“The attraction of the possible is in the end more powerful than that of the unattainable” – Patrick Kavanagh
By Tim Kirk
Boston Irish Columnist
A united Ireland. Irish unity. A Nation Once Again. Notions that have animated 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 don’t 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 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 visiting 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 plays out.
Three Recent Events in Ireland
During Covid, and After Brexit
• In late December 2020, critical cases of Covid in Northern Irish Intensive Care Units 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 when 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.’
Bottom Line on Border Misstep:
The Problem is Brexit Itself
In early February, during a row over Covid vaccine supplies, the EU made a blunder by threatening to close the border by invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, which allows the EU or UK to unilaterally suspend aspects of its operations if either side considers that aspect to be causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties.” 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 percent of trade to and from Northern Ireland is currently with Britain, 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 Eamon 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 Iidependence referendum and even the Wales independence movement is growing. In late January the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, wrote:
Does Brexit Fortell Fulfillment
of the Dream of Irish Unity?
One hundred years ago, Ireland became the first successful independence movement by a nation controlled by the victors of World War I. Besides Ireland, US President Woodrow Wilson’s push for self-determination by small nations was applied only inside the empires that had lost the war. Ireland’s was not a complete victory, however, as the nation was partitioned with six counties in the north 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.
Today, those roles have been reversed. The Republic of Ireland has taken its seat on the UN Security Council this session; it has arisen as a “tiny diplomatic superpower’; and it has seen its global facing economy, even during the pandemic, grow at 3.5 percent powered by the tech and pharma markets. During the same period, the UK has contracted by 9.5 percent (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 percent of the English people would care if Northern Ireland left the UK. Most would be happy to say good riddance to a drain of their 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 Good Friday Agreement (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.
Three Major Parties Have Advanced
Favorable Prospects for Irish Unity
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 nation. There is an old yarn noting 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 in Ireland are intertwined, and space does not permit addressing their complex histories. Rather, I will highlight several lesser-known contributions from recent Irish history by the main parties that have helped create the conditions for unity.
In 1990, the rotating role of President of the EU commission fell to Ireland, specifically to 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 about the proposal. France’s memories of three disastrous wars between 1871 and 1945 made it uneasy about a united Germany. Georges Clemenceau, who fought in 1871 and led France in WWI, left strict instructions that when he died (1929), his coffin was to be buried standing up and facing east, forever a sentinel against German aggression. Margaret Thatcher saw a united Germany becoming the dominant force in Europe and was opposed. But Haughey took bold action with his one-year leading the EU council, convening a conference of EU 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.”
In 2016, after the shocking Brexit referendum victory, Irish unity was discussed widely as a possible outcome. The next year, 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 a call for an immediate 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 Union by Brexit. Scotland’s independence movement has been re-energized by the Brexit outcome with proponents 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 to apply for EU membership.
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. The party deserves credit for keeping the goal of a united Ireland alive, for becoming a constitutional party in the early ‘90s in embracing democratic politics as the means to achieve its aims, and for building the only all-island political party, its recent success driven as much by its call for more affordable housing as an appeal to patriotism. Sinn Fein wants the planning to start now. It 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 Unification
The UK spends 11 billion euros a year in subsidies to keep its six-county statelet on the Island of Ireland running. The practical challenges for blending the two jurisdictions will be considerable. Integrating the health and education systems, pensions, and currency stability are a few among many.
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 diehard unionists are attempting to “celebrate” the centenary but the effort seems half-hearted at best.
Some unionists will always paint their curbstones red, white, and blue, fly Union flags over their homes, and reject a united Ireland. One need look no further than the US Capitol insurrectionists on Jan. 6 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 – those 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 five 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.”
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 membership alone 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 the Irish 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 would continue to be a mecca for writers, artists, musicians, actors, historians, as well as engineers, scientists, researchers. In essence, it would be a country where anyone from anywhere could thrive. A united Ireland would 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 toward love. Ireland's overcoming of its own painful history of colonial oppression and the long struggle for freedom and unity can inspire other peoples, including the United States, as they deal with post-conflict societies.
Irish political parties will need to be big-hearted enough to give each other credit, and nimble enough to build 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’s people to work together for a new future of shared purpose.
It would be naive to think that this will be easy and without painful setbacks. The financial support from the UK would need to be extended by a transition period, or replaced by other negotiated means, like reparations for past harm. But make no mistake Irish Unity is coming.