Brexit and Irish Unity

The prospect of Brexit is making the logic of Irish union increasingly compelling.

Between 1886 and 1920 four attempts were made in Parliament (then governing the whole of Britain and Ireland) to grant Ireland Home Rule. The idea was to keep Ireland constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, as it had been from the start of the nineteenth century, while at the same time allowing it independence in internal affairs. The first attempt failed because the House of Commons voted against it, the second because it was rejected by the House of Lords, the third because of the intervention of the First World War, and the fourth because by that stage (1920) the momentum for complete independence in the South had grown too powerful.

For much of the time, most Irish MPs supported Home Rule, although the Unionists in the north opposed it.  If only Gladstone had been successful in driving it through in 1886 or 1893, how different things might have been. Today, devolution has given a considerable measure of independence to the north, but for Ireland as a whole Home Rule died with the 1916 Easter Rising. The only realistic constitutional choices are continued separation between North and South or Irish unity.

I have no personal connection with Ireland and no right to say what should be done. Only the Irish themselves can decide. That is not as straightforward as it sounds, however, given the division of opinion between North and South. If majority opinion in the North moved clearly in favour of Irish unity, that would solve the issue, and personally, I hope that day will come sooner rather than later.

In the event of Brexit, the dividing line between North and South will be the boundary between two entirely separate economic and political jurisdictions, each with its own rules affecting trade and travel. As long as both countries remain in the EU and accept its principles of freedom of movement, tariff free trade, etc., this is not a problem, but without that, major adjustments, with all the damaging implications for co-operation and peace in the island of Ireland, are inevitable.

If it were simply a matter of economics, the elimination of the border would be the obvious solution, but of course it isn’t. Politics, history and contrasting notions of national identity all stand in the way. But they are not as decisive as they once were. The current political deadlock in Northern Ireland is depressing, but the acceptance in principle of devolution and the sharing of political power between the two communities has loosened the ties between Belfast and London, and strengthened those between Belfast and Dublin.

Opinion on the value of remaining in the EU differed from that in Britain as a whole, the majority voting against leaving in the 2016 Referendum.

The power of the Roman Catholic Church in the Republic – one of the main reasons Unionists in the North argued against Irish unity – is not as strong as it used to be. The religious divide generally is not as powerful a factor as it once was, especially among the young.

There has always been strong cultural, economic and political ties between Ireland and Britain, and that will doubtless continue whatever happens to the Irish border.

Opposition to Irish unity will continue to be held passionately by many, but Brexit means that the dream held by most of the people of Ireland is moving closer.

Peter Shepherd (August 2019)

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