Sunday, May 28

‘It’s closer now than it’s ever been’: could there soon be a united Ireland? | Ireland

The 3Arena in Dublin has hosted U2, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Arcade Fire, but on 1 October 2022 5,000 people streamed in to watch a very different spectacle. The performers on stage were Irish politicians, dozens of them from ruling and opposition parties, and all they did was talk. A river of words that touched on pensions, healthcare, taxes, social policy, constitutional arrangements – worthy topics that could put an audience to sleep. Instead, people craned forward in their seats, thirsty for every word. An energy pulsed through the auditorium because each speech articulated a collective wish, a wish once dismissed as hopeless fantasy, a pipe dream for sad ballads, and declared it alive with exhilarating possibility. The wish for a united Ireland.

“Together, we look to an Ireland beyond partition,” Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, told the crowd. “We reimagine the future of our country, discuss our ideas for a united Ireland and a tomorrow that captures all the potential and immense opportunities for this island. We are here in the spirit of ambition. To seize the day.” She paused, and the rhetoric soared: “Friends, we have come together to build our nation anew.”

McDonald finished to cheers and a standing ovation and there was yet more rapture: in a keynote speech, the actor James Nesbitt, a Northern Irish Protestant from a unionist background, declared it was time for a “new union of Ireland”, one that accommodated all identities and allegiances. “We’re standing at a profound moment here in the history of the islands,” he said. The crowd whooped and gave another ovation. They streamed out into autumn sunshine confident history was finally on their side, that demographic and political forces were aligning to erase the border. “It’s closer now than it’s ever been,” said Mary Greene, 63, from west Belfast. Wally Kirwan, 78, a retired senior civil servant who used to advise Irish governments about Northern Ireland, hoped to see Ireland become one. “If I’m given a few more years, I might be there for it.”

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‘We look to an Ireland beyond partition’ … Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald addresses the Ireland Future’s conference. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

These were the converted, people who had paid €7.10 to attend the conference organised by Ireland’s Future, a non-profit that advocates unification. But they are hardly alone. British politicians are increasingly vocal about where things seem headed. “It looks more likely than not that in the not too distant future, the province will become part of the republic,” Norman Tebbit, a Thatcherite minister wounded in the IRA bombing of the 1984 Conservative conference at Brighton, recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph. Shaun Woodward, the Labour government’s last Northern Ireland secretary, told the BBC the conditions to call a referendum were nearing: “It’s getting pretty close.” Peter Kyle, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said he would call a referendum, also known as a border poll, if certain conditions were met. “I am not going to be a barrier if the circumstances emerge.”

For Irish unity even to be taken seriously is a dramatic turnaround – and a century in the making. Rebels led by Michael Collins ended British rule and won autonomy for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties in 1921. The British cleaved off six northern counties as a statelet for Protestants who wished to remain in the UK. Protestants in this new state, Northern Ireland, outnumbered Catholics two to one, ensuring a seemingly permanent unionist majority. Discrimination against Catholics paved the way to the Troubles, which revived the IRA and republican dreams of unification. Then the 1998 Good Friday agreement enshrined the principle of no constitutional change without the consent of the majority. If a secretary of state believes a majority would favour unification, he or she is to call a referendum. For two decades this was a remote prospect since most people in Northern Ireland, including many Catholics, favoured the status quo. It meant stability, the NHS and an estimated £10bn annual subvention from London. The unification dream hibernated.

Over the past six years, little by little, it has awoken. What prompted the comments from Tebbit, Woodward and Kyle were results last month from the 2021 Northern Ireland census. Of the 1.9 million population, Catholics now outnumber Protestants: 45.7% versus 43.48%. The demographic tilt was expected – the gap has narrowed every decade – but was still a landmark. The late Rev Ian Paisley, the founder of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), had feared such a doomsday when he warned that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin”.

