Irish Unity after Brexit

The attraction of the possible is in the end more powerful than that of the unattainable. -Patrick Kavanagh

A united Ireland. Irish unity. A Nation Once Again. Notions that have animated the Irish and the Irish diaspora for generations evoke both excitement and anxiety at what their pursuit might unleash and what the consequences of their achievement might entail.

There is growing momentum that a united Ireland is not just possible but inevitable in the post- Brexit world. The old Harry Truman chestnut that “It’s amazing what you can accomplish in politics, if you do not care who gets the credit” could be modified slightly in this case because all of the main political parties in Ireland deserve credit. Unity will require both patience and boldness and will not be achieved through armed action but by democratic means and for utilitarian reasons.

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has already disrupted the economy and every other element of society in Northern Ireland. From reduced grocery store supplies to the mandatory quarantining of pets to visit Great Britain, life has become more complicated. This will likely get worse as the various grace periods end, the excuse of the Covid crisis disappears, and the full disaster of Brexit is revealed.

Empty shelves at UK grocery chain Marks and Spencer in Northern Ireland

Three Recent Events in Ireland during Covid and after Brexit

In late December 2020 critical cases of Covid in Northern Irish ICU’s overwhelmed several hospitals. Patients who should have been in ICU beds were treated in parked ambulances. In response, the Republic of Ireland sent ambulances and crews of paramedics from the Republic across the border to work alongside their Northern Ireland counterparts.

In January as the first effects of Brexit began to hurt UK citizens, Northern Irish university students were stunned that Boris Johnson cut the Erasmus study abroad program from the budget. Johnson had promised to stay in Erasmus just days before but in announcing the UK’s exit, he boastfully promised to introduce a ‘new, better, world-beating study abroad program’ for UK citizens. A broken promise mixed with bumptious delusion is Johnson’s stock in trade. In response, the Republic of Ireland’s Education Minister, Simon Harris, guaranteed that any Northern Irish student who wished to continue in the program would have the costs paid by the Republic of Ireland.

In early February the All-Island Cancer Consortium ‘AICC’, a north south initiative that began in 1999 growing out of the Good Friday Agreement, convened a virtual meeting to signal a redoubling of efforts to defeat cancer. The AICC involves Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity, UCD, the US National Cancer Institute, and a host of public/ private sector partners across the island of Ireland. In a testament to humanity’s spirit and ingenuity when put to positive purpose, the AICC explained that the response to the Covid crisis has actually improved some elements of cancer research. For example, the fact of restricted movement, especially for at risk patients, has led to fast-tracked approval for mailing medications to clinical trial participants and to the broader use of telemedicine which has accelerated clinical trials.

These affirmative acts of kindness as well as basic competence by government and civic organizations spread goodwill and trust on the Island of Ireland. Cooperative efforts are especially important now as the predicted impacts of Brexit begin to damage the people, economy and society of Northern Ireland. Hard line unionists who supported Brexit now blame Boris Johnson for not negotiating a better version of the Northern Ireland Protocol. In turn, Johnson blames the EU or minimizes the very real issues as ‘teething pains.’

Fallout from Brexit

In early February during a row over covid vaccine supplies, the EU made a blunder by threatening to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, to close the border. The misstep was quickly corrected but loyalist threats to EU customs officers closed customs facilities temporarily and Johnson the opportunist, was quick to attempt to assign all of the Brexit issues on this mistake but of course that is nonsense. The problem is Brexit itself.

Trade routes are already being reorganized directly to the continent to avoid Brexit difficulties. Large ferries from the Stena Line and Brittany Ferries are being reassigned from shipping lanes from Ireland to Europe over the UK land bridge, in favor of shipments directly from Ireland to French ports in Roscoff, Dunkirk and Calais to avoid impediments. In the short term Northern Irish retailers, manufacturers, and farmers will tolerate delays to maintain trading arrangements with Great Britain. After all, 80% of trade to and from Northern Ireland is currently with ‘GB’, but over time this may shift significantly and the purpose of Northern Ireland’s membership in the UK will be brought further into question. Brexit could be the ‘ghastly mistake’ that De Valera admitted to sometimes hoping England would commit.

Brexit and Covid have made the UK weaker than ever. The Scottish Nationalist Party is pushing for a new Independence referendum and even the Wales independence movement is growing. In late January the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne wrote:

“By unleashing English nationalism Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade. Northern Ireland is already heading for the exit door.” -Former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne

Will Brexit result in the fulfillment of the dream of Irish unity?

One hundred years ago Ireland became the first successful independence movement in a nation controlled by the victors of World War I. Besides Ireland, Wilson’s self- determination for small nations was applied only in the empires that had lost the war. Ireland’s was not a complete victory however, as the nation was partitioned with 6 counties retaining their status as members of the UK along sectarian lines. At the time, one of the main unionist arguments for partition was that unionists wanted to stay integrated with the broader world while the Irish Free State was intent on creating an inward looking, isolationist, agrarian, Celtic utopia.

Now those roles have been reversed. The Republic of Ireland has taken its seat on the UN security council this year, arisen as a ‘tiny diplomatic superpower’ and its global facing economy, even during the pandemic, has grown at 3.5 % powered by the tech and pharma markets. During the same period the UK has contracted by 9.5% (The Guardian) due to the negative double whammy of the pandemic and Brexit.

The unintended contributors to the conditions for Irish unity are the rise of English nationalism and Boris Johnson himself. Former Exchequer Osborne goes on to note that the latest polling shows that only 31 % of English people would care if Northern Ireland left the UK. Most would be happy to say good riddance to a drain of resources.

The moral and material support of the USA and the EU will be crucial to the success of this project. Joe Biden gives all parties confidence that the GFA will be upheld and that the UK will fulfill its obligations while France and Germany’s support before, during, and after Brexit bode well for Irish reunification.

As 2021 begins, the prospects and conditions for Irish Unity are as favorable as they have ever been. The reasons are more practical than poetic and all of the major parties in Ireland deserve credit for their contributions to a united Ireland. There is an old yarn that when a third person joins a political party in Ireland the subject of their first meeting is ‘the split.’ The origins of the three main parties are intertwined and space does not permit addressing their complex histories. Rather I will highlight several lesser-known contributions by the main parties from recent Irish history that have helped create the conditions for Irish unity.

Fianna Fail

In 1990 the rotating role of President of the EU commission fell to Ireland and specifically Charlie Haughey, the charismatic Fianna Fail Leader and Taoiseach. The issue of German reunification was top of the agenda that year after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The two most powerful EU countries were unenthusiastic. France’s memories of 3 disastrous wars between 1871 and 1945 made them uneasy about a united Germany. George Clemenceau, who fought in 1871 and led France in WWI, left strict instructions that his coffin be buried standing up and facing east when he died in 1929, forever sentinel against German aggression. Margaret Thatcher saw a united Germany becoming the dominant force in Europe and was opposed. But Charlie Haughey took bold action with his one-year mandate as President of the Council, convening a conference of European leaders in Ireland to promote Germany’s cause and to plan the practicalities of German reunification. Helmut Kohl considered Irish support crucial, saying at the time “You have always supported the idea of German unity. We will never forget that.”

Fine Gael

In 2016 after the shocking Brexit referendum victory, Irish Unity was discussed widely as a possible outcome. In 2017 Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny secured unanimous support from the EU to fast track ‘automatic’ EU membership for Northern Ireland, ‘if Irish unity occurred at some stage in the future.” If a border poll does occur and Irish unity is confirmed, Northern Ireland’s acceptance into Europe is assured. Importantly, this move was not an immediate call for a border poll that might have threatened Unionists.

