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Irish Unity: Dream or Reality?

The great Irish poet laureate William Butler Yeats once remarked that “There is another world, but it is in this one.” For too long, the notion of Irish unification—the long-sought ideal of Ireland as one country including all of its 32 counties—seemed destined to be a dream deferred indefinitely. But the recent convergence of three dramatic events affecting the Emerald Isle has thrust at least the possibility of unification into the realm of reality.

First came the long and convoluted saga of Brexit—the UK’s divorce from the European Union. Though the voters in the United Kingdom narrowly passed the referendum on leaving the EU in 2016, a healthy majority of voters in Northern Ireland (the six counties of Ulster)—by 56% to 44%—voted no. The referendum itself and the subsequent tortuous debate over the implementation of Brexit have highlighted more than ever before the fact that Ireland is a unitary Island and that the links between north and south are unshakable. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the thirty-year violent Northern Ireland conflict, stipulated that the issue of Irish unification would be left to the future and that only a decision of the majority of Ulster voters could bring it about. The Brexit referendum may very well provide a hint that public opinion in the North—Protestants and Catholics alike— is indeed shifting in favor of unification.

For while the European Union may be anathema to the majority of voters in the UK, for Northern Ireland, as for the Republic of Ireland, the EU has brought great benefits. For example, EU Regional Policy Funding in Northern Ireland from 2014-2020 came to no less than $1.2 billion. If there was one element of the Good Friday Accords that was central and sacrosanct, it was the promise that no “hard border” would separate the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland from the 6 counties of Northern Ireland (Ulster).

Brexit has thrown that achievement into doubt, causing great consternation in north and south alike. The series of mini-crises emanating from the drawn-out negotiations on Brexit implementation—with so much of it impacting Ireland—has further exacerbated this situation. The latest is the fraught negotiation over fishing rights, another reminder that Irish interests are still subject to the whims of outside forces. And a mini panic ensued just last month when it was reported that Britain was preparing legislation in connection with Brexit that would override the Good Friday Agreement. This resulted in serious warnings from members of the U.S. Congress who consider themselves guarantors of the 1998 Accords. The current Irish Taoiseach (leader), Micheal Martin, has publicly ruled out a referendum on Irish unification in the foreseeable future. But fast-moving events and public opinion may eventually force the issue.

The second development that underlined the strength of the unification cause in Ireland was the outcome of the Irish national election in February. Sinn Fein, the party that had been a virtual pariah with historic links to the Irish Republican Army—came from nowhere to win a plurality of votes. Although other (domestic) issues clearly dominated the election campaign, the essence of Sinn Fein as a political party is its platform and history as a champion of a United Ireland. Although Sinn Fein was unable to form a coalition government and now leads the opposition in the Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament), its unprecedented electoral achievement represents the strong sentiment of the Irish people for unity of north and south. The clear message of the voters in Ireland is that they consider Sinn Fein (and its agenda) a legitimate political force. A British news outlet summed it up with the headline “Irish Unity is Now Mainstream”.

Finally, the international coronavirus pandemic and catastrophe have graphically illustrated the reality that in Ireland, a political boundary separating north and south is an unwieldy anachronism. The virus does not respect borders. The separate health systems in Ireland and in Ulster made a coherent response to the virus more difficult. In the early days of the health crisis, Ireland responded quickly and decisively, beginning a massive shutdown on March 12th. Northern Ireland was forced to wait for instructions from London, and an effective shutdown was not imposed until more than two weeks later. Niall Ó Donnghaile, a Sinn Fein spokesman, put the problem in stark terms: “All of this is certainly pointing toward a bigger manifestation of an argument for unity.”

After the Good Friday Accords, the clear desire of citizens, north and south, has been to never again see a “hard border”—with guards, barbed wire, and checkpoints—imposed on the Island. These were reminders of the “troubles” of the 30-year violent Northern Ireland conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Father Sean McManus, the tireless advocate of Irish Unification and founder of the Washington-based Irish National Caucus, has long expressed it this way: “Ireland too has the right to be One Nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

The unification of Ireland is an outcome that is still a complicated proposition. But the trifecta confluence of events—Brexit, Sinn Fein’s electoral achievement, and the COVID pandemic—may yet contribute to the realization of this dream in the foreseeable future. A day when the millions who harbor this dream will see, in the oft-quoted words of Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme.”