A century ago, Ireland’s War of Independence against Britain—the equivalent of the Revolutionary War in colonial America—erupted. It would last 17 months, only to descend afterwards into the year-long Irish Civil War. Even after it came to an official end in 1923, no full and lasting peace was achieved. Rather, the island was permanently partitioned into north and south and plunged until the end of the century into a state of intermittent guerrilla warfare and terror that pitted anti-partition republicans against pro-partition (and pro-British) unionists. The long-cherished dream of “a united Ireland” would remain no more than that.
That dream has been held by millions of Irishmen for centuries. Countless revolutionaries and republicans have hungered, thirsted, dreamed, and died for it. From the heroic Wolfe Tone in the 1798 Irish Rebellion to the charismatic political leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, to three-time prime minister Eamon de Valera in the 20th century, Irish leaders have awaited the day when their isle would once again be united as one.
That day may now be approaching—and by a surprising route, a development completely unforeseen a year ago. What has changed? It is a bizarre six-letter neologism: Brexit.
Illustrating what could be termed the First Great Law of History, namely the Law of Unintended Consequences, the specifics of the Brexit agreement may drive two uneasy political bedfellows—the Catholic majority of the Republic of Ireland in the south and the Protestant majority of Northern Ireland—into each other’s arms. As it reaches the centenary of its first historic declaration of independence from Britain, Ireland may be headed for unification—that is, full independence for all 32 Irish counties, including the six in Northern Ireland.
None of this is obvious—or inevitable. The devil is in the details. In the aftermath of “Brextension”—the April 11 agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom for a six-month Brexit delay, pushing the withdrawal deadline to Halloween—the UK now has breathing room. The clock has been stopped on a no-deal withdrawal, which would have happened the day after the agreement was signed.
But it comes with strings attached, including a strict “no sabotage” clause for the duration of the UK’s membership in the EU and a “review” by EU members of both the UK’s progress towards Brexit and its cooperation with major EU initiatives. Britain must participate in the EU Parliament elections in May. It must assent to a “gentleman’s agreement” that it will abide by its obligations as a member state and not exploit Brextension to block EU goals, generate conflicts, or otherwise undermine the Union’s fragile unity. (Arch-Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have voiced such threats repeatedly, arguing that the best way to cut a favorable deal is to remain in the EU and play the role of spoiler so ruthlessly that Brussels begs the UK to leave.)
As of now, nothing seems certain except that Prime Minister Theresa May will soon appeal to MPs—for the fourth time!—to support her proposed deal. She hopes to win over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to her cause. If she fails again, three scenarios are plausible: a vote of no-confidence that ousts May as prime minister and Conservative Party leader; a general election; or a second referendum on Brexit, essentially a redux of the 2016 battle between the pro-Brexit Leavers and the anti-Brexit Remainers.
And what about Northern Ireland? Both in Dublin and Belfast, the conversations in pubs and on the telly focus less on the issues between London and Brussels and more on the welfare of Ireland. The key question is: does Brextension raise or lower the odds of Irish unification?
Thus far, though some nationalist voices have loudly called for a “snap vote” on the north’s exit from the UK—which we might call “NIRexit,” or just “Nexit”—senior officials in both Irish parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, have dismissed the idea.
However, unofficially, observers say the likelihood of a NIRexit is increasing by the day.
Why? Because Dublin, Belfast, London, and Brussels have one paramount goal: preventing a return to the low-grade civil war that ravaged Northern Ireland for decades and that the Good Friday Agreement effectively ended. That means: no “hard” border between north and south. Checkpoints, border patrols, long automobile queues and lengthy searches at crossing points, steel fencing, barbed wire—all that evokes that still-present nightmare of The Troubles.
The only workable plan for Brexit that will prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is for the north to stay in the EU customs area despite Brexit. That is, even as the rest of Britain “exits” the EU economically, the north remains, and no change in border policy occurs.
Yet that is no small matter. It would radically alter the flow of goods and the nature of economic transactions between the north and Britain. It would necessarily push the two Irelands towards each other. Geography and economics would be aligned, leaving Belfast closer to Dublin than to London.
The Irish Republic is adamantly opposed to a hard border, and Brussels officials concur with Dublin fully. During July and November, when I (Rodden) visited my relatives at their home in County Donegal, a mere dozen miles from the border, they expressed relief that the age-old enemy Britain had not succeeded in “negotiating over our heads” to bring back the hard border of the “Troubled” past.
