July 28, 2016
By Joe Leary, Special to the BIR
The surprising vote by the British people to leave the European Union has and will cause many unforeseen difficulties and opportunities, one of which may be the impact on the question of a United Ireland.
There are many who dream about what it would be like to live in a single nation of Ireland with no border and no factional bickering, an Ireland that would be free of religious intolerance and far stronger economically.
Talk about a United Ireland is admittedly a tough subject. Rejected almost violently by those in opposition, rarely spoken about by Dublin leadership, and only carefully mentioned by its adherents, the concept can only become a reality if the people of the North voted to approve the change.
Approval would require what is referred to as a “Border Poll” as specified by the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the agreement, such a poll can only be held if, in the opinion of the British Northern Ireland Secretary of State, there is definitive evidence that it would succeed. That is a very subjective standard. All secretaries of state since the agreement have refused to call for a poll.
But the situation has changed somewhat. Although the British people as a whole barely voted to leave the EU (51.8-48.1), several parts of Britain voted to remain in the EU, most notably Scotland (62-38) and the people of Northern Ireland (55.8-44.2).
The case is being made in Ireland and Scotland that since the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, why force them to give up the benefits of staying in Europe.
In Ireland both major party leaders, Prime Minister Enda Kenny and the leader of the Fianna Fail, Michael Martin, are suggesting that it may be time to call a Border Poll in the early future. In the North the leadership of the two Nationalist parties, the Sinn Fein and the SDLP, Martin McGuinness and Colum Eastwood, have suggested in much stronger terms their support for a Border Poll.
Sinn Fein’s McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, was quoted in the Irish Times as saying the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, needs to realize that the people in the North see their future in Europe. “The referendum clearly showed,” said McGuinness, “that unionists, nationalists and republicans voted together, 56 per cent, because we see our future in Europe.”
The changes in Northern Ireland since partition in 1922 have been profound. The six counties were less than 30 percent Catholic at that time, with violence on both sides a regular occurrence. Many thousands of people have died both protesting and defending the decision to partition and attach six of the nine Ulster counties to Britain.
Today there is peace in Northern Ireland. The Catholic population is 45 percent, the Protestant population 48 percent. Peace agreements have been signed and approved by vote of the 71.2 pecent of the people of Northern Ireland. A working government including all sides has been established. In all, conditions are quite different from those of 94 years ago.
Last month, on July 20, the unionist-leaning Belfast Telegraph conducted a survey among its readers, asking, “Should Northern Ireland have a poll on the question of a united Ireland?” Some 73 percent of its readers said yes. On a second question, 70 percent said they would also vote for a United Ireland. Polls like these are not reliably scientific and can be manipulated, but it was an unusual result for Belfast’s leading newspaper. The result may also have been influenced by a reluctance to leave the European Union.
Still, make no mistake: The opposition to a United Ireland is fierce. One look at all the enthusiastic Orange Order parades and huge bonfires in the last few weeks shows a serious intensity of purpose against a union.
Arlene Foster, the recently elected head of the DUP, Theresa May, Britain’s new prime minister and newly appointed, Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire have all expressed a firm desire to keep the United Kingdom together, dismissing the prospects of a people’s poll to decide otherwise.
As Britain leaves the European Union, there will be many difficult negotiations to determine how exactly business will continue between European countries and the UK and what border restrictions will be instituted. Relationships between Britain and Ireland will be much discussed and the question of a United Ireland will be on peoples’ minds.