Growing up in Belfast at the tail end of the Troubles, the so called “Irish question” always seemed a hypothetical one. The Good Friday Agreement was seen as answering the question of whether the island of Ireland could be reunited once and for all, establishing as it did that Northern Ireland would only rejoin the South if a majority of citizens voted in a referendum or plebiscite for the option. With nationalists being demographically subordinate in Stormont, the simple mathematics meant it would never happen.
Reunification was a position which I always considered somewhat fanciful; a naive sentiment which was expressed in republican pockets in Belfast and Derry, meriting few serious contingency plans.
But Ireland now looks set to join the roster of political shocks and upsets we have seen rippling across the world. Here's a sentence I never thought I’d utter: for the first time in my lifetime, a united Ireland is now credible – and perhaps inevitable.
Last week, a shock election saw unionists lose their majority in the Northern Irish parliament for the first time. Sinn Fein, once a hardline republican party considered the political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army, is now just one seat short of being Stormont’s largest party, with 27 seats to the Democratic Unionist Party’s 28 seats.
In the Republic of Ireland, a recent poll found 65 per cent of people would back a united Ireland in a referendum. Across the South, student unions have passed or proposed motions backing reunification. In a sign that the issue is not just a flash in the pan, or the exaggerated opinions of a few vocal activists, the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has announced that the UK’s Brexit plans must include a contingency plan for a united Ireland.
So how did we get to this point? A perfect storm has been brewing for years, with decades of anti-Tory sentiment (and more recently anti-Brexit angst) and unionist incompetence all making reunification more attractive. This Conservative Government, under both Theresa May and David Cameron, has turned a blind eye to politics in Northern Ireland. This was epitomised in the Brexit campaign, during which Northern Ireland was scarcely mentioned despite being the only part of the UK which shares a land border with another EU country. The Leave campaign also appeared to have no knowledge of or interest in what would happen to the border between North and South of Ireland should the referendum result go their way.
Northern Ireland receives millions in funding from the EU for cross-community peace projects between Catholic and Protestant communities, but the loss of this money, or where replacement funding might come from, doesn’t appear to have been calculated into the Leave campaign’s financial deliberations over the cost of Brexit. Northern Ireland voted to remain, but, like Scotland, is now finding it will be dragged out of it anyway thanks to Welsh and English voters.
Almost a year on from the EU referendum, we’re no wiser as to the future of the Northern Irish border. May has continuously obfuscated as to how, where or why a border will be erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Despite the British Government’s insistence on batting away the question, it must be urgently addressed. In order for the UK to enact post-Brexit immigration policies and leave the single market, it must be able to control its borders; a physical fence or wall is the only realistic option.
It is impossible to overstate the horror with which such a wall would be greeted. Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has warned that armed and violent Irish republicanism could return along with a hard border. In effect, a border would fence off Northern Ireland, making its own tiny country, with one million residents penned in together with no option of travelling, working or visiting the other three-quarters of the island as easily as they are accustomed.
In addition to Brexit, a current crisis in unionism has fuelled republicanism in the North. Northern Ireland’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has become implicated in a major financial scandal under leader Arlene Foster. She is accused of running a government scheme which was badly mismanaged, costing the taxpayer some £480m. She has refused to step aside while an inquiry can be conducted, causing considerable public backlash and alienating working class unionist voters.
At the same time, the DUP’s continued hardline approach to Catholic and nationalists communities has radicalised younger members of such groups. The party recently scrapped a small scheme which gave scholarships to children learning the Irish language, which is primarily although not exclusively spoken by Catholics and nationalists. The scheme cost just £50,000 and mostly benefited working class children. Although a subsequent backlash saw the DUP reinstate the funding, the damage was done; Irish language speakers and supporters began to foster more hardline attitudes about whether a united Ireland would be required for their community to be properly respected.
Blunt demographics are playing a role in this shift too. While unionist and Protestant communities tend to have small families, Catholics and nationalist communities have larger families, due to different attitudes towards contraception. A saying in republican west Belfast in the 1990s was that Catholics would “outbreed” Protestants skewing any referendum on unification. The language was strong, but there may be some truth in the sentiment. A generation has now come of voting age since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and sufficient time has passed for the attitude of the majority to change.
With Sinn Fein just one seat short of being the largest party at Stormont, reunification is by no means imminent. But the next election is likely to see them returned as the largest party, baring major events to stop their momentum. A united Ireland is no longer hypothetical or absurd, but a credible option that must be considered seriously by both the Irish and British governments.
For the first time in my lifetime, the Irish question is no longer a question of if, but of when.
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