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The Case for a United Ireland and Why It’s Only a Matter of Time

More than 750 years after the arrival of the first English occupying forces in Ireland, the passage of the Government of Ireland Act by the British Parliament in 1920 partitioned the island into two separate pieces. In the south, the majority-Catholic population gained national independence as the Republic of Ireland, finally free from centuries of often horrific and oppressive British rule. In the northeast, six majority-Protestant counties were combined to form Northern Ireland, a territory which would remain a part of the United Kingdom but exercise some autonomous authority. 

100 years on, the partition plan remains in place in spite of decades of violent conflict. The current state of Northern Ireland is significantly better than it was over the course of most of the last century, but this stability is tenuous. Wounds have not healed, tensions have not been resolved, and communities remain starkly divided. But soon the day will come when partition is brought to an end, and all of Ireland will be governed by the Irish.

The following piece is not to be read merely as a diatribe against the forces of colonialism and neo-imperialism, but as the case for why Irish unity is the optimal outcome of centuries of conflict and contestation. Irish unity is the most just, most politically viable, and most culturally sustainable solution to the persistent Northern Irish problem. It is also becoming increasingly inevitable.

Conquest to Compromise

Beginning with the Norman Conquest of Ireland in 1169, British rule over the island persisted essentially uninterrupted throughout eight centuries. From Oliver Cromwell’s brutal campaign against Catholics in the 1640s to the infamous Potato Famine during the mid-19th Century, British rule over Ireland ranged from oppressive to verging on genocidal. Centuries of resistance and repeated violent episodes eventually produced the 1920 partition plan which granted Independence to the majority of the island and limited home rule to the still British-controlled northern portion. 

Dominated by the Protestant and pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Northern Ireland existed as a virtual apartheid state throughout the early decades of its existence. Outnumbered two-to-one within the territory’s population, Catholics suffered under the UUP’s policies of discrimination in the allocation of public resources such as housing, were subject to regular harassment and brutality by law enforcement, lacked full voting rights, and were gerrymandered into voting districts that suppressed their representation in government. 

By the late 1960s, as civil rights movements proliferated globally, Catholics in Northern Ireland began to stage mass protests. Protestors were met with violent responses from Protestant counter-protestors and the British-run police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). As Catholic rioters responded with increasing hostility, they faced more resistance from civilian and law enforcement groups, including the British Army. So ensued a period known as The Troubles, which lasted from 1968 until 1998, wherein Irish Nationalist protestors and paramilitary forces repeatedly clashed with Protestant Unionist groups and British security forces, in addition to conducting numerous terrorist attacks against civilians in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and in Great Britain. All told, more than 3,600 people were killed, with civilians accounting for just over half of fatalities, and British security forces accounting for the next largest portion. British paramilitaries and police forces were themselves responsible for the death of many civilians in Northern Ireland, but the group responsible for the most killings was the Irish Republican Army. Commonly known as the IRA, the group sought to advance the cause of Catholic Irish Nationalists by resorting to terrorist attacks against British and Irish civilians and security forces, detonating thousands of bombs and engaging in frequent firefights with opposition units.

After three decades of conflict, Catholics (including the IRA), Protestants, and the British and Irish governments brokered a deal to bring an end to the conflict, and to create a structure for lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), as it came to be known, mandated the cessation of hostilities, the disarmament of the IRA, the withdrawal of British troops, and the creation of new political and legal institutions to allow for cross-community cooperation. Catholics in Northern Ireland were guaranteed full citizenship rights and permitted to obtain dual British and Irish citizenship. A new Northern Irish Assembly was constructed upon a system of proportional representation and was to be led by the new Northern Irish Executive, composed of a First Minister, Deputy First Minister, and cabinet members who must be selected from the largest parties representing both communities.

Troubles Persist

The Good Friday Agreement was, and still remains, a remarkable achievement of international diplomacy and conflict resolution. However, its construction does not lend itself to long-term reconciliation and the establishment of a new permanent, peaceful order. That much has become clear in the 25 years since its signing, and within the past five years in particular.

The agreement’s commitment to a consociational model of governance–wherein ethnic or sectarian differences are not eliminated but rather enshrined within a legal framework which seeks to adjudicate a sharing of power and preserve civil liberties–was an innovative and admirable solution to a seemingly intractable problem. But in practice, power sharing has not gone smoothly. The Northern Irish Executive created by the GFA can only exist so long as political parties on both sides of the sectarian divide nominate their own members to serve as ministers within it. Since 2017, the Executive has been active for no more than a total period of three years. Sinn Fein (pronounced “shin fayn”), the primary Nationalist party, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the primary Loyalist party, have consistently withdrawn their members from the Executive over various political wedge issues, only allowing for Northern Ireland’s devolved government to return to power after a series of protracted crisis talks. What this means is that the territory has been governed by the British Parliament in London more than it has been governed by its own representatives. This has severely handicapped government spending, resulting in the deterioration of public services such as healthcare and education.

The Executive was only just restored in February of this year, having been dormant for the prior two years. The hardline DUP had refused to form a government until the United Kingdom altered its post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union. Having negotiated assurances with the UK central government, the DUP agreed to rejoin the Executive, allowing–for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history–an Irish Nationalist to become First Minister, after Sinn Fein became the largest party in the Assembly in elections held in May of 2022.

