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Will Brexit be the backdoor to a united Ireland?

Amid doubts over whether Theresa May can deliver a Brexit deal that avoids a hard Irish border, Winthrop Rodgers assesses whether the result will be a renewed push for a united Ireland.

The imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic by a seemingly callous Tory government would risk angering the youth and business classes of the North – but would it be enough to provide momentum towards a border poll? Democratic Union Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster recently said that Irish unity was “not going to happen.” Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech in Northern Ireland which stressed the popularity of a potential unification of Ireland within the context of Brexit.

Fundamentally, unification is very unlikely, for two simple reasons: first, London recognizes the immense political dangers surrounding the discussion and will likely work to minimize them and, second, there is not the popular support for doing so among the people of Northern Ireland or the Republic.

Treading a fine line

Perhaps no issue within the complex constellation of the Brexit negotiations is more fraught than how to deal with the UK’s land border with the Republic of Ireland. If this year’s celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement have taught us anything, it is that the first steps toward peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland were a close-run thing.

Indeed, the very nature of the transition away from violence and towards institution building makes a united Ireland unlikely as a consequence of Brexit. The 1998 Belfast Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement as it is popularly known, binds the various parties together along a set of overlapping and mutually reinforcing axes that govern sovereign interplay. Leaders in both London and Dublin are loath to wade into the morass of Northern Irish politics or each other’s affairs without a very serious reason.

The danger for Prime Minister Theresa May is that she treads too far in one direction or the other. For instance, if she imposes measures that pander too much to the Eurosceptic wing of her Conservative party and imposes a hard border that impedes the free movement of goods, capital, and people to such a degree that it makes a majority of people in Northern Ireland rethink their relationship with the Union, then she risks a border poll or, at the very least, a drubbing at the next election.

If, instead, she opts for the softest of Brexits and creates special rules for Northern Ireland, on one side, she risks angering the hardline Eurosceptic Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her government after her disastrous decision to call a snap election in June 2017, On the other hand, she would enrage the Europhile Scottish National Party for not giving them the same deal and ignite a renewed push for independence.

Sticking to the middle ground

Therefore, it is likely that May will attempt to find a middle path that does not unduly privilege or punish one constituency or another, which would be true to her own personal instincts as a politician. (Anecdotally, during the last election, when asked for the “naughtiest” thing she had ever done, she said that as a child she and a friend used to “run through fields of wheat.”Who knows how Foreign Minister Boris Johnson would have replied?) She will likely chart a course that pleases no one and is vaguely technocratic enough to sound plausible, but does not risk bringing down her government or force a border poll.

Moreover, any kind of action that would harm the Irish Republic would bring European negotiators to its defense. The EU has made it quite clear that it fully stands behind Ireland and that it would take its side over Britain’s if push came to shove. If she imposes an overly harsh border policy, European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier may retaliate against Britain in some other area, such as finance or the rights of British citizens in Europe and in a targeted manner designed to upset May’s domestic constituents.

No appetite for a poll

Nevertheless, there are some among the Irish nationalist camp who see Brexit as their best opportunity in the short term to force the issue of a United Ireland.

This misreads the situation in two ways. First, there is simply no appetite for a border poll in Northern Ireland and, in the unlikely event that one was held, it would fail. Poll after poll shows only a small minority who favor of a united Ireland; in fact, a recent Ipsos MORI pollfound only 21.1% total and only 42.6% of Catholics favor that option.

Second, there would have to be consent from the Republic as well, which would not be readily forthcoming. Ireland, at the moment, is still recovering from the disastrous financial crisis of 2008, which saw a catastrophic collapse of its economy. Northern Ireland is almost entirely dependent on an outsized block grant from London for its budget, and is struggling with increasing poverty, and is also burdened with a bloated civil service; Dublin would refuse to take on those responsibilities.

Moreover, the Irish in the south are fighting their own battles over social issues, most recently over abortion, and are casting off the old, clerically-mandated ways of thinking and acting and becoming a progressive, outward-looking society. To bring in a rump of angry, resentful, deeply conservative, religious fundamentalists from the DUP would work against this trend. There is likely to be significant resistance to adding a religious, nationalist angle to politics in the Republic.

A groundswell of support for a united Ireland is of course possible given the right trigger – but Brexit is not it. An all-island Republic is more likely to come about through the democratic acclaim of the Irish on both sides of the current border, rather than through violence or opportunistically because of poor relations between London and Brussels.

 

This article was first published on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Winthrop Rodgers.