One of the great unspoken truths about Irish unity is that, until the result of the EU referendum, hardly anyone wanted it.
Ironically, this was more true in the South than in the North. If there had been a vote this spring in Dáil Éireann, the 23 Sinn Féin TDs and a handful of diehards from other parties would no doubt have thrown their weight behind unity, but the remaining 120 or so would either have voted No (fekking way – NFW) or else thrown up so many amendments that a clear decision was rendered all but impossible.
In the North, Sinn Féin would have led from the front, with the SDLP wavering and all but a couple of mavericks on the “Protestant” side of the House hollering out a Paisley-style NOoooo!
Putting the issue to the people would probably have produced a more nuanced result. A majority in the Republic might, just possibly, have voted for unity, but only so long as it didn’t happen in their lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of their children. Others, many of whom regard Finchley as more Irish than Newry, would, like the Democratic Unionist Party, have voted NFW, meaning, in effect, a landslide for partition.
So what about the minority in the North (now making up some 45 per cent of the electorate)? Most Nationalists, in their hearts (or in the pub), wrap the green flag round them, but not, at the polls, in the numbers needed to ensure anything approaching victory. Falls Road and Bogside residents tend to know on which side their bread is buttered and, while giving rousing renditions of the Fields of Athenry, have always shown themselves unsentimental when it comes to jobs, pensions and public housing. The Sean-Bhean bhocht (or Rebel Song) tendency may say they love Ireland above all else, but not if all else includes child benefits, the dole and the NHS.
Give me chastity and continence, but not yet, is an Augustinian view of the world well understood by the Irish.
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That said, everything in Irish politics, north and south, has been thrown into flux by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Old absolutes are absolute no longer. Brexit has erupted like a minefield through which no one knows a safe route. Citizens of the 26 Counties are horrified by the prospect that their country, still recovering from the euro crisis, could end up as a conduit for EU and other migrants seeking to enter the UK. They don’t want to have to erect customs posts and inspection stations, still less holding pens, along their 200-mile border with the North. They don’t want to be forced to keep tabs not only on legitimate trade, but on asylum-seekers, smugglers and East European criminal gangs. And it doesn’t end there. The idea that trade within the island of Ireland will in future be governed by two separate jurisdictions, each laden with its own schedule of tarrifs, is one thing. But on top of the social and economic consequences of Brexit it is the real possibility of a renewed armed struggle that fills everyone with dread.
Unionists share this deepening sense of unease. While the DUP, led by the genial but politically inflexible Arlene Foster, continues to cling to Mother England, the party’s representatives at Stormont are already anticipating the inter-communal tensions bound to rise if a “hard” border is put in place, patrolled by the UK Border force and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. What alternative, after all, would there be to razor wire, closed-off roads and opposing border posts flying either the Union flag or the green, white and gold of Ireland? It would be the 1950s all over again.
It is a mess. Fifty-six per cent of northern voters, including many Protestants, supported Remain. Those same voters have since been told by Theresa May that it is only aggregated – i.e. English – democracy that matters, and, in fairness to the Leave campaign, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. Democracy is numbers. But as a result, thousands of Unionists, including Ian Paisley’s son Ian Jr, the MP for Antrim North, have opted to take out Irish passports. Boris Johnson is not the only one hoping to have his cake and eat it. No one, outside of the Continuity IRA, wishes to upset the delicate North-South balance achieved in recent years, centred on a burgeoning relationship between London and Dublin and the fact that the UK and the Republic are like-minded members of the European Union.
That particular Yellow Brick Road now looks to have been blocked. Since June 23, politicians on all sides, led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, have warned of trouble ahead even as they try, somewhat desperately, to divine a way through the impasse. The British Government has pledged that there will be no hard border, but has yet to persuade anyone how this can possibly be the case. Either the existing situation will continue, under which people, goods and services pass freely, without obstruction, or it won’t. Either people will be able to drive uninterrupted from Belfast to Dublin, or they won’t. Either banks and businesses will be able to function without penalty or increased red tape in all 32 counties, or they won’t. What middle way that makes sense can there possibly be?
But one more potential spanner now lurks in the works. What happens if Nicola Sturgeon makes good on her threat to introduce a second independence referendum for Scotland that is then won by the SNP? Rightly or wrongly (for their bloodline is actually more mixed than loyalists care to admit), Ulster’s majority community have long looked to Scots as their kinsmen and fellow Unionist stalwarts. But should Sturgeon succeed, post-Brexit, in persuading Scots, perhaps literally, to go for broke, the message conveyed would be the diametric opposite of that represented by Covenanters and their successors down the centuries. Instead of helping anchor Northern Ireland to the Union, the siren song from Edinburgh would be Ulster Scots Wha Hae.
There is no getting round it. An independent Scotland would make a united Ireland significantly more likely, with the additional possibility of the two countries becoming closely bound, over time, as part of a re-cast European Union. In that event, the UK would be reduced to what BBC weather forecasters used to refer to as England ‘n Wales, shorn of 35 per cent of its territory and 8 million of its citizens. Even should the EU eventually break up under the weight of its own contradictions, Ireland’s likely long-term course would be set. The best that could be hoped for is that a new economic area, embracing the four “home” countries, would emerge from the wreckage, led, most obviously, by a resurgent England.
Whatever happens, neither the UK nor Scotland and Ireland will ever be quite the same again. Every option is open and nothing from this time forward can be taken as read. Within the new dispensation that could become a reality in the years to come – an era in which even the term Great Britain would cease to have meaning – those who voted in June for a restoration of UK sovereignty may find that the area over which that sovereignty extends is smaller than at any time since the death of Elizabeth I.