The kind of unity Ireland needs isn’t about territory – it is about people

Posted By: September 18, 2018

Keeping Northern Ireland in the union has long relied on Catholic consent but Brexit will change that fact

Fintan O’Toole. The Guardian.Sunday, September 16, 2018.

There is no doubt that the supporters of Brexit, avowed unionists all, have done more to advance the cause of a united Ireland than the IRA ever managed in 30 years of terrible violence. The simplest way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, after all, is to have no border at all.

Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and will be very deeply and adversely affected by it. And the European Union has quite explicitly – and quite remarkably – stated that Northern Ireland can automatically rejoin the EU at any time after Brexit takes effect if it agrees to a united Ireland. In this, Northern Ireland is already different from Britain: its exit from the EU is a return ticket.

Why is the Irish border a stumbling block for Brexit?

Meanwhile, Brexit and the upsurge of English nationalism that drives it has created a deep existential crisis for the United Kingdom that will unfold over the next 20 years. The crisis of authority that is already so evident in London is likely to become even more acute: any conceivable deal with the EU will reignite the uncivil wars in English politics. Scotland’s resentment will deepen if an economic crisis results from a revolutionary change it emphatically rejected. With such anarchy in the UK, any sensible unionist should be looking across the Irish Sea and asking – what the hell is it we are supposed to be united to? There is no British status quo to maintain.

For any thinking unionist, it has long been clear that the key to keeping Northern Ireland in the union is Catholic consent. As demography erodes the inbuilt Protestant majority, the sectarian headcount is no longer enough. Enough Catholics in The North have to be persuaded of the benefits of the current arrangements not to want to risk the great uncertainties of change.

And the odd thing is that before June 2016 this was, from a unionist perspective, going rather well. The equality guaranteed in the Good Friday agreement, alongside the in effect borderless existence created by common membership of the EU, meant that whatever their long-term aspirations, most Catholics were willing to live with things as they were.

It is quite breathtaking that the Democratic Unionist party, in particular, has failed to grasp the simple fact that this Catholic consent was their greatest asset and Brexit throws it away. The polling evidence is stark. Only 28% of Catholics in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland if the UK changed its mind and remained a full member of the EU. However, 53% of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if there were a hard Brexit in which all of the UK left the customs union and single market. This figure is likely to increase as the consequences accumulate in the coming years.

 Ireland has come too far to be dragged back in time by Brexit

But just because unionism is apparently intent