Irish reunification will land in our next Prime Minister’s in-tray

by Kevin Meagher

Given the not inconsiderable amount of flak that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both received for their views on Northern Ireland, it is perhaps not surprising that ne’er a pipsqueak has been uttered by either of them on the subject in recent times.

But the prospect of a Labour Government requires some hard thinking about how Labour will approach Northern Ireland. It is no longer enough to coast along issuing bromides about the Good Friday Agreement.

There will be no escaping Northern Ireland in the next parliament, particularly as its shifting demography means it’s now a racing certainty that its constitutional status will be brought into question.

An opinion poll this week asked 18-44 year olds whether they wanted to ‘leave’ and become part of a single Irish state or ‘remain’ in the UK.  Fifty-six per cent wanted to live in a united Ireland and just 34 per cent opted for the status quo. Irish reunification is a medium-term reality.

In response, Labour needs to do three things.

First, the party should do everything possible to help restore the devolved institutions. Government efforts at doing so, following the collapse of the executive back in January, have been faltering – to put it delicately. What has been a problem throughout 2017 is now metastasising into a full-blown crisis.

This follows revelations that Arlene Foster, in her previous role as enterprise minister back in 2012, botched the implemented of a renewable heating subsidy that is set to stack up a £500 million liability for the Northern Ireland Executive. A judge-led inquiry is currently investigating.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, the aptly-named James Brokenshire, lacks credibility and has struggled to set out a convincing way forward. He recently warned Northern Ireland was on a ‘glide path’ back to Direct Rule from Whitehall unless a breakthrough can be made. It’s an epithet that also sums up his dismal tenure in the role.

Labour should call for an international mediator to help restore trust between the parties and set out a route map to restoring the institutions.

There are several problems – which generally centre on a lack of trust and rapport between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – but the main area of contention hinges on the implementation of an Irish Language Act.

Long promised in previous deals, it has become emblematic for the deep cultural tensions that lie between Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists.

For Sinn Fein, the issue is symptomatic of Unionist belligerence over the very concept of recognising the equality of Irish culture and identity. For the DUP, any ‘concession’ to republicans must come at their expense – hence their refusal to make one.

Second, Labour should make a clear, unambiguous manifesto commitment to facilitate a border poll – a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status – during the next Parliament.

This is not to take sides, per se, simply to recognise that in a few short years it is entirely plausible there will be a majority in favour of Irish unity and, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a requirement to hold a vote.

Population trends are stark, with Catholics now outnumbering Protestants among Northern Ireland’s under-35s. During this year’s elections to the Assembly Sinn Fein came within 1,100 first preference votes from beating the DUP to top spot.

When the combined votes of parties committed to Irish unification and those who want to remain part of Britain are tallied-up, the gap is around 30,000 votes.

It’s possible that the result of the 2021 census will show a greater level of Catholic-Nationalists over Protestant-Unionists and although the ‘sectarian headcount’ might seem a bit grisly as a means of identifying political allegiance, it is also pretty accurate.

2021 also sees the next scheduled elections the Northern Ireland Assembly. If Sinn Fein tops the poll, becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party, then calls for a border poll will be impossible to ignore. (There will be a bitter irony for unionists as this coincides with Northern Ireland’s centenary).

Around this time, the UK will also leave the EU, (assuming a two to three year transition deal). At this point, Northern Ireland loses 600M a year in funding and will see inward investment leach across the Irish border (given the Irish Republic will remain part of the single market).

From a British perspective, the early 2020s represent a perfect time to hold a border poll. There’s likely to be support for Irish unity, (thus allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the EU). Plus, it resolves the thorny question of policing the border.

Third, Labour should commit to working closely with the Irish Government on a joint White Paper dealing with the practical requirements needed to give effect to a change of sovereignty.

This includes dual citizenship for those unionists that want it. More prosaically, it also covers joint public services and shared infrastructure, as well as any legacy arrangements around financial liabilities.

Both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are preparing their own plans, generating, more serious conversation in Dublin about how the Irish state needs to be reformed to accommodate the North than at any time since partition.

Soon enough, Westminster will need to join in that conversation.

As for unionists, they need to be clear that the question of Irish reunification is now a very real one.

Nationalists and republicans were obliged to accept the principle of consent at the time the Good Friday was agreed, nearly twenty years ago. There can be no change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status unless a majority wishes it.

These days, the same question is reversed.

Nationalists and republicans, sensing their changing fortunes, are demanding that unionists and loyalists accept the will of the ballot box.

So far, their responses are elliptical, to say the least.

Last week, the former deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, John Taylor (now trading as Lord Kilclooney’), argued there would be ‘civil war’ if the result was narrowly in favour.

Labour needs to make clear that the British Government would be obliged to facilitate a change of sovereignty if a border poll returned a simple majority in favour.

If 52 per cent is enough to secure Brexit, it would be perverse to ignore a similar threshold if a similar number opted for Irish unity. Labour should make clear to dinosaurs like Taylor that a majority is a majority is a majority.

The pieces are now in flux and although Westminster usually tries to forget that Northern Ireland even exists, these critical issues require an early, coherent response.

Northern Ireland is going to take up a lot of room in the next Prime Minister’s in-tray.

Kevin Meagher is the associate editor of Uncut and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is inevitable and how it will come about’

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14 Responses to “Irish reunification will land in our next Prime Minister’s in-tray”

  1. swat says:

    ‘Inevitable’ is the opperative word. And better now than later.
    A 2/3 majority vote would make more sense than a paltry 2 to 5 % majority in Referendums, of all types, with the introduction of compulsory voting, so that there are no arguments later about the validity of the vote. Otherwise, stick to the status quo.
    We could see the balkanisation of the uk with NI Scotland and maybe Wales declaring Independence, and rejoining Europe, which is in tbeir interests rather than remaining tied to little England.
    But it has to be a really decisive margin, otherwise the unionists will not see reason and restart a civil war. If a 2/3 margin is too optimistic then a 60:40 could do.
    Once again the Irish Question could dominate politics on the mainlad.
    But what is not acceptable is direct rule from Westminster, which smacks of imperialism. The Irish should have moved beyond that stage by now.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Where as it would b better if NI wasn’t part of the UK, the problem, for those wantinga united irelwnd,is a significant majority of Catholics don’t want re unification, and even with the young, being more pro it, these see Southern Ireland’s financial problems,and wouldnt either
    Even with Brexit,there no reason for a border

    Wales voted Brexit, swat, its not direct rule from Westminster there’s still, councils and county councils, even when the NI assembly was suspended

  3. swat says:

    Pity to see the Good Friday Agreement go up in smoke.
    Because it would have set a perfect example to all the warring faction across the globe that even opposites can work together for the betterment of different communities religions sects tribes factions or whatever, in One Nation.
    It would have been a perfect model for the settlement of the warring factions in the ME particularly Palestine, with One Palestine and a Parliament truly representing Jews Muslims and Christians and others. Instead, talk of a 2 State solution is a complete waste if time.

  4. tafia says:

    personally I would throw NI out of the UK purely be ause of the antics of Sinn Fein-IRA and other associated filth – I’d even chip in and sponsor somemore hunger strikes.

    Sadly, we live in democracy and the only way we can legally dispense with the republican element is by referendum and unfortunately for Adams and his associated murdering ilk the majority of people inthe north want to remain in the UK and that isnt going to change until the catholics out-breed the protestants by some margin as plenty of middle class catholics and public sector catholics wish to remainin the UK not just the bowler hat brigade.

    And have you ever considered that the Republic has got better things to do with its time (such as scratch its arse) than inherent a bankrupt piece of real estate with a beligerent population and nothing much of any actual value

  5. john P Reid says:

    Nonsense Swat, Palestine is a massive areas, and the Palestinians had left the small sector that the Jews took, in a state, and showed them how to get it to work properly yes, they’ve took more land since but look at the 7 day war, the Palestinians, acted appealingly, then trying to manipulate the media into thinking they’re martyrs they told their people that they’d get their 73 virgins in heaven if they went in as suicide bombers, tried to kill decent Israeli’s trying to make something of their lives ,and by trying to kill Israel kids, no one fell for their false martyrdom, so Israel have reacted, and YES it’s more than self defence
    Northern Ireland is different, YES protestant politicians acted with contempt over a 200 year old problem of the potato famine to Catholics, but, guess what the Majority of Catholics, don’t want Northern Ireland to be part of Irealnd as financially they’d be better off, yes the IRA did bomb their way to the negotiating table, which was a shame as the SDLP did all the hard work and lost out in the process, the only good thing about that is Labour should put up candidates in Northern Ireland now, as the SDLP’s view on abortion is at odds with Labours position, the IRA didn’t care less about their so called revolution for the poor way they were treated, anymore than Palestinians didn’t care about the fact in their land they didn’t have such a good way of life as the Israelis, the IRA were jsut a protection racket and drug running operation in the end, and with the peace process they lost out on that

    there’s no reason with Brexit we can’t still not have a open border between the South and Northern ireland, and moving on from sectarian politics, even with the increase of population of catholics they still want to be part of the UK

  6. Anne says:

    I think that Brexit is another factor into the Irish situation. I travel by ferry fairly frequently to Ireland and never at any time am I asked to show a passport. I also travel, without even noticing I have crossed to the south. Now what is to stop people travelling from Europe into the south then moving to the north, across on the ferry to Scotland, Wales and England. It is said by all the Brexit negotiators that they do not want a hard boarder in Ireland, but how can this be avoided, and is this really what the Irish population, both in the north and the south, really want.

  7. Todd says:

    Some unionists above seem to have ignored the facts in the column. Also telling lies or ignorant of Ireland by stating majority of catholics want to remain in UK. Reunification of Ireland is coming. It’s 5 to 10 years away. Time to start planning the handover now!

  8. John Wall says:

    @Anne – Going from Europe to the UK via Southern Ireland is a valid point and something I wondered about. If you fly internally nowadays – because of terrorism – you have to show ID. There are ferries between Normandy and Southern Ireland. It’s quite a circuitous route and I’m not sure how attractive it would be. It certainly needs consideration.

  9. Tafia says:

    @Anne – I work in a major Irish Sea port linking the mainland with the Republic. All arrivals have to show an authorised form of photo ID if challenged (about a quarter to a third are). Passport, Home Office ID or photo-driving licence. 1 in 5 of all car traffic is searched, a third of HGV and 1 in 5 of foot passengers are physically searched – these are Department for Transport minimum requirements. Checks are less stringent however at ferry ports linking the mainland to Northern Ireland (such as Belfast-Cairnryan) because that is internal UK travel. It should also be noted that we still have the Common Travel Area agreement in force with the Irish Republic which pre-dates the membership of the EU of either of us.

    @Todd “Also telling lies or ignorant of Ireland by stating majority of catholics want to remain in UK. “ A significant chunk of the Northern Irish catholic population does not want to be in the Republic for a variety of reasons – mainly the fact that they are public sector workers and the public sector is smaller % wise in the Republic than the UK due to it being a far more economically liberalist economy, or they rely on the NHS – somethging which doesn’t exist in the Republic. I recall Sinn Fein themselves estimate that as much as 15$ of their vote would not support joining the Republic. Sounds bizarre but the SNP and Plaid have the same problem.

  10. paul barker says:

    Its typical of a Labour site to be still stuck in the 19th Century. What possible good would Irish Unification do ? If there was some prospect of The Republic joining a British Federation – that would be a step forward. Most people in NI feel British & Irish & European – we need structures that recognise those multiple Identities.

  11. NMunsterman says:

    Excellent article Kevin – thank you.

    A Re-United Ireland is indeed inevitable and it is indeed good to begin openly discussing this.
    John Taylor’s threats of civil war in the event of the Re-United Ireland are simply the same old Unionist threats to try to ward off the inevitable – sad and utterly pathetic.

    As an aside, it is truly staggering to read some of the posts here suggesting some kind of Ireland & Britain Federation – there is absolutely zero chance of Ireland ever joining with any such kind of Federation.

    The undemocratic partition of Ireland has unnecessarily poisoned relations between Ireland and Britain since 1920 – and the inevitable re-United Ireland will allow those relations to enter a new stage of mutual respect and co-operation between our 2 countries.

  12. Todd says:

    @Tafia 15% is not a majority. Also this will be offset by the % of unionist Base that will vote for reunification 7, 8% at the moment.

  13. Tafia says:

    @Todd, you are right 15% isnt a majority but bolted on to the unionist vote in a referendum would produce a result at least 60/40 in favour of staying in the UK.

    Which is why unification is a long way off yet.

    Some other points for you to consider (which most people dont). Northern Ireland has to vote to leave the UK first. Whether or not it is then allowed to join the Republic is a matter for the Republic alone to decide. What would you do if NI voted to leave the UK and the ROI voted not to allow it in the Republic?

  14. buttley says:

    I would have thought the more important, Irish question, was what went on at the Labour Irish AGM the other week.

    It would seem from this, alleged email, that there are some serious questions to be answered, by those involved.

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