How likely is a united Ireland?
Sinn Fein's electoral surge and the fallout from Brexit have resurrected the issue
The prospect of a united Ireland is back in the news after Sinn Fein said its price for coalition talks are a vote on a united Ireland within five years.
The party is in confident mood after it enjoyed a surge in last week’s elections, winning 37 seats – just one fewer than Fianna Fail.
However, as The Guardian points out, the five-year demand was not in Sinn Fein’s manifesto and “any such move would be considered an act of hostility towards unionists in Northern Ireland”.
“The department of foreign affairs, which has been very influential, would be against it,” said Etain Tannam, professor of international peace studies at Trinity College, Dublin.
Nevertheless, the nationalist party remains determined to put the issue back on the table. Michelle O’Neil, Sinn Fein’s vice-president and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, said: “We want to be in government north and south and objective is to unite this island.”
Sinn Fein’s election manifesto says a future Dublin government should “engage with our friends and neighbours in the EU” noting that 30 years ago “the EU financially and politically supported German reunification”.
Speaking to Newsnight, the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, urged Ireland’s allies and friends to recognise that “partition and division has been a disaster and that reunification, reconciliation and good relationship with our next door neighbours is the way forward”.
The BBC says “it seems unlikely the EU will be easily convinced that it should become an active persuader for a united Ireland” but added that “in the aftermath of Brexit, the EU might not feel quite so bound to stay out of a dispute which will no longer involve two member states”.
Last year, a letter calling for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to prepare for Irish unification was sent to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. It was signed by more than 1,000 figures from the arts, academia, labour, law, sport, business and community groups. “Many are now talking in terms of ‘when’, not ‘if’, a united Ireland will happen,” commented Spike.
Britain’s exit from the European Union could also push the matter along. Jim Wilson, a former loyalist paramilitary in the Red Hand Commandos, said of Boris Johnson’s plans for Northern Ireland: “Economically he is tying us to the Irish Republic, which is in the EU. It might seem like it is the EU but that’s not the way the loyalist people look at it: they look at it as we are being tied to an economic united Ireland, which was not in the Good Friday agreement.”
As things stand, the Good Friday agreement said that a border poll could be called by the Northern Ireland secretary of state if it “appeared likely” that a majority of those voting “would express a wish” for Northern Ireland to form part of a united Ireland.
There is also the question of what a united Ireland would mean. Time says that experts believe it could be more about retaining membership of the European Union than a united 32-county republic, governed from Dublin.
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