The DUP, as the main pro-British force in Northern Irish politics, constitute possibly the most substantial political obstacle to Irish unity. Somewhat ironically, they are also one of the best arguments for divorcing Northern Ireland from the UK. The DUP are an extremely conservative party with roots in Evangelical Christian ideology, and are one of the few groups to have actively campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP are staunchly opposed to abortion and gay marriage, and have vigorously–but unsuccessfully–fought efforts to legalize and expand access to both. The party has a strong history of homophobic comments and campaigns, and has also fought hard to deny any official recognition for Irish language and culture, a seemingly basic aspect of a stable and equal post-GFA Northern Irish society. 

In contrast, Sinn Fein, founded as the political arm of the IRA, has historically been a left-leaning democratic-socialist party, advocating for progressive economic policies and government spending, and strongly supporting the expansion of civil rights to women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other underserved communities. Not only does continued British influence in Northern Ireland serve to perpetuate the historical injustices of colonialism, but also to scupper efforts to make Northern Irish society more equal and more peaceful.

Relations with the rest of the United Kingdom have also become increasingly strained following Brexit. Despite 56% of Northern Ireland’s population voting to remain in the European Union, the territory was withdrawn from the bloc along with the rest of the UK in 2020. Given the troubled history of erecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, British officials have consistently struggled to concoct an appropriate solution that would allow for Northern Ireland to withdraw from the EU’s single market, whilst also not excessively impeding the ability of goods and people to cross the Irish border. Had UK politicians truly considered the ramifications of Brexit for Northern Ireland prior to conducting the 2016 referendum, they may have realized that withdrawal from the EU stood to disproportionately harm Northern Ireland more than any other part of the country. It is additionally problematic that portions of the Good Friday Agreement were premised upon British and Irish commitments to cooperation within the EU, and acceptance of its regulations such as the Convention on Human Rights. Now, given their detachment from the union, the British government is contemplating immigration policies that may violate the convention, and thereby endanger part of the GFA’s foundation.

Shifting Tides

Aside from political developments, ethnic and social change in Northern Ireland is contributing to a growing sense that Irish unity is becoming increasingly likely. For the first time since 1920, Catholics outnumbered Protestants in the 2021 census by a margin of 46% to 43%, and their numbers continue to grow at a much faster rate. It is therefore no coincidence that 2022 marked the first time in Northern Irish history that a Catholic party became the largest party in the Assembly.

These shifts in population makeup have also been accompanied by shifts in self-identity. A majority of Protestants identify themselves as “British” and a majority of Catholics identify themselves as “Irish,” but these trends are changing. Between 2000 and 2012, Protestants became roughly 4% less likely to identify as “British,” while Catholics became roughly 8% more likely to identify as “Irish.” While Protestants are increasingly willing to identify themselves as “Northern Irish,” the same trend is not present amongst Catholics. Younger Protestants–under the age of 45–are also significantly less likely to identify as “British” than their older counterparts, while younger Catholics are more likely to identify as “Irish.” 

If the Catholic population continues to grow at a faster rate, increasing the number of young Catholics who are more willing to embrace the Irish identity, the population at large will become increasingly “Irish.” Meanwhile, if Protestants continue to become a smaller portion of the population and younger members continue to abandon the British identity, the population will also become less “British.”

These demographic and cultural shifts, coupled with political blunders on the part of the DUP and the UK Government, especially around Brexit, have moved Ireland closer to unity than ever before. A plurality of the Northern Irish population (45%) believes that Irish unity will occur within the next two decades, whilst newly-installed First Minister Michelle O’Neil, a member of Sinn Fein, said she expects a referendum on unity within the next 10 years. A popular referendum on Irish unity was a critical aspect of the Good Friday Agreement, which charges the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with calling a referendum once “it appears likely” that such a referendum would be supported by a majority of the population. Though majority support for Irish unity is currently lacking, British politicians have also indicated that they anticipate a referendum in the near future. Recently, the government’s Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker remarked that, following the Brexit referendum, he wished that an Irish border referendum would require a supermajority to succeed rather than a simple majority. 

A Happy Ending?

Contrary to the feelings of the British government and their DUP colleagues, Irish unity is not something that should be feared or prevented. There is no need to rush it to a conclusion, but it is indeed the inevitable and optimal outcome of centuries of colonialism and sectarian conflict. This truth was reflected in the construction of the Good Friday Agreement. A consociational structure like the one the GFA created simply cannot permanently contain deeply-rooted ethnic and political conflicts of the kind seen in Ireland. The most positive steps taken by the agreement came in its allowance for individuals to be “comfortably Irish under British rule,” as phrased by British scholars Jonathan Tonge and Raul Gomez. But when those that are “comfortably Irish” find that they outnumber those supportive of continued British rule, they will seek to take the final step to confirm their Irish identity: to become members of a unified Irish state.

There is no denying the horrific violence that marked The Troubles and the thousands of victims killed by the IRA in the name of Irish unity. But in the context of centuries of vile British rule over the island, the desperation of the Irish Nationalist cause becomes more understandable. The backwards and archaic views of the DUP and the callous disregard for the territory’s security and prosperity on the part of the forces which drove the UK to exit the European Union demonstrate that to this day, British rule over Northern Ireland remains an obstacle to its cultural, economic, and political development. The people of Northern Ireland should no longer be subjected to the rule of a country and a group of people that has brutalized, exploited, and discriminated against them for centuries. Unifying Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland would be an act of historical justice.

No one can predict precisely when Irish unity will occur, but I am reassured that it is likely to happen within a matter of decades. The process may not be pretty, and it likely will not be peaceful, as Unionist answers to the IRA will almost certainly resort to violence to prevent separation from the United Kingdom; although it is very unlikely that they will suffer the same hardships under an Irish government that Catholics have under centuries of British and Protestant rule. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It seems that the day is drawing near that this is brought to bear for the Irish.

Featured Image Source: The Guardian

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