Officially, therefore, Brextension changes nothing with regard to the Irish border. Just as would have occurred with previous deadlines before this second extension, the present Brexit rules are clear. If the October 31 deadline passes without a renegotiated trade agreement between Brussels and London—the so-called “no deal” outcome—the entire UK will remain inside the EU until an agreement is struck. This is the controversial “soft” Brexit, much hated by the Brexiteers, who see it as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum result. They also deplore Theresa May’s proposal to maintain an “Irish backstop,” a sort of insurance policy for continuing the status quo at the border after Brexit. Many Brexiteers regard the “backstop” provision as a craven willingness by May to negotiate away part of the UK to Brussels. She and her supporters defend the proposal as the only plausible way to prevent the unraveling of the Good Friday Agreement.
May and her fellow Conservatives face an impossible dilemma. On the one hand, they do not want to upset the peace terms that have been in place for the last two decades by instituting a hard border. On the other, they realize they are driving Dublin and Belfast closer by letting the north remain. Economically speaking, they have inadvertently engineered a NIRexit policy.
If they choose the latter, May must realize that she will make many British uneasy, if not enraged. (This is especially the case for those who voted against Brexit, including majorities in both Scotland and Wales.) Every exception granted to the north will no doubt feed calls for further exceptions for discontented Scots and Welshmen—if not outright secession. In other words, “next” after Nexit may be Scotland and Wales, thereby breaking up Britain altogether and lending new meaning to the old anti-empire, pro-colonial independence phrase “Little Englander.” Soon, Britain—“this sceptered isle” of Albion, as Shakespeare exalted it in Richard II—may be nothing more than England itself.
Since receiving Home Rule in 1921 following the War of Independence, the six counties of Ulster have acquired a unique constitutional status in the UK, which could be termed “Northern Irish exceptionalism.” Belfast has its own legislature, yet Northern Irish MPs also sit in Parliament in London. Northerners are subject to some UK laws, but not all. There are special exceptions on a range of issues: for example, the Northern Irish have adopted their own (quite restrictive) laws on abortion and gay rights.
As a result of the Good Friday Agreement, Westminster must call for a referendum on any major policy matter if the region insists. (This had already led republicans in the south, especially in the Sinn Fein party, to demand a vote in the north on Irish unification before a Brexit vote.) The law specifies that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK unless “there is the consent of the majority of the peoples of Northern Ireland voting in a poll” to change that relationship.
Twenty years ago, that provision was not a focus of attention, mostly because long before partition, a sizable majority of the north’s population was Protestant and identified as British rather than Irish. In recent years, however, that has changed drastically. And therein lies the second unforeseen factor behind a possible united Ireland.
According to most population forecasts, Catholics in the north will become a majority by the next census—just two years away in 2021. Northern Irish economist Paul Gosling thus concludes that the “twin pressures of Brexit and demography” are likely to result in a call for a referendum and a vote to secede. (The south is overwhelmingly Catholic.) Economics, religion, and demographics will all align. NIRexiting the UK may be only a matter of time.
(We also shouldn’t forget that in 2016, whereas almost 60 percent of English voters supported Brexit, 55.8 percent of Northern Irish voted to remain in the EU.)
So here again, Brexit is the decisive driving force. A poll in 2013 showed that 66 percent of the Catholics in the north wanted to remain linked to the UK. They have come in recent decades to accept a regime traditionally dominated by a Unionist majority because it is familiar. And no less important, membership in the Union has served their economic interests—”potatoes, not popes.”
A “hard Brexit” would change all that. If Westminster does not further extend “Northern Irish exceptionalism” to include remaining in the EU economically, Dublin and Belfast will be forced to interact the same way as non-EU Britain with the Republic—or as Bulgaria with Greece, for that matter. Like that latter pair, the 310-mile Irish border will become an external EU frontier. Goods will be subject to tolls and taxes.
On the other hand, if the current “no hard border” situation prevails, the economic ties between the north and south will only grow stronger. Currently, people and goods pass back and forth between the two countries with nary a problem. Either way, Northern Ireland and the Republic may decide to unite. Either the economic divergence from Britain with no hard border will show northerners that their long-term interests now lie with Dublin, or the feared return of a hard frontier (and likely violence and other disruptions) will convince them that an officially united Ireland is the best means of avoiding that fate.
Winston Churchill said famously in 1942, after having won support to head Westminster’s wartime coalition government: “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Ironically, Theresa May could soon be compelled to confess the reverse. That is, she could end up presiding over the dispossession of Britain’s last (and erstwhile first) colony—and the empire’s final liquidation.
And the Irish themselves may not need to shed a drop of blood to achieve their dear old dream. That will be thanks to unwitting British MPs who authorized a national referendum on Brexit three long years ago—and never envisioned what it would lead to.
John Rodden has written on Irish history in The Review of Politics, The Midwest Quarterly, and other publications. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.