
A United Ireland would not be a simple task to implement, nor will it provide a perfect solution to issues on both sides of the border. It would take years and years of extensive cooperation, economic compromise and societal cohesion.
A United Ireland would be as much a moral task to build as a political one. The process would stir up over 800 years of opposition, violence and tragedy. The current peace process cost thousands of innocent lives and incurable suffering and trauma for millions in the UK and Ireland. Reunifying Ireland would require both sides of the debate to forget their past differences. They need to cooperate and communicate openly to ensure the future of the country and its citizens.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Emer Kelly
Point of Information
Problems of Ireland reunifying could be more severe – A Liberal Response
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Emer’s article. The Irish border is a symbol of the hard-fought peace. Moreover, the question of reunification comes with, as my colleague says, deep historical significance, trauma and bloodshed.
A poll conducted in February of this year saw that 46.8% in Northern Ireland wants to remain in the UK, 45.4% want a united Ireland, and 7.8% were unsure. An overwhelming 73.1% of those asked in the Republic were in favour of a united Ireland. This shows just how divisive an issue this is; whilst the majority of the ROI is in favour, the people of Northern Ireland are split.
Similarly to the Brexit vote then, whatever the outcome, a significant percentage of the population is going to be unhappy. And, as Emer said, that could lead to violence. Whilst I’m not old enough to remember the troubles, I think we can all agree that violence on the Irish border is not what we want.
The harsh reality of Brexit is that Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland will be severely affected. They count on funding from the EU that the British government can’t – and are somewhat unwilling to – replace. But, as Emer states, there are significant problems with both reunifying and Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.
Either way, I feel as though the problem is deeper than Brexit. Whilst Northern Ireland wants to remain in the EU to avoid the problems that Brexit brings, the problems that would need to be resolved for a peaceful reunification are just as, if not more, severe.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Fergus Harris
The Government is playing with fire – A Labour Response
Emer’s article is brilliant! She shows understanding and compassion to both sides of this tragic issue. Unfortunately, the issue of Northern Ireland is seldom fully considered or understood in Westminster. The pigheadedness of the government whilst negotiating Brexit is baffling. It is most clear and worrying in regards to the Irish border.
The Irish Border is not an issue that can be a pawn in an economic standoff; it represents years of division, bloody warfare, tragedy and inequality. The Irish Border has to stay as a free movement and free trade situation. We know the government has multiple options to ensure this. They even agreed with the EU on one of these options. Therefore, the deviation from this we are seeing is either sheer arrogance, sheer incompetence or a complete lack of respect for the history of Ireland.
Democracy is key to whether Irish reunification will happen. As stated above, it would require a yes vote on either side of the border. Whilst this is looking increasingly likely in the post Brexit environment, Fergus and Emer rightfully point out that a process of catharsis will be required.
If the democracy of the Irish people wills it, I would love to see a Unified Ireland.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Henry Mckeever
I am currently in my second year at the University of Exeter studying Politics. It was as a young child going to visit my family in Northern Ireland that I unknowingly had my first interactions with politics.
I am a second year student reading History and International Relations at the University of Exeter. After my degree, I am hoping to do a Journalism MA.
I am entering the third year of a BA in History and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. I have a fascination with the past otherwise and you would hope so, otherwise I may have chosen the wrong degree. But, writing for POI gives me the opportunity to talk politics which is something I simply can’t avoid.