Brexit and the resulting impasse around the protocol have tended to put the focus on the DUP and the failure of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) institutions to operate properly. For unionists the issue is a perceived diminution in the constitutional link with Britain. For nationalists it is another sign of the failure of Northern Ireland to function properly and the need to remedy that by preparing for a united Ireland.
However, as our esteemed editor, Mick Fealty, likes to point out, the evidence for a major shift in popular sentiment for a united Ireland is lacking. For all the talk of demographic shifts, support for nationalist parties has been relatively stable since the BGFA, with a long-term decline in unionist parties matched only by growth in a constitutionally agnostic centre.
While this might be taken as a sign that Northern Ireland is becoming more open to the idea of major constitutional change, support for and against the idea of a united Ireland has become ever more extreme and entrenched within the unionist and nationalist camps. The more hard-line DUP has supplanted the UUP as the main unionist party, and Sinn Féin has eclipsed the more moderate SDLP in the nationalist camp.
Opinion polls in the south continue to show large majorities in favour of the idea of a united Ireland – until the subject of major constitutional changes to accommodate unionism is broached. Majorities oppose changing the Irish flag or anthem, membership of the commonwealth or closer links to Britain, and increased taxes or reduced public services to cover the cost of subsidising the north.
Fintan O’Toole and Andy Pollak have interpreted this as evidence that people in the south haven’t thought deeply about what a united Ireland would entail. In a letter published in the Irish Independent, and in The Irish Times I have suggested a different interpretation:
Unionists are welcome to join us, but they shouldn’t expect a lesser version or imitation of a bygone Britain.
It has become [a] commonplace for the commentariat to argue Ireland will have to change [dramatically] significantly in order to accommodate unionists in a united Ireland.
Critics point to polls showing large majorities in the Republic unwilling to make major concessions on flags, emblems, anthems, membership of the Commonwealth, increased taxes or fewer public services as evidence that voters in the Republic haven’t given a united Ireland serious thought.
Could I be so bold as to suggest that most in Ireland have thought about it and have decided they quite like the current direction of travel in the Republic: active membership of the EU and UN, forthright support for international law and the Good Friday Agreement, rapid development of infrastructure and the economy and a gradual movement towards a more open, tolerant, inclusive society sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate, as evidenced by our support for Ukrainian refugees.
We have our problems, to be sure, particularly in public housing, transport and healthcare, but those problems don’t include wanting to become more like Britain, and particularly not more like the Britain of 50 years ago, which some of our unionist friends in the North sometimes seem to aspire to.
Ireland, as part of the EU, will increasingly diverge from Britain in many ways, and that is our democratic right. If unionists enter the Irish political system, they will have a significant influence on our future direction of travel. That too will be their democratic right.
But unless [and until] that day comes, there is no point holding Ireland back in the hope that some [few] unionists might want to hop on the bus.
The majority on both sides of the Border will respect us even less for trying to be anything other than what we are: a proud, successful, inclusive, independent nation pursuing its own unique course within the context of the EU, the UN, the Good Friday Agreement and international law.
Unionists are welcome to join us, but they will be joining Ireland, not some lesser version and [pale] imitation of a bygone Britain.
If we want to progress towards a united Ireland, the best we can do is make Ireland even more successful and inclusive than it already is.
Negotiating and compromising with forces that might try to drag us back towards a difficult past is not the way to go.
[words in brackets not included or changed in letter as published]
It would be easy to interpret the above letter as abandoning northern nationalists to their fate and adopting a partitionist mentality. It could be interpreted as saying: “were going to get on with doing our own thing and let you guys mind your own business. You may have to get on with unionists, but we don’t have to. Our destiny is with Europe now, and if that means ever more distance between us and the UK, then so be it.”
But that is neither the intent of the letter nor the current political reality. Ireland remains extremely engaged with the UK through the third strand of the BGFA. The British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference has just met, and despite the failure of the DUP to operate the strand 2 institutions of the BGFA, both Michael Martin and Leo Varadkar have been extremely engaged with Northern Ireland parties.
What it does mean, however, is that no one is conceding that the DUP, or even wider unionism, has a veto on how Ireland and the EU will operate from here on in, either now, or in any putative united Ireland.
Political influence, yes. More intensive consultations, to be sure. Greater sensitivity to unionist concerns, absolutely. But let no one be under any illusions that we are ceding a veto to unionism either now, or in the future. If unionism doesn’t want to compromise or get with the programme of making the Northern Ireland economy more successful, that is their business. But we are moving on, without them, if necessary.
But there is also a rather large missing in this whole discussion. What about England?
