A united Ireland? | Commonwealth Magazine
Kennedy and Waller agree that Irish unity is only a matter of time, but the momentum for Irish unity has little to do with the IRA and its “armed struggle”. The 2021 census found that for the first time Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland, and UK authorities may be forced for the foreseeable future to demand a border poll. Signs of change are already in the air, including the fact that Northern Ireland now exists in an effective customs union with the south. In the 19th century, a customs union in Germany preceded German unity.
Still, it’s hard to dispute that the Good Friday Agreement was in part made possible by IRA terrorism. The main role in bringing together from the various parties goes to the Social Democratic Labor Party of Northern Ireland. The IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin, worried him: “They have the weapons, Seamus. And they did not fully surrender these weapons until 2005.
Yet the deal left Northern Ireland ill-prepared for unity. Like the Dayton Treaty which ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995, it assumes the existence of ethnic communities and thus perpetuates them. Because the Dayton peacemakers guaranteed power sharing, job seekers in Bosnia had to declare themselves Croats, Muslims or Serbs. The result was to reward the ethnic state of mind, prompting even moderate Serbian leaders to highlight their nationalist profile and become more sectarian. Likewise, the Belfast Accord of 1998 obliges elected officials to declare their allegiance: nationalist, unionist or “other”. Since then, power-sharing in Belfast has meant joint governance by the main Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, and because these two parties are proudly sectarian, they do little to bring the two communities closer together.
The most striking failure is that of education. If one wanted to unite people of diverse origins, the obvious way would be to mix young people in schools, producing countless friendships across ethnic lines, “mixed” marriages and a constituency opposed to binary distinctions. In theory, the task is easy. Schools are state funded and over 70 percent of parents want inclusion. Yet some 93 percent of students continue to attend Catholic or Protestant schools; most don’t meet people from the other community until they go to college. Beyond rhetorical gestures, the political class does little to promote integration. A Unionist politician told Waller: “We love the tough segregation of neighborhoods and communities because it gives us an easy and strong voting bloc. “
Segregation seems particularly odd in Belfast, a small city where people come into constant contact in the center – in its shops, museums and restaurants – and then move to predominantly Unionist or nationalist neighborhoods. The government has social housing and could promote integration, but its officials ensure that Protestant “estates” remain Protestant, Catholics Catholic. It doesn’t help that the paramilitaries remain active just below the surface. A few years ago, Catholic families were quietly moved to Protestant East Belfast, but they quickly faced threats of violence and were relocated to safer neighborhoods. Although unarmed, the paramilitaries remain eager to exploit fear, often trading in drugs and prostitution, like the Balkan mafias who emerged from the frontline forces responsible for ethnic cleansing. Brexit has given new life to men who experience bullying. For the moment, it is the most visible on the trade union side, as evidenced by the riots at the beginning of the year.
Unfortunately, some on the nationalist side are deaf to the challenges of allaying anxieties. After Brexit, and in light of the growing demographic weight of Catholics, politicians in Sinn Féin seem to be delighted with the seemingly unstoppable momentum towards Irish unity. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald called on the UK government to set a date for the unity referendum. According to her, “the change is underway, we cannot resist it but it must be managed.
Such overconfidence could prove to be a setback for unification, alienating not only trade unionists in the north, but also citizens of the Republic, regardless of their heritage. Polls show a substantial majority (two-thirds) of southerners would support United Ireland, but only 54% are willing to pay higher taxes to fund it. Some estimates put the cost of the unit at 30 billion euros per year. Perhaps with these facts in mind, mainstream politicians speak in measured tones, with current Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, saying he prefers an evolutionary approach, building north-south trust through projects of mutual interest. His government is not pushing for a border poll.
Commentators on La République also pay attention to the nationalist-unionist dynamic north of the partition. The southerners will only support unity, writes Fintan O’Toole, if that does not seem to leave them in disarray. “They will not vote for a form of unity that simply creates an angry and alienated Protestant minority within a hotly contested new state.” But the south is no longer the place that this minority once feared; he is highly educated, almost post-national in his mind, and secular. The Irish Catholic Church, which once took its political relevance for granted, has been greatly reduced by scandal and usury. Only 2.1% of respondents in the Republic felt that there would be no recognition of Union identity in a united Ireland.
What if the border poll happened and 52% of Northern Irish are in favor, but 80% of Protestants among them remain opposed? The history of Europe gives little indication. The meaning in France, Spain, Italy or Poland has long been that the nation has existed since time immemorial; there have been quarrels over the centuries over the borders of France, but when the French Assembly spoke of the French nation in 1789, it had something real in mind: it was the people who had been subjects of the French crown. This nation needed the vote, but it didn’t need to be created by referendum. In 1860s Italy, despite huge regional disparities, support for the new nation-state was overwhelming along the peninsula. Likewise, Poland at the dawn of independence in 1918 was regionally complex, but few doubted that a Polish nation existed and should govern itself after the collapse of the powers that had occupied it for more than a century.
The Irish case mixes such standard expectations for national unity with unusual complexity and doubt. On the one hand, the constitution of the Republic speaks of the “will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the peoples who share the territory of the island of Ireland”. The assumption here is that the population of the island is a nation. On the other hand, we know that some 800,000 people on the North Island still consider themselves to be part of the British nation.
Perhaps the most comparable European case can be found at the other end of the map: Bosnia. Like Ireland, it has been a separate political entity for centuries. As in Ireland, its people speak only one language and, if one accepts the racial ideas popular in the United States, Bosnians are racially indistinguishable from one another. As in Northern Ireland, the population is divided by religion, and, until about thirty years ago, no clear line could be drawn: Muslims, Croats and Serbs lived scattered around. Then, in 1992, a rash political decision upset this arrangement. This is the year in which the Bosnian parliament, dominated by Muslim and Croatian representatives, holds a referendum on independence. To pass, the referendum only needed a simple majority: 50% plus one. The vote was overwhelmingly favorable, but there was one problem: the Serbs had refused to participate. In March 1992, the Bosnian parliament declared its independence from Yugoslavia and a few weeks later, the Serbian paramilitaries besieged Sarajevo. Three years of civil war followed, culminating in the creation of a small dysfunctional state called Bosnia in Dayton.
As different as it is from Northern Ireland, Bosnia gives an idea of the futility of trying to establish national unity against a substantial minority. Shortly before his death in January 2020, Seamus Mallon appended to his memoir, A Shared reception area, urgent concerns about the border poll. Wasn’t it absurd, he asked, to seek unity in a way that ensures disunity? From a legal point of view, it may be correct to insist that a simple majority decide the ballot, but in moral terms, such an outcome would bypass disaster for “the peace and harmony of the island.” “. Leo Varadkar agreed, saying in 2017 that “to bounce the Protestants of Ulster back into a unitary Irish state against their will would be as serious a wrong as abandoning a large Catholic minority in the North during partition. This could lead to alienation and even a return to violence.