A man walks past the International Wall in Belfast.
A man walks past the International Wall in Belfast. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Perhaps even more significant in the census was a loosening of British identity. Some 32% identified as British only, 29% identified as Irish only and 20% as Northern Irish only. In 2011, the figures were 40% British only, 25% Irish only and 21% Northern Irish only. Brexit’s fingerprints are all over this waning Britishness. Most people in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, voted in 2016 to remain in the EU and resented being forced out of it by the English. It wasn’t just about markets and travel. The Good Friday agreement’s success hinged on blurring identities – in Northern Ireland you could feel British or Irish or both. By resurrecting the debate over borders, Brexit revived an existential question – which side are you on? In a LucidTalk poll in August, 48% said they favoured staying in the UK versus 41% who favoured uniting with Ireland. A University of Liverpool poll in July found both sides tied at approximately 40%.

Sinn Féin, once the IRA’s mouthpiece and a political outcast, is now ascendant. In May’s assembly election, it overtook the DUP as Northern Ireland’s biggest party, a milestone that makes Michelle O’Neill eligible to be first minister. In the republic it leads the opposition, is surging in popularity and appears poised to lead the next government, a once unthinkable proposition. Sinn Féin leaders welcomed King Charles to Northern Ireland last month with a flawless show of republican respect – yet another milestone – that impressed even some unionists.

While Irish-unity advocates polish their credentials, the putative defenders of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK immolate their credibility. The DUP has alienated liberal Protestants by resisting same-sex unions, abortion rights and other social changes. It has collapsed power-sharing at Stormont to protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, leaving the region rudderless in the midst of a cost of living crisis and reinforcing a sense that Northern Ireland, as a political entity, simply does not work – long a cherished goal of the IRA.

King Charles meets Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill at Hillsborough Castle following the Queen’s death.
King Charles meets Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill at Hillsborough Castle following the Queen’s death. Photograph: Reuters

Meanwhile the Tories, officially the Conservative and Unionist party, have prioritised Brexit over the union. In a 2019 YouGov poll, 59% of party members said they would accept Northern Ireland leaving the UK as a price of Brexit. Boris Johnson exhibited this disregard in agreeing to the protocol, which puts a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Liz Truss seeks to empower her government to rip up parts of the protocol with a bill currently at the House of Lords but that was devised before her fiscal policies put financial markets and her own party in revolt, reordering her priorities. There are signs Truss is preparing to cut a deal with the EU. Why else, the DUP nervously wonders, did the arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker, a Northern Ireland minister, last week apologise to Dublin and Brussels for previous behaviour?

“Part of the sense of momentum towards a border poll is that Britain is so embarrassing at the moment,” says Malachi O’Doherty, the author of Can Ireland Be One?, a new book that interrogates the case for unity. “If I vote for unity, it’ll be out of not wanting to be governed by a Little England run by Tory prats till the end of time.”

Every month seems to bring another book on the topic: United Nation: the Case for Integrating Ireland, by Frank Connolly; Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, by Susan McKay; Making Sense of a United Ireland, by Brendan O’Leary. Ben Collins, a former British government press officer who campaigned for the Ulster Unionist party, details his conversion to the cause in Irish Unity: Time to Prepare. Next week, Rosemary Jenkinson will launch Extraordinary Times, a literary thriller that imagines Belfast on the eve of a referendum.

The tide seems remorseless, inevitable. Unity advocates are at pains to avoid triumphalism. There are no Irish tricolours or rebel ballads at Ireland’s Future events. Gerry Adams stays behind the scenes. The message is: unity is coming, unionists will be welcome, let’s discuss details. “Constitutional change will require planning and preparation. It’s not about imposing a preordained result on anybody,” said John Finucane, a Sinn Féin MP.

But unification is not inevitable. Sinn Féin’s rise, and the census results, are in some ways deceptive. The party is popular in the south because it promises free-spending leftwing solutions to a housing crisis and other problems unrelated to a united Ireland. Opinion polls suggest support for unification in the republic is wide but shallow, with only 22% prepared to pay more tax to fund it. A Sinn Féin-led government will be expected to prioritise housing, income and welfare. Its electoral surge in the north comes at the expense of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), which also favours unification. In recent elections, the overall nationalist vote has plateaued at about 40%, as has the overall unionist vote.

A referendum will hinge on the non-aligned middle, approximately 20% of voters. “It’s not an Orange or Green thing – it’s a class thing, it’s about whether you can heat your house,” says Niall Carson, 23, a Belfast barman.