On the surface, nothing much seems to have changed. England (ahem, the UK) is still being led by a Brexiteer, albeit less bombastic and perhaps more competent than some of his predecessors. Buyer’s remorse concerning Brexit seems to have set into the English populace more generally, but that is not yet reflected in party political policies. Labour may be 20-25% ahead in the polls, but Keir Starmer has ruled out even re-joining the Single Market, which would make the DUP’s protocol problem disappear overnight.
There has been an upsurge in English academic interest in a United Ireland and how it might come about, but the political focus has been on how England might achieve better access to European markets, without actually having to re-join the Single Market as such. Insofar as there has been constitutional debate, it has mostly focussed on preventing Scottish secession. If anything, there has been an embarrassed silence on Northern Ireland. It is mentioned only as a problem to be solved if better relations between the UK and the EU and USA are to become possible.
Meanwhile, the English economy continues to head south. The cost-of-living crisis and the resultant strikes are taking all of the oxygen out of the political room. The “levelling up” agenda is becoming a farce beyond even rescue by PR. Trade, productivity and investment growth continue to lag behind both historical averages and peer group trends. The City has lost its pre-eminent place in European financial services. Laundering Russian Oligarch’s cash isn’t the cash cow it used to be.
What remains of British industry is under threat. Car production has halved since 2016 and the UK now ranks only 18th. in the world for car production. The NHS is falling apart. Even people in “good” jobs are having to avail of food banks. The UK national debt profile is appalling. Interest rates are still rising, and with it the cost of mortgages, business investment, and the national debt. Even greater austerity seems to be the only possible outcome.
However, the purpose of this opinion piece isn’t to engage in some doom porn, much less in schadenfreude at the UK’s decline. It must be a horrible period to live through if you are among the one in four who can’t afford to heat their homes, and the one in ten who can’t always eat when hungry. My point is that extreme crises like this tend to have extreme political repercussions, and it isn’t easy to predict how these might turn out.
Recessions end, of course, but the scarring they leave behind in the capacity for future growth can last for decades. Part of Ireland’s problems now are due to the cancellation of planned infrastructural investments in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. The loss of relative economic and political status in the world order can be permanent. The Pre-EU membership “sick man of Europe” moniker for the UK has returned, as the political instability has taken its toll.
The future course of the Ukraine war remains uncertain. Western nations are pledging ever more advanced weapons to help contain, if not reverse the Russian invasion. The costs to the world economy are adding up. Despite this, the IMF is predicting that the pace of global growth will decline only from 3.2% in 2022 to 2.7% this year, far from a global recession, and growth figures the UK could only dream of. A global debt crisis may be brewing, but so far, the EU economy, the most directly affected by the war, seems to be holding up, with 0.3% growth predicted for 2023 despite dire headlines warning of recession.
Polls on Scottish support for independence remain ambiguous, at best. Sometimes recessions, economic insecurity, and political instability can make people cling ever more tightly to the status quo. Times of great uncertainty usually make people more risk averse. But there is little doubt that any Scottish secession would open the floodgates to constitutional change in the UK more generally. The UK establishment are holding on by their fingernails.
The threat of Scottish secession is also inhibiting all talk of constitutional change with respect to Northern Ireland – for fear of opening up the pandoras box of constitutional change. But I have yet to meet an English person with a major problem with Irish re-unification, and many who actively support it. As the Barnett formula subvention to Northern Ireland grows ever larger – it is now greater than the much-hated net subvention to the EU – the options for reducing that cost are bound to enter the political conversation.
The problem for moderates and democrats is that any such change could come very suddenly and with very little notice. People need time to prepare for changed economic or political realities, and rapid change or uncertainty can provoke extreme responses. So, while I make no prediction as to how or when current economic realities are translated into political upheaval, the probability of such political upheaval coming can only be increasing. And one thing is certain: that upheaval will be driven by England’s priorities and not by sensitivity towards Northern Ireland’s or Ireland’s needs.
So rather than focusing exclusively on developments (or the lack of them) in Ireland, I am casting an anxious eye towards England, and how its seemingly remorseless decline and never-ending political theatrics play out. Ireland may be increasingly comfortable in its own skin, despite the housing, public transport and healthcare crises, and many unionists may be comfortable with the current political deadlock in Northern Ireland. But if all hell breaks loose in England, we may be just so much collateral damage in the fall out, and the whole basis for our current status quo could fall apart.
One doesn’t always get to have a say in the larger historical events which befall us, and being prepared for all eventualities is usually a prudent policy. I would be interested in finding out more about unionist perceptions, concerns and contingency plans for any major and rapid upheavals occurring in England. We do not need another “surprise” perfidious Albion betrayal. It is time we became the authors of our own destiny, rather than continually the “victims” of the machinations of others.
Ireland, I believe, is ready to move on. Wither unionism if England loses interest?
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.