After a century of partition, the prospect of a reunified Ireland has often appeared elusive. A variety of factors including (but not limited to) gradual demographic change, the chaos of Brexit, and the electoral success of Sinn Féin on both sides of the border has seen support for unity grow to its highest ever level — with recent polling in the North suggesting that a majority are in favour of a future referendum on the issue. A referendum on Irish unity in the near future has therefore become a distinct possibility, and given the particularly sensitive nature of reunification, it is imperative that we take this possibility seriously and begin preparing now.
Why, though, has a united Ireland become again a topic of political debate? There are many factors to explain recent growth in support for a united Ireland, and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union must be acknowledged as the highly significant event it was. The invisibility of borders when the Republic and UK were both member-states allowed communities in the North to feel safe in their relationship with their respective nation, with the idea of constitutional change often seeming redundant. Brexit destroyed this post-Good Friday Agreement constitutional balance, by forcing those living in the North to favour either a land border in Ireland or (as has happened under the NI Protocol) a customs border down the Irish Sea. Unsurprisingly, this has brought the reunification debate back into the North’s political consciousness, with polls now suggesting that more voters than ever before are open to unity, and the majority of nationalists are willing to vote in favour.
“Many are naturally attracted to the romanticism of reunification, but in order to win any future campaign and create a workable state, more will be needed than national feeling and romantic rhetoric.”
Brexit has also spurred interest in a united Ireland within the Republic, as the NI Protocol deepens economic ties on the island and forces Southern politicians, who have often paid only lip-service to reunification, to engage seriously with the North. However, Brexit has also demonstrated how destructive ill-prepared constitutional change can be. It is important that those of us who desire to unify learn from this, and develop a clear vision of how a united Ireland would function in reality. Many are naturally attracted to the romanticism of reunification, but in order to actually win any future campaign and create a workable state, more will be needed than national feeling and romantic rhetoric.
“Yet, beyond setting up routes for dialogue such as the Shared Island Initiative and gesturing toward citizens’ assemblies, the Irish government has shown little interest in establishing a clear blueprint for how such issues may be dealt with.”
It is therefore deeply disappointing that although parties traditionally less keen on unity have become more confident in supporting it, there remains little actual planning as to how a united Ireland would work. It is generally accepted by all interested in unity that a new, united Ireland would be an entirely different entity from the current 26-county state — and systems as varied as health, transport, education and policing would need to be overhauled. Yet, beyond setting up routes for dialogue such as the Shared Island Initiative and gesturing toward citizens’ assemblies, the Irish government has shown little interest in setting out a clear blueprint for how such issues can be dealt with. This failure to develop a roadmap for unity is reckless not only because it makes victory in a border poll less likely, but also in relation to the increasingly unstable nature of politics and community relations in the North. Unfortunately, politicians in the Republic often care about the North only to the extent that symbolic gestures of support for unity may serve to improve their popularity in the South, with most viewing the region as far too unstable to be worth any serious investment of time or money. Uncertainty regarding the future is particularly dangerous in a conflicted area such as the six disputed counties. Given that a border poll is now a distinct possibility in the near future, it is imperative that regardless of the outcome it is clear what the electorate is voting for.
What does proper planning for a united Ireland look like? In the century since Ireland was partitioned, both jurisdictions on the island have naturally developed separately and, as a result of this, possess very different health care systems, education systems, transport networks and police services, among other institutions. Preparation for unity must therefore involve the development of clear plans as to how these vital sectors will function in a new, unified state. Will the North adopt the Republic’s largely privatised healthcare system, or will a unified state develop a new approach to health? Will the PSNI continue to exist, or will the unarmed Gardaí be responsible for policing loyalist areas? Will unionists be expected to learn Irish at school like those in the Republic ? While exploring such questions offers the opportunity to improve life for all on the island, they also present challenges which need solutions if a border poll is to be won. That is not to say that there is only one approach to issues such as these — all parties will naturally diverge on different aspects. However, if people both north and south of the border are expected to vote for a new, united Ireland in the near future, then it is incumbent on those of us campaigning for unity to provide a clear blueprint for it as soon as possible.
A full century has now passed since Ireland was split between North and South. Yet with recent polling suggesting a narrowing gap between those who wish to remain in the UK and those who support unity, its conclusion appears closer than ever before. Irish reunification holds the potential to heal very old wounds on this island and could also provide us with an opportunity to reimagine how this country is run. For this to happen successfully, preparation must begin now.