The Democratic Unionist Party want to ensure that Great Britain and Northern Ireland is never shortened to just Great Britain. But the tectonic plates of demography, politics and religion have been shifting towards a united Ireland and may collide with the legal obligations of the Good Friday Agreement within the next five years.
Since the end of The Troubles and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the idea of a united Ireland has seemed far-fetched to many. Protestant Unionism was baked into the founding DNA of Northern Ireland. And yet the percentage of Protestants in the region has been declining ever since it was formed in 1921. In the 1926 census, Protestants outnumbered Catholics almost two to one. By 2011 that margin had been reduced to little more than a rounding error; 41.6 per cent to 40.8 per cent.
Former special advisor to Labour’s last Northern Ireland secretary, Kevin Meagher who has written a book on this subject, points out that Catholics now outnumber Protestants at all levels of the education system. The next census in 2021 is expected to confirm a Catholic majority for the first time. Unionism is facing a demographic timebomb.
A similar shift has taken place in politics. Unionist Assembly members have fallen from 52.1 per cent in 2003 to 44.8 per cent in 2017. Sinn Fein now has just one seat fewer than the DUP and the next round of Stormont elections in 2022 may return a pro-Republican majority.
The text of the Good Friday Agreement stipulates a referendum should be called if “at any time” it appears likely to the secretary of state “that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.
Evidence to this effect from the census and Assembly elections may be available by the next general election, currently scheduled for 2022. If the Conservatives win a majority they will be freed from the shackles of their DUP partners. Possibly still wrestling with an intractable Brexit conundrum of a hard border in Ireland, a Tory administration may be keen to be rid of the Northern Irish headache. A survey by the Centre for Constitutional Change of English Tory voters found that 73 per cent said Brexit would be more important than peace in Northern Ireland, suggesting the party’s rank and file are hardly devoted to Irish Unionism. And the party’s top brass is not much different. Even before her recent gaffes current secretary of state for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley admitted to being "slightly scared of Northern Ireland" and ignorant of its basic political divisions.
Even sympathetic English allies are prepared to sell Unionism down the river. Former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins, who claims to be a supporter of the DUP, said on Irish radio that it was “inevitable or at least highly probable, that one day we will see a united Ireland. I just don't think you can be a Brexiteer and not see perhaps a united Ireland is where Ireland will eventually end up.”
If the 2022 election returned a Labour government, led by life-long Republican supporter, Jeremy Corbyn, one can imagine his Northern Irish secretary being open to a border poll. And as opposed to Scottish independence, there would be no loss of historic Labour heartlands. With left-leaning Sinn Fein eschewing their Westminster voting rights, unlike the DUP, there would be a Commons advantage for Labour in letting Northern Ireland go.
For a long time, the obstacle to Irish unification was as much the fact that joining the Republic was not a tempting offer. Compared to Cool Britannia, a religious theocracy with a stumbling economy wasn’t much of a draw. But now, it’s led by a modern, progressive leader and the Irish economy has been the EU’s fastest growing four years running.
Combined with the benefits of removing a currency border and the improved efficiencies of not duplicating services on a small island, unification, may prove attractive to the public. Especially compared to remaining shackled to an economically risky Brexit project they didn’t vote for, perceived by many as hostile to its near neighbours.
The fracturing of the Unionist coalition under the weight of Brexit has already begun. A poll in December showed 48 per cent of Northern Irish people were in favour of joining the south if Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement succeeded, and 55 per cent in the event of no deal. This even included one in ten Unionists. The same survey showed 67 per cent of people were critical of the DUP’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, including 38 per cent of Unionists. The Ulster Farming Union and the Northern Ireland branch of the CBI have both criticised the DUP’s approach to the Brexit talks.
Applications for Irish passports from north of the border increased 20 per cent last year to 82,274, more than twice the number in 2012. As Ed Curran, of the Belfast Telegraph, has written: “When even unionists start applying for Irish passports, is it any wonder nationalists and Republicans are encouraged to believe attitudes are changing."
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