Photo by Paul Faith / AFP
Artillery Row

Irish reunification is a Remainer pipe dream

The Republic would be in no way equipped to absorb loyalist communities against their will

It swiftly became an article of faith among many unreconciled Remain voters from the 2016 referendum that the Leave victory would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Initially their focus was on Scotland, where pro-indy sentiment was widely predicted to surge given that Scots had voted in favour of remaining in the EU by a ratio of about 60:40. But the polls have stubbornly refused to shift despite Nicola Sturgeon’s best efforts to put the bellows under a second independence referendum.

It has been quite some time since the IRA went around murdering their families

So lately the focus of pro-EU commentators has switched to Northern Ireland as they try to find the consequence of Brexit that will cause most pain among Leave voters, in order to upbraid them for their stupidity.

We are regularly now informed that the ceding of Northern Ireland from the UK and ensuing Irish unification have become “inevitable”. The old IRA rallying cry of “tiocfaidh ár lá” (roughly, “our day will come”) has re-emerged as conventional wisdom on the back of angst over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the growth in support for Sinn Fein on both sides of the border.

A recent edition of Radio 4’s The World This Weekend was largely devoted to this idea of the six counties of Ulster that reside within the UK moving inexorably towards absorption within the Republic of Ireland.

To be fair, this notion is not based on nothing. Undoubtedly, Ulster Unionists feel marginalised and in retreat while Irish nationalists in the north believe they are on the front foot. As well as Sinn Fein being poised to scoop up the Northern Ireland First Minister post when power-sharing resumes, the party is also a long way ahead in opinion polls in the south.

Meanwhile the impending Census results are expected to show that for the first time in its history, Northern Ireland will have as many Catholics as Protestants, and that demographic shift will continue going only one way.

Among young Protestants from middle-class backgrounds there seems to be a greater openness towards an all-Ireland identity, perhaps in part because it has been quite some time since the IRA went around murdering members of their families.

The once overarching influence of the Catholic church in the Republic of Ireland has also mercifully receded amid various scandals. The decline of once-comical levels of deference towards it has no doubt calmed nerves among some northern non-Catholics of a liberal persuasion about what a united Ireland might look like.

And opinion polling tends to show a gradual closing of the lead for staying in the UK as opposed to Irish reunification.

A recent “poll of polls” compiled by Liverpool University measured 48 per cent support for the Union among the Northern Ireland electorate, as compared to 35 per cent for a United Ireland, a result described by the university’s Professor Jonathan Tonge as indicative of “two decades of slippage” for Unionism.

So in a context where many loyalists feel unloved and even unwanted by those on the Great Britain mainland — especially after Boris Johnson agreed to a border in the Irish Sea and keeping it under EU single market rules — and where Northern Ireland overall voted to stay in the EU, might its loss really be “the price Britain pays for Brexit”, as one European Commission official was said to have remarked? For all the excited chatter in the cafes and universities of Dublin, the answer is surely a resounding “no”.

While the pro-Union margin over Irish nationalists has been declining, it has only been doing so very slowly, by perhaps one per centage point a year. Under the Good Friday Agreement, a Northern Ireland Secretary should order a Border Poll only if it appears “likely” that a majority would vote to leave the UK and form part of a united Ireland. To clear that bar surely requires a stable anti-UK poll lead of at least five points. We are a long, long way off anything like that.

The Protestant community has a veto on reunification

If we suppose that hurdle is eventually cleared and we move to a referendum, then there are some major advantages for the constitutional status quo that come into play even setting aside fundamental questions of identity. For a start, the UK subsidises Northern Ireland to the tune of £15bn a year. Outside the UK, the people of Northern Ireland would no longer have access to the NHS, which remains a big draw for working class voters from both communities. In addition, those who remember the troubles would surely see the potential advantage of letting sleeping dogs lie after so many years of relative peace based on “parity of esteem” between the two traditions.

It is also highly likely that the electoral strides made on both sides of the border by the political wing of the IRA would start to count heavily against nationalists among otherwise potentially reachable soft Unionists.

Yet let us suppose that the re-unifiers not only get their border poll but even scrape a narrow win, say by the Brexit margin of 52:48. That would still imply that by far the majority of Protestants had voted to stay in the UK. Within their ranks, working class loyalist communities would in that case surely be deep in a “No Surrender” mindset rather than looking forward to abandoning the British Crown against their will and throwing in their lot with the political descendants of Michael Collins and Martin McGuinness.

Given the links within such communities to mothballed loyalist paramilitary groups, the potential for a vicious new phase of the troubles to begin should be obvious.

At its height the Ulster Defence Association was estimated to have had 40,000 members. An assessment from 18 months ago suggested it still had 5,000 on its books, while another 7,500 individuals were said to be still aligned with the Ulster Volunteer Force.

To put that in context, the total strength of the Irish Army amounts to around 7,000 permanent personnel and 2,000 reservists. There are about 14,500 members of the Garda, the Republic’s police force, charged with maintaining law and order across the entire country.

Consider the scale of murder and mayhem that the Provos and INLA, with perhaps 2,000 members between them at their peak, were able to inflict across Northern Ireland and the British mainland — against the might of the British Army — over so many years, and it becomes obvious that the Republic would be in no way equipped to absorb loyalist communities against their will.

Even to try to do so would be among the stupidest missions a small country’s leadership has ever embarked upon. So in reality, the Protestant community in general (and even just the loyalist diehards within it) has a veto on reunification.

The real task facing nationalists is not to force and then squeak a narrow win in a border poll, but to convince the likes of Ian Paisley Jnr, Arlene Foster and even former loyalist paramilitary members such as the PUP leader Billy Hutchinson — and those that vote for them — that accepting Dublin rule would be a good idea.

Perhaps in the very long run their descendants could come to feel that way. But the ár lá really isn’t going to tiocfaidh any time soon, no matter how much our anti-Brexit chattering classes wish that it would.

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