Britain Abandoning Northern Ireland?

In Dáil Elections 2024 – Predicting the Northern Six Counties… David Nesbitt paints a benign picture of elections taking place for Dail Eireann in the northern 6 counties after a shock border poll for a united Ireland in 2024. He assumes there will be a smooth transfer of sovereignty with no mention of violence or disruption and no transitionary period for Stormont.

Indeed, he assumes the election will be utterly routine with roughly the same parties contesting the elections and gaining vote shares broadly in line with past patterns. The rest of his analysis is a Michel Hehir like detailed study of who might win what seats in constituencies modelled on the current Local/Assembly/Westminster elections.

There is some suggestion that the TUV might boycott the elections entirely, presumably because of a Trump like denial of their legitimacy. The DUP are expected to campaign on an abstentionist ticket (it didn’t do Sinn Féin any harm) while the UUP is transformed into “The Ulster Party” dedicated to representing unionist interests within the new state. The Alliance Party is said to be leaking votes to the Ulster Party and the SDLP while not much is said about Sinn Fein. We are told to expect a sequel outlining coalition options for the new All Ireland government.

It is an amusing future history fantasy exercise, but I have a feeling any such reality is likely to be rather more complex!

Firstly, there is no discussion of why the UK government might suddenly decide to call a border poll, of how the Irish government might react, and what might persuade the majority in Northern Ireland to vote in favour. Even the most ardent advocates for a united Ireland tend to see it as something that will not happen for at least another decade, if not several.

Secondly, most observers do not expect loyalists to take re-unification lying down. Whatever the democratic mandate might be, many seem sure to deride the border poll as “fake”. Already many unionists are calling for a revision of the Good Friday Agreement to require a super majority for re-unification, or alternatively a re-partitioning of Northern Ireland to provide a homeland with a safe unionist majority.

Thirdly, Nesbitt assumes that southern parties will simply let Sinn Féin have a free run in the north of Ireland, almost guaranteeing it the leading role in forming the first all-Ireland government. Might not some northern nationalists, uncomfortable with Sinn Fein, anxious to avoid provoking unionists further, and determined to maximise their influence in Dublin, want to be able to vote for Fianna Fail or Fine Gael candidates directly?

Alternatively, might Fianna Fail not seek to resuscitate its abandoned alliance with the SDLP? Would Fine Gael not seek to build an alliance with Alliance or the Ulster Party? Would the Irish Labour Party not seek to run candidates in alliance with Northern trade unionists? Would the Greens not be greatly invigorated by having an all island focus freed from past constitutional obsessions to concentrate on climate change? Would conservative northern Catholics not vote in greater numbers for Aontú to ward off southern liberalising influences?

Furthermore, will not the dynamics of such an election be entirely shaped by the terms on which Britain left, by whatever promises the Irish Government made during the Border poll campaign, and on the credibility of various parties being able to deliver on those promises?

So, is this all just an amusing pie-in-the-sky diversion from the current stalemate? In no way am I suggesting any great likelihood such a scenario might unfold any time soon, but neither is it quite the ridiculous fantasy some might be inclined to dismiss. So how could it come about?

The economy, Stupid

The UK economy is in deep trouble right now and has still not recovered its pre-pandemic size. It is due to be overtaken by the Polish economy shortly. UK infrastructure is crumbling, and huge numbers are being forced to rely on food banks. The relative decline of the City as a global financial services centre has hit government tax revenues hard with the result that public services are having to endure huge austerity. Inflation and interest rate increases are projected to drive the economy into further recession.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sunak is fighting a losing battle trying to reduce immigration and reduced investment due to Brexit. His Rwanda policy has been found to be illegal and he cannot abandon the Convention on Human rights without renegotiating the Good Friday Agreement – something Ireland and the USA are unlikely to support.

But he needs to change the subject completely if he is to have any chance of winning the next general election. What better way than to propose abandoning Northern Ireland and saving the £14 Billion p.a. on the Barnett subvention – far greater than Britain’s much hated net subvention to the EU. He has no seats in Northern Ireland to defend and could badly use that £14 Billion to defend his “red wall”.

Leo Varadkar faces a similar (though less intense) problem in Ireland. For all Ireland’s economic success, Fine Gael is deeply unpopular and at record lows in the polls. Even an €11 Billion giveaway budget and calling for lower taxes for his middle class base has done nothing to avert the slide. Sinn Féin seem sure to win the next election, unless he, too, can change the subject. What better way than to play the nationalist card?

Meanwhile the DUP are playing into both their hands. Nobody can claim that Northern Ireland is working right now, and the longer the current impasse goes on and austerity cuts are maintained, the more irreversible they become. After the embarrassment the DUP caused Sunak during the 25th. Anniversary of the GFA celebrations, Sunak owes them nothing. Cuts which might have started as a tactical manoeuvre to pressurise the DUP into implementing devolution could come to be seen as a long term solution to the more fundamental problem – the increasing unsustainability of the Barnett subvention.

What has Sunak got to lose?

Helping Biden win the 2024 US Presidential Election by giving him a huge foreign policy success by supporting the re-unification of Ireland might even be worth a trade deal or two.

Meanwhile unionists will be expected to suck it up. Huge cuts in public services will endanger many unionist jobs and make life miserable for all. The Irish government might be persuaded to adopt the while knight role, guaranteeing jobs, services, and pensions. What choice would the “middle ground” have if the alternative was ever greater austerity and threats to their livelihoods?

Where I differ from David Nesbitt is that I don’t expect loyalists to take all this lying down. Many of them do not benefit from public services jobs in the first place and might feel they have little to lose. A relatively peaceful transition might only be possible if there is close security cooperation between the British and Irish security services, and perhaps even a resettlement allowance for those who seek to re-settle in Britain.

Certainly, the Irish government would have to come up with a generous and imaginative set of proposals to allay middle ground, if not loyalist fears. A lot of work would have to be done building trust between loyalist communities and the new state, and even then, the result of a snap border poll in 2024 would not be a forgone conclusion. It could be at least a generation before the vast majority of unionists feel any way comfortable in the new state. There are still considerable tensions in Germany 30 years after re-unification.

Both governments would have to have their fingers on the scales to make a majority for re-unification in 2024 any way likely, with the British government threatening more austerity, and the Irish government promising to upgrade benefits and services to at least the level currently available in the south. The British government might even offer to taper the subvention payment gradually over a 10-20 year period to enable the Irish government to absorb the costs until such time as the Northern economy became as successful and as self-sustaining as that in the south.

When sovereign governments identify they have interests in common, they have a way of overcoming or disregarding the fears of local communities who may feel threatened by their machinations. Unionist anger at betrayal by London will be very great indeed, but what negotiating leverage do they now have? The question is whether the Irish government will have the wit and wisdom to make them an offer moderate unionists will find difficult to refuse. That must include enabling them to continue to express their British identity within an all-Ireland state. Some people can’t be bought, and they are all the more valuable for all that.

Fantasy or not, there is much to think about even if the chances of it happening any time soon are still somewhat remote. Organising an election for the Dail in northern counties will be the least of our problems.


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