Ireland, we were told by Boris Johnson and his coterie of Leave campaigners, was not a problem. It was a non-issue dreamt up by the Remainers as part of their fear campaign. The Good Friday Agreement, they said, was secure along with the future of the union.
Then Boris drew the EU-UK border down the middle of the Irish Sea and threw Northern Ireland’s Protestants to the nationalist wolves. It was not the first time that a British Prime Minister was prepared to sacrifice Ulster for the benefit of England. During World War Two, Winston Churchill, offered unification in return for Irish entry into the war on the side of the Allies. Eamon de Valera refused because he thought Churchill would be unable to deliver on the pledge.
This week Sinn Fein—the political wing of the IRA—emerged as one of the victors in a three-way tie in the Irish general election. A unified island was not a major part of their campaign. In fact, it was conspicuous by the virtual silence on the subject. Instead the nationalists focused on a left-wing agenda of increased spending on public services and housing in contrast to the long-established 100-year duopoly of the centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
But make no mistake. A united Ireland free of British control remains at the heart and soul of Sinn Fein. It is the reason that it was formed back in 1905. And pre-World War I support for the nationalist cause in the southern two-thirds of the Ireland was the reason that Sir Edward Carson was able to mobilise 100,000-plus members of the Ulster Volunteer Force to threaten a civil war unless the six Protestant-dominated counties of the north remained part of the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein didn’t stay at the top of Eire’s political ladder for long. After the 1922-23 civil war, Eamon de Valera split the party and took most of its membership into the newly-formed Fianna Fail. For the next twenty years, Sinn Fein didn’t bother to contest any seats for the Dail. It gradually came back after the war by linking itself to the IRA as its political wing, but under Gerry Adams it shifted to concentrate more on the ballot box then the bomb and the gun. The end result was the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.
The Agreement left the issue of the future sovereignty ambiguously open-ended. For the time being, it was recognised that the majority in Northern Ireland wanted to remain part of the UK while at the same accepting that a majority on the island of Ireland wanted unification. In a sort of constructive confusion, it was agreed that both views were legitimate and would—for the time being—represent the basis of a working arrangement. However, if a majority of the people in both Northern Ireland and Eire decided otherwise than the British and Irish governments are under a “binding obligation” to implement that choice.
The received wisdom of the time was that the this “constructive ambiguity” had kicked the issue of unification into the long grass and, at best, the two halves of the island would gradually—over many, many years– move closer in a yet undetermined fashion; possibly under the protection of the over-arching umbrella of joint membership of the EU. Then came Brexit. Northern Ireland voted 56 percent to 44 percent to remain. But it was part of the United Kingdom which voted narrowly to leave. Sinn Fein immediately called for a referendum on unification. An opinion poll for the Irish Times showed a narrow majority in favour. More surprisingly, five percent of the unionists polled said they would support reunification; a small but significant number. The pollsters and Sinn Fein were ignored by Westminster.
But Boris Johnson’s government cannot ignore the views of the Irish government which is a co-signatory to the Good Friday Agreement. And Sinn Fein’s success in this week’s elections raises the real possibility that coalition talks could result in the nationalist party being part of the Eire government. If not this time, then quite possibly sometime in the near future.
If that happens than Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald has made it clear that the price of her support is a referendum on a united Ireland “within five years.” Furthermore, that she will call for Brussels to support unification in the same way that the EU supported German reunification and is demanding the reunification of the island of Cyprus.
A vote on reunification appears to be bouncing back from the long grass, and in doing so raises a host of other questions. How can Westminster ignore the Scottish National Party’s demands for a second referendum if it allows a border poll in Northern Ireland? And, what will be the reaction of the Ulstermen of the north? They have proven themselves in the past to be just as capable of violence as the IRA. The consequences of Brexit just keep on coming.
Tom Arms is a regular contributor to The What & The Why