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A united Ireland?

Peter GeogheganJuly 26, 2016

The post-Brexit fallout is keeping UK Prime Minister Theresa May busy. Scotland's Sturgeon has said she would consider an indepedence referendum and now there's talk of a united Ireland, as Peter Geoghegan reports.

Theresa May zu Besuch in Irland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AA

Ireland is not a nation overburdened with taboos. People frequently talk in public about money, religion, even sex. But for more than two decades there has been one subject that is rarely brought up in polite Irish society: a united Ireland.

Now, for the first time in a generation, conversation on both sides of the 317-mile border that divides the north and the south has turned to the possibility of a referendum on Irish unity.

Earlier this month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, normally reticent on the subject of the border, raised the prospect of Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic. The Irish premier even likened such a move to West and East Germany after the fall of the Berlin. Meanwhile, newspaper columns and radio shows in Ireland have been filled with debates about the pros and cons of unification.

A united Ireland remains unlikely but Brexit has changed the political dynamic across the island, at least temporarily. Although the UK voted to leave the European Union in June, Northern Ireland voted to stay, sparking calls from across the political spectrum for a so-called border poll on Irish unity.

Major change

Kenny's vocal position on unification represents a "major change," says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool university.

"It's the first time Enda Kenny has talked about it. There-in lies a shift. As Taosieach he has always wanted to avoid talking about it," Tonge told DW.

Kenny's comments are in keeping with the government in Dublin's key post-Brexit priority: maintaining an open, tariff-free border. By invoking the prospect of Irish unity, the Irish leader is also reminding both London and Brussels of the British government's commitment to peace laid down in the Good Friday agreement that ended the 30-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland.

euro coin on map © picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand
Ireland wants to maintain an open and tariff-free border regardless of the post-Brexit falloutImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand

On Tuesday Kenny became the first foreign leader to visit Theresa May when he met the new British prime minister in London. The previous afternoon the Conservative leader was in Belfast, where she sought to assuage concerns about a 'hard border' in Ireland, the UK's only EU land border.

Since Irish independence, Ireland and the UK have normally operated a Common Travel Area, though during wartime and the Troubles there were security checks. To facilitate keeping the border open between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the latter also stayed out of Schengen.

Northern Ireland's prospects

A solution on the border may be found, but many in Northern Ireland who voted to stay in the EU are angry at the prospect of Brexit. A cross-community coalition of politicians and human rights activists have written to May insisting that before she triggers the mechanism to leave the European Union, she must address legal obligations relating to Northern Ireland and to the peace process. Failure to do so could lead to a High Court challenge.

Brexit has also laid bare divisions within the devolved parliament at Stormont, outside Belfast. Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Northern Ireland first minister, backed the leave campaign, but her colleague at the head of Northern Ireland's powersharing government, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, backed a remain vote and has called for a 'border poll' on unification.

Northern Ireland has voted on the border before: in 1973, some 99 percent chose to remain in the UK in a controversial referendum that was boycotted by Catholics during one of the most violent phases in the Northern Irish 'Troubles.'

bus with union jack flags Copyright: Peter Geoghegan
A previous border poll came amid the worst of the violence between Catholics and ProtestantsImage: Peter Geoghegan

More than four decades on, support for joining the south remains muted. In opinion polls conducted last year, just 13 percent of people in Northern Ireland wanted to see a united Ireland in the short to medium term. On the other side of the border support was higher, with around two thirds in the Irish republic saying they would like to see Irish unification in their lifetime.

Economic divisions

Economic divisions have grown since partition in 1922. Exports from the Republic are worth 89 billion euros ($98 billion) while the heavily public sector reliant North exports just 6 billion euros. The Republic is now almost twice as rich per person as Northern Ireland, leading to fears that living standards could fall following unification.

But some argue that Brexit has changed views on the border. Surveys suggest that as well as an the overwhelming majority of Catholics many liberal unionists voted to remain, leading to speculation that support for the UK might be softening.

Calling a border poll, however, is not straightforward. The British secretary of state for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire has a duty to hold a referendum "if it appears likely" that a majority would vote to join the Republic - but it is far from clear what evidence this expectation of majority support would be based on.

Many Catholics have become "economic unionists," increasingly likely to vote for non-nationalist parties or to abstain altogether. That makes it very hard to gauge the level of support for a united Ireland, says Northern Irish political commentator Newton Emerson.

"It was always assumed that support [for unification] would be obvious because you would have a Catholic majority in the census or a majority of nationalists in Stormont but that has all gone skew-whiff," Emerson told DW. "So we don't know what the situation is with a border poll and we can't call one to find out."

Whether a border poll is held or not, one of the unexpected outcomes of Brexit is that the idea of a united Ireland is no longer the sole preserve of Irish republicans."“That has made it much more pleasant to discuss," says Emerson. "Everyone finds the idea interesting if they can detach it from Sinn Fein."