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27 April 2022updated 05 May 2022 11:53am

Is a united Ireland now inevitable?

As Sinn Féin surges with voters, Irish reunification seems closer than ever. But the real debate over what the new state might look like is only just beginning.

By Martin Fletcher

It is a filthy Sunday in early spring, replete with driving wind and lashing rain. As I stand outside Drumcree Parish Church, a squat stone edifice overlooking muddy fields on the edge of Portadown in Northern Ireland, I’m alone except for nine Orangemen, all dressed in dark coats and orange sashes.

It is a far cry from the last time I was here. That was in July 1998, when a new Parades Commission had just banned Portadown’s Orange Lodge from marching back to the town through a nationalist housing estate following its annual service commemorating Protestant King William’s 1690 victory over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne.

On that occasion thousands of supporters had poured in to help the Orangemen complete a march they had held every year since 1807, but they were blocked by one of Northern Ireland’s biggest ever military operations. Riots erupted across the province. They ended only after three young boys died in an arson attack on their Catholic mother’s council house in Ballymoney eight days later.

Astonishingly, members of Portadown’s Orange Lodge have staged a symbolic attempt to complete their march every subsequent Sunday, except during the Covid lockdowns and the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak. That is more than 1,100 times in all, and “we will continue until we’re allowed to pass down that road”, Nigel Dawson, the lodge’s district master, tells me as he and his colleagues prepare to set off once again.

At 1pm precisely they march down the lane to Portadown. After 200 yards they reach a bridge over a stream, where a single police officer stops them. They demand the right to pass. The officer refuses. One of the Orangemen reads a psalm. Another thanks God for “giving us the health and strength to come out here and make our protest against the decision of an unelected quango known as the Parades Commission”. The nine men then return to the church, sing the national anthem and head home for their Sunday lunches.

[See also: Why the May elections in Northern Ireland are the most significant in decades]

Dawson, his deputy Alastair Power and I take refuge in a car. The Orangemen are loyal British citizens, Dawson explains. He and his “brethren” have every right to walk the Queen’s highway. “It’s akin to the Whitehall parade on Remembrance Sunday not being allowed. What would the British people say? I’d think they’d be equally as upset and annoyed as we are at having our civil liberties denied us here.”

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If the Orangemen go to such lengths to defend their right to march, I ask, how far would they go to prevent Irish reunification and rule from Dublin? Dawson, a local council manager during the week, scoffs at the thought. “We’re British, full stop. I know people put little spins on it and say we’re Ulstermen, we’re Northern Irish men, we’re British Ulstermen. That’s grand. You can have whatever handle you want on it. But the core principle is that we’re part of the UK and Northern Ireland.”

Power, a butcher and fifth-generation Orangeman, concurs: “We will stand and fight. We’re unionists. We’re loyal to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We see no value in reunification.”

But these members of an order that was founded in 1795 to uphold the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, and which still bars Catholics from joining, may be fighting a losing battle. The historical tide has turned against them and their fellow unionists. A century after Northern Ireland was created through the bitter process of partition, its future looks increasingly uncertain. 

Even as the Orangemen are voicing their defiance, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s 45-year-old leader in Northern Ireland, appears on Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday show. Asked about the possibility of Irish reunification, she replies: “I certainly think we are closer than we have ever been previously, and now is the time to plan.”

O’Neill’s optimism is understandable, for the days of unionist dominance in Northern Ireland are incontrovertibly over.

In recent years unionists have lost their overall majority in the Stormont Assembly for the first time, and won fewer seats in the House of Commons than republican Sinn Féin and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) combined.

Census results due in June are expected to show Catholics outnumbering Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time. Not all Catholics favour reunification, but that will nonetheless be an important symbolic and psychological milestone.

Opinion polls show steadily declining support for the Union, with a Liverpool University “poll of recent polls” measuring it at 48 per cent compared to 35 per cent support for reunification. Jonathan Tonge, a Liverpool politics professor, told me there had been “two decades of slippage to the point where even in the best of polls for unionism, you’ve not got majority support for the Union any more. It’s struggling to make 50 per cent.”

A Scottish vote for independence would have a knock-on effect in Northern Ireland, and on top of all that, Brexit has proved disastrous for unionists on several counts. The ruling Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) backed the UK’s departure from the European Union, but the province voted by 56 to 44 per cent to remain. Boris Johnson promised the DUP that he would never permit a border in the Irish Sea, then agreed to precisely that in order to “get Brexit done”.