This is a huge advantage compared to Scotland. Like Northern Ireland, Scotland voted to remain in the EU but was removed from the EU by Brexit. Scotland’s independence movement is reenergized by the Brexit outcome, arguing that the 2014 independence referendum was defeated because Scots were told that independence would mean leaving the EU. Now the situation has reversed itself: voting to leave the UK would give Scotland the chance to rejoin the EU. There are some ‘ifs’: If the Scottish Nationalist Party wins in May, if the independence referendum is called by Johnson, and if it is successful, Scotland could then start an application for EU membership.

Sinn Fein

Modern Sinn Fein’s mission and purpose is to achieve Irish unity. It has held that banner high for its entire existence defending and advocating for the rights of their supporters in Northern Ireland and deserves credit for keeping the goal of a united Ireland alive, for becoming a constitutional party in the early 90’s, embracing democratic politics as the means to achieve its aims, and for building the only all-island political party, recent success driven as much by their call for more affordable housing as their appeal to patriotism. Sinn Fein wants the planning to start now and has also been clear in stating that Sinn Fein is not the solitary custodian of the aspiration for Irish unity, it is an issue for all of Ireland’s main parties.

Challenges for Irish Unity

The UK spends 11 billion Euros a year in subsidies to keep the 6 county statelet running. The practical challenges for blending the two jurisdictions will be considerable- integrating the health and education systems, pensions, currency- to name a few.

The other major challenges are ideological and political. Northern Ireland was born in part by the notion that partitioning majority Protestant counties would protect the interests of the Protestant minority but in practice it compounded the problem by creating minorities in two jurisdictions. Even the most sympathetic observer of Unionism would be hard pressed to evaluate the last 100 years of partition as a success at any level. This year some die hard unionists are attempting to ‘celebrate’ the centenary, but it seems halfhearted at best.

Some unionists will always paint their curb stones red, white, and blue, fly union flags over their homes, and reject a united Ireland. One need look no further than the US Capital insurrectionists on January 6th with their confederate flags to know that some ideas live on, nourished by lies and hatred, no matter how bankrupt. Ironically, the most extreme elements of unionism, that reject marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose, are most aligned with the Catholic Church on social issues. Differences will remain but the 5 parties in Northern Ireland would be wise to heed President Biden’s plea to the American people in his inaugural, “Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

True Unity

A clear majority of Northern Ireland wants to stay inside the EU to allow themselves and their children the opportunity to study, work, and travel without restriction in the EU, but EU membership is not enough to unite Ireland.

To truly unite Ireland a new shared mission and purpose must be envisioned. A new Ireland could be united by the common goals of creating an inclusive society where her people flourish with world class healthcare and education, green energy and transportation infrastructure, shared prosperity, healthy sustainable food production, and secure retirement. This new Ireland can continue to be a mecca for writers, artists, musicians, actors, historians as well as engineers, scientists, researchers, where anyone from anywhere can thrive. A united Ireland will serve as an example that peace is not just possible, it is transformative, and that tolerance, while certainly better than conflict, is only a step towards love. Ireland’s overcoming its own painful history of colonial oppression and the long struggle for freedom and unity can inspire other peoples, including in the United States, dealing with post conflict societies.

Irish political parties will need to be big hearted enough to give each other credit and nimble enough to build new coalitions in a new political landscape. There is every reason for confidence; modern Irish politics can be contentious but are generally not practiced with malice. If Nelson Mandela could reach out to the orange Afrikaners who imprisoned him, and if France and Germany can cooperate after a century of mutual annihilation, surely a majority of people in Northern Ireland can vote to join the rest of the island to work together for a new future of shared purpose.

It would be naive to think this will be easy and without painful setbacks. The financial support from the UK will need to be extended by a transition period, reparations for past harm, or replaced by some other negotiated means but make no mistake, Irish unity is coming.

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Tim Kirk

Born in Boston, living in Dublin, son, brother, husband, Dad, and Daddo