‘It’s climate and social justice that gets me out of bed in the morning’ … Eóin Tennyson of the Alliance party
‘It’s climate and social justice that gets me out of bed in the morning’ … Eóin Tennyson of the Alliance party Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

The fastest-growing party in Northern Ireland is Alliance, which is agnostic on any border poll, saying it will decide if and when one comes. “The constitutional question is not what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s the bread-and-butter issues: climate, social justice,” says Eóin Tennyson, 24, an Alliance member of the assembly. Young people resent being hustled into tribal positions, he says. “If you’re an atheist, it’s: ‘Yes, but a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’” Voters will judge a prospective unitary state on how it affects the health service, pensions and other pragmatic concerns, says Tennyson. “There is much talk about the need to focus on details but we never seem to get there.”

He has a point. Studies on unification tend to fill gaps in research with wishful thinking and questionable assumptions. The speakers at the 3Arena event tacitly acknowledged that when they said serious work was needed to flesh out what a united Ireland would look like.

Persuading voters to leap into something new – as Scottish nationalists discovered in 2014 – is not easy. It is likely to be even harder if a stable Labour government replaces Tory melodramas. Irish nationalists may find that Northern Ireland, for all its dysfunctions, is not quite dysfunctional enough to sway the non-aligned. They enjoy a relatively low cost of living, job opportunities and a vibrant arts scene.

“There is so much in this place that is good and exciting and ambitious,” says Anne McReynolds, the chief executive of Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre, better known as the Mac. The Lyric theatre, the Grand Opera House and other venues are thriving despite savage cuts to arts funding, she says.

The city’s Cathedral Quarter has transformed into an arts and hospitality hub that draws hordes of students. “There used to be nothing here except the odd dead body and lurking terrorist. There is a vitality about this place, it’s buzzing,” says Damien Corr, the area’s business improvement manager.

The other deterrent to constitutional change is that it could get very messy, very quickly. Herding a minority into a new state against its will did not work out well the last time. Promises to respect unionist culture – perhaps adopt a new flag and anthem, rejoin the Commonwealth, keep a role for Stormont – cut little ice in hardline unionist areas.

Stroll down Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast and you see freshly painted loyalist murals that announce “freedom corner” and depict masked figures manning a roadblock. Many homes have union jacks and posters of the Queen. “We’re British and we’re staying British. We do not want a united Ireland,” says one resident, Catherine McCormack, 64. “We don’t want our country run by terrorists. It’s up to us to stop it.” Her friend Agnes, 68, says: “I’ll put it plainly, love. We don’t want Sinn Féin-IRA running the country.” She was not impressed by Sinn Féin welcoming the King. “They have as many faces as the Albert clock.”

Richard Stitt, 52, a former Ulster Defence Association paramilitary, says he could never accept Dublin rule. “I’d never go under the Irish government – or the pope.” The UDA and Ulster Volunteer Force, a rival paramilitary group, are still ready to defend British identity, he says. “If there is a referendum, everyone would start fighting again, they’d start shooting again. They’re still collecting guns.” Police agree the groups remain armed and dangerous.

‘If there is a referendum, everyone would start fighting again’ … former Ulster Defence Association paramilitary Richard Stitt by a mural for the organisation in east Belfast.
‘If there is a referendum, everyone would start fighting again’ … former Ulster Defence Association paramilitary Richard Stitt by a mural for the organisation in east Belfast. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

Malachi O’Doherty says some loyalist areas might demand their own police, courts and sovereignty. “Unionists in the north hold territory, defined territory which they would assert through murals, flags, parades, maybe weapons. It would be a very hard rock for a united Ireland to swallow. You’re creating a potential Donbas region.”

Shane Ross, a former Irish politician and author of Mary Lou McDonald, a new biography of the Sinn Féin leader, shares the foreboding. “A united Ireland is a kind of nirvana that is very dangerous. It’ll resurrect all the ghosts of the past.”

The crowds at the 3Arena shrugged off such talk as scaremongering and defeatist. There was a new nation to build. However, Nesbitt ended his keynote speech with what sounded like a coded warning. “I’ll leave you with a traditional and appropriate Irish blessing,” he said. “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.”

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