[See also: Brexit isn’t done – and Boris Johnson can’t answer the Irish Question]

That new border has left Northern Ireland in constitutional limbo, still part of the UK but subject to EU rules. It has also boosted Northern Ireland’s trade with the Irish Republic to offset the new barriers to trade with Britain: in 2021 the province’s exports to the south jumped 65 per cent, and imports from the south were up  by 54 per cent. Jim Allister, leader of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice party, calls the border “a stepping stone to all-Ireland unity”, and unionists are demanding – so far in vain – that the British government unilaterally abolish it by invoking Article 16 of the Brexit agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol.  

Northern Ireland’s recent centenary has also raised the question of whether this small province, whose population is no bigger than Kent’s, even deserves to survive. It is not quite a failed state, but it is deeply dysfunctional.

It was born, in May 1921, in strife – Ireland’s partition being the least bad option for a Westminster government caught between Irish republicans fighting a guerrilla war against British rule, and northern unionists who had made huge sacrifices for Britain during the First World War and were determined forcibly to resist “Home Rule” from Dublin.

For the next half-century its Protestants used their substantial majority to oppress a Catholic minority that had little allegiance to the new state to begin with. The crushing of a burgeoning civil rights movement in the late 1960s then sparked a quarter-century of vicious sectarian warfare that turned Northern Ireland into Europe’s most militarised society. The “Troubles” caused 3,600 deaths and generated a whole new lexicon of horror: collusion, internment, kneecappings, hunger strikes, Bloody Sunday, the “Disappeared”.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) finally ended Europe’s longest conflict, but Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided and abnormal place. Its two tribes still stake out their territory with flags, painted kerbstones and murals glorifying gunmen. They still live in segregated housing estates protected by “peace walls”, and send their children to segregated schools. They still have their own sports, banks, newspapers and musical instruments – not to mention paramilitary organisations. They still call a union between a Protestant Christian and a Catholic Christian a “mixed marriage”.

Since the GFA, Northern Ireland has had an absence of violence rather than real peace. There has been no proper process of reconciliation or accountability. Moreover, its new power-sharing government has seldom functioned – except during a brief period when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness worked so harmoniously together that they were dubbed the Chuckle Brothers.

The DUP and Sinn Féin, the province’s two largest parties, have no agreed narrative about the past or a shared vision for its future – Sinn Féin even challenges Northern Ireland’s right to exist. They fight for their own communities, not the common good. They have little trust in each other and consider compromise a dirty word. As a result, only two of the six Stormont Assemblies elected since the GFA have not been suspended.

“I’d give the GFA a first-class honours in terms of producing peace – it’s been imperfect but it’s broadly held – but a lower second in terms of producing political stability,” said Tonge. “There’s been chronic instability.”

Orangemen halt their march at police lines outside Drumcree Parish Church in Portadown, 4 July 2010. Photo by Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images

Two other factors drive the case for Irish reunification, the first being the Republic’s economic and social transformation in recent decades.

At the time of partition it was a poor, agrarian country dominated by the Catholic Church, while Belfast was an industrial hub of the British empire. Today the Republic has a thriving economy, with a higher per capita GDP than Britain, and the Church is a spent force. The north, by contrast, relies on a bloated public sector – in 2020-21 public spending amounted to 63.7 per cent of the province’s GDP – and a £15bn annual “subvention” from London.

Second, there is the British government’s startling indifference to, and ignorance of, Northern Ireland. Before becoming secretary of state for the province in 2018, Karen Bradley did not know the difference between nationalists and unionists. Boris Johnson famously compared the Irish border, that 100-year scar on the island of Ireland, to crossing the Congestion Charge boundary in London. A 2019 poll showed 59 per cent of Tory party members preferred to lose Northern Ireland than Brexit. Johnson ultimately betrayed the province to secure the withdrawal deal.

Following the Orangemen’s ritual protest in Drumcree I have coffee with Sam McBride, the young, whip-smart Northern Ireland editor of the Belfast Telegraph.

“Brexit was disastrous for the Union,” he says. “It has unsettled a position that was more stable than it had ever been since 1921. It has accelerated a campaign for [reunification] that was pretty much dead, and there have never been circumstances as advantageous for arguing in favour of Irish unity.

“You have a prime minister who’s repeatedly lied about NI and transparently doesn’t care about the place. You have Northern Ireland leaving the EU against the will of many of its people. You have got a sense that the UK is a country going in a direction in which they don’t want to travel, and at the same time you have an open, pluralist, economically thriving Irish Republic, which far fewer people north of the border see as a threatening entity.”

In an online debate Kevin Meagher, author of A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About, put it another way: “While united-Irelanders look south with confidence about the future, unionists instead peer across to a Britain that they barely recognise, to a country that pays them little heed, to a Westminster class that has in turn ignored them when it could, charmed them when it needed, promised them when it was expedient and betrayed them as it pleased… Boris Johnson promised unionists a bridge and then a tunnel, but all they got was a lousy border in the Irish Sea.”

In short, the dream of Irish unity is no longer the preserve of misty-eyed republicans nursing pints of Guinness. And now, with unionism demoralised and in disarray since Brexit, a rebranded Sinn Féin – led by two women untainted by past IRA violence – looks likely to become Northern Ireland’s biggest party in May’s Stormont elections, and could well win the Republic’s 2025 general election.

Two such momentous victories for a party whose raison d’être is a united Ireland would inevitably propel reunification to the top of the political agenda. But it would nonetheless be wrong to suggest that a united Ireland is just round the corner. On the contrary, the drive for reunification will be protracted and fraught with hazard, and could easily wreck Northern Ireland’s fragile peace if mishandled.

This is what Jonathan Powell, who as Tony Blair’s chief of staff was a principal architect of the GFA, told me: “The unspoken fear hanging over all this, and making the tension in NI worse, is the unionist fear that a united Ireland is getting closer as a result of demographic and other change, particularly the consequences of Brexit.

“I understand why the British and Irish governments don’t want to talk about it, because of the risk of making things worse. But I think it is a mistake. There are a lot of difficult questions that need to be addressed: how could a Protestant minority be protected in a united Ireland? What will happen to Stormont? How will unionists be able to maintain their identity? What about the common travel area? Just sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t make the issue go away. The possibility of a border poll when none of these issues has been addressed is naturally destabilising.”

The first problem is that the Good Friday Agreement says the secretary of state for Northern Ireland should order a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

Its vagueness gives the secretary of state huge latitude. He or she could base their decision on opinion polls, election results, seats won, a Stormont vote, demographic data or even focus groups. He or she could conceivably delay a vote to protect the UK. He or she could rush one forward in the hope that a unionist victory would deter a Scottish independence referendum, or knowing that the GFA prevents another being held for seven years. It is a recipe for lawsuits, and a court of appeal has already rebuffed an attempt to force the secretary of state to publish the criteria on which the decision would be made.

The GFA says nothing about the nature of the referendum, either, but nobody in Northern Ireland wants a repeat of the Brexit ballot, when the electorate had to vote on the principle of leaving the EU without any idea of what that would mean in practice.

There are any number of highly emotive questions to which the two electorates would want answers before voting. Would a reunified Ireland be a unitary state, or a federal one with some form of devolved government surviving in Stormont? How would the rights of a new Protestant and unionist minority be guaranteed? How would the new state absorb the loss of Britain’s annual subvention? How could the very different health, welfare and education systems of the north and south be reconciled? Would the Police Service of Northern Ireland be absorbed into an all-Ireland police service? Could northern unionists still enjoy British citizenship, serve in the British army and receive British pensions?

Sinn Féin is demanding that Dublin create an all-Ireland citizens’ assembly to explore these questions, but neither the British nor Irish government has any interest in triggering the potentially incendiary process of designing a united Ireland. More importantly, few unionists have any interest in negotiating a new constitutional arrangement to replace their cherished Union.

To fill the vacuum, the Constitution Unit of University College London convened a group of 12 academics to explore this and other problems, and has suggested two possible solutions.

First, following a vote for reunification, a constitutional convention could design a united Ireland while Northern Ireland remained under British sovereignty, and then put its plan to a second referendum. If that second vote was lost, reunification would go ahead anyway, but on default terms agreed before the first referendum. Alternatively, reunification and a transfer of sovereignty would proceed under an interim arrangement immediately after a vote for Irish reunification, and a permanent constitutional settlement would be worked out thereafter.

Either way, unionists would have every incentive to help shape a united Ireland because reunification would be unavoidable if approved in the first referendum.

The working group identified numerous other contentious issues. What would the campaign finance rules be? How would the referendum questions be worded in the north and south? How could reliable information be disseminated, and disinformation prevented? What role would the British and Irish governments play in the campaign? How could a level playing field be ensured?

It also concluded that the threshold for approving reunification would have to be 50 per cent plus one, as in the Brexit referendum. That is alarming because Northern Ireland is a combustible place at the best of times, let alone when its very existence is at stake, and a wafer-thin majority for reunification could prove catastrophic.

A referendum campaign would be fought by flag wavers and drum beaters. It would exacerbate divisions. A narrow victory would raise the prospect of a united Ireland having to absorb several hundred thousand angry unionists contesting the vote’s legitimacy, as Remainers did the Brexit vote. They might accuse Sinn Féin of vote-rigging and intimidation, or question its campaign funding. Some might resort to armed resistance in a province still cursed by paramilitary groups.

[See also: What does Paul Givan’s resignation as first minister of Northern Ireland mean?]

Sam McBride recalled how the unionist leader Edward Carson created the Ulster Volunteer Force to defeat Home Rule over a century ago. “It’s hard-wired into the psyche of traditional unionists and loyalists that what Carson did in 1912 was noble and moral, and that therefore, under certain circumstances where the Union is under threat, it’s legitimate to take up arms,” he said. “That’s almost a default position.”

Alan Renwick, the professor of democratic politics at University College London who chaired the working group, told me: “Anyone who thinks the Brexit referendum was difficult, divisive and challenging for our democracy has seen nothing until they see a referendum on this issue. Gosh, they need to be aware of the dangers.”

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Sarah Laverty, a 30-year-old education campaigner from Ballymoney, comes from a unionist background and grew up valuing the Union, not least because her father received treatment for a serious heart condition from the NHS that would have been hard to access in the Republic.

Today she is disillusioned. She had long felt London no longer cared about Northern Ireland. Then came a Brexit campaign that totally ignored the province’s concerns and ripped it from the European Union. “It shook a lot of people to the core,” she tells me over lunch in a south Belfast café. “Brexit was the catalyst that made you realise how alienated you were already feeling.”

She is also sick of Northern Ireland’s sectarian politics, which ignore issues such as feminism, equality and the environment, and has been impressed by the Republic’s growing social progressivism (same-sex marriage was legalised in 2015 and abortion in 2018). For the first time in her life, she says, she would at least consider voting for Irish reunification in a future border poll.

Laverty is not alone in her political journey. She is one of many predominantly young, urban “constitutional agnostics” who have fuelled the recent surge of the province’s centrist Alliance and Green parties. They now form roughly 20 per cent of the electorate. They will be the floating voters in any future referendum. And while nationalists and republicans acknowledge a referendum is not imminent, they have already begun to woo these so-called others with a carefully crafted message of inclusion and rapprochement.

Niall Murphy is a burly, Irish-speaking Belfast human rights lawyer who has represented many victims of the Troubles. He also leads Ireland’s Future, a pressure group that produces papers on how a united Ireland might work and holds rallies across Ireland. The organisation has amassed an impressive supporting cast of academics, journalists, professionals and sports stars. At its first major event in January 2021, it attracted 2,000 people to Belfast’s Waterfront Hall; in October Murphy hopes to bring 10,000 to a Dublin arena.

Sitting in an office filled with framed newspaper cuttings recording his legal victories, Murphy says that reunification is now “inevitable”, adding: “The last century saw the end of the British empire, and this decade will see the end of the United Kingdom.” But, he insists, “We don’t want to replicate the madness of Brexit, whereby an unsuspecting, ignorant electorate was ambushed by an ill-defined question nobody had an answer to.”

He wants the Irish government to set up a citizens’ assembly and a department for reunification, with “everything on the table”. He says unionists’ civil liberties and religious freedoms must be guaranteed. He does not rule out a devolved northern government, the Irish senate sitting in Stormont, or an entirely new Irish flag and anthem shorn of historical baggage. “This is not going to be the six counties [of Northern Ireland] bolted on to Dublin rule. This will be an entirely new nation,” he argues, and says unionists should help shape it.

He is less emollient when I suggest unionists and loyalists might reject a close vote. “I’m expected to respect the principle of consent in circumstances where my national preference is denied,” he says. “I would wholly expect the principle of consent to be respected when the obverse becomes a fact.”

The outside of Sinn Féin’s headquarters on the Falls Road is covered in a huge mural of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and plaques commemorating republican “volunteers” killed by the security forces. There I meet Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin’s national chair and a Stormont minister who is genial but resolutely on-message.

Thanks largely to Brexit, he tells me, “there’s a momentum behind constitutional change which none of us have ever witnessed before in our lifetime”. An English nationalist government is “increasingly breaking the cords and threads that have held the UK together”.

Like Murphy, Kearney talks of creating an “agreed Ireland” that would be a “warm and inclusive place for every tradition and identity on this island”. He envisages “an outward-looking, pluralist and multicultural Ireland”. He insists that “we will be starting with a blank sheet. We need to be looking at the prospect of a national constitutional democracy on the island of Ireland that heretofore has not existed; that secures and entrenches civil, religious and democratic rights regardless of background, religious or ethnic affiliation or sexual orientation.”

All of which is a long way from the 1980s, when Sinn Féin proposed monetary grants for unionists opposed to a united Ireland to resettle in Britain.

There are elements of civic unionism willing to explore Sinn Féin’s overtures. Harold Good, a former president of the Irish Methodist Church who helped monitor the IRA’s arms decommissioning in 2005, says key Sinn Féin figures have asked him to assemble a small, informal group of moderate unionists to discuss what a united Ireland might look like.

Over tea in his Holywood home, he tells me he has agreed to do so for the sake of his grandchildren and their children. “I don’t want them growing up in a country that’s bedevilled by its past rather than excited about its future. Let’s have enough confidence in ourselves and who we are to engage with those who have a different vision,” he says. “Let’s be architects rather than victims.”

Good, now 84, says he would be content with the idea of a new Ireland provided it was consensual. “My only sadness is I don’t think I’m going to be alive long enough to see it.”

But there is little sign of political unionism following Good’s lead. In 2018 Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s former DUP first minister, urged unionists to at least prepare for the possibility of reunification, saying, “I don’t expect my own house to burn down, but I still insure it because it could happen.” His advice has been largely ignored by unionist leaders who fear even to discuss a referendum lest they encourage one or be accused of betrayal. 

“If they’re thinking about it, they’re thinking about it privately,” Brian Rowan, BBC Northern Ireland’s former security editor and author of Political Purgatory: The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland, tells me. “The public line is, ‘Let’s look forward to the next 100 years of Northern Ireland.’ That’s not the real world. A new Ireland will arrive on their doorstep  and they’ll say, ‘How the heck did that happen?’”

I meet Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP whose father coined the phrase “no surrender”, in a Belfast hotel. He says it is divisive and destabilising even to talk about reunification, and that politicians should concentrate on making Northern Ireland work better. But he admits that “there’s a strong Irish nationalist and republican propaganda unit pushing the issue”, and predicts that if Sinn Féin wins May’s Stormont elections it will use Irish America and Joe Biden’s White House to pressure Downing Street for a referendum.

To pre-empt that, unionists should start making the case for the Union “with pride, determination and zeal because the facts and emotion are overwhelmingly on their side”. The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy. It gives Northern Ireland up to £15bn a year, access to the NHS and a welfare state. He dismisses nationalist talk of an “agreed” or “shared” Ireland as “old soup in a new dish”.

Paisley also worries about nationalists winning a referendum by a slim margin. “In circumstances where a significant number of people felt they did not support the political arrangements they were being put into, would there be a potential for violence from extremists? I think there would be, and if the government didn’t take that into consideration they would be very foolish.”

Of Dublin, he says: “I get the impression they haven’t a clue of what it would mean to manage a part of the island that has the problems that Northern Ireland has had in the past – and could bring back if they’re not satisfied.”

[See also: Will Boris Johnson trigger a Brexit trade war over the Northern Ireland protocol?]

My last visit is to the Mount Vernon housing estate in north Belfast where a huge mural of two loyalist gunmen and the words “Prepared for peace – ready for war” adorn a community centre. Inside I meet Billy Hutchinson, the Progressive Unionist Party leader who – before he embraced politics and the peace process in the 1990s – served 15 years for murdering two Catholics to prevent a united Ireland. He is just back from watching Leeds United, where he’s a season-ticket holder.

Hutchinson complains that Sinn Féin has treated the GFA as a “stepping stone to a united Ireland”, not an end in itself. He believes unionists must start making the case for the Union since a referendum would be so “dangerous”. Were it lost, he says, civil resistance would be “the very least people would do”.

That said, he would not engage in talks with nationalists because “I’m not interested in a new Ireland”, and he would not even consider reunification. “We would be persecuted by republicans. They would slaughter us. They would drive us out of this country,” he declares. “They are full of vengeance, and that’s what they will want from a united Ireland.”

There you have it: two seemingly irreconcilable tribes, even after 100 years of coexistence. I have a great affection for Northern Ireland and its people. My family and I spent two happy years in the province in the late 1990s. But, as I return to London, I recall Reginald Maudling’s famous comment as the home secretary flew back from his first visit in 1970: “For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.” Or Winston Churchill’s after the First World War: “The whole map of Europe has been changed… but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”

Sooner or later – in ten or 20 years – there will be a border poll, and advocates of a united Ireland may well win it, but there is no guarantee that that will resolve the eternal “Irish Question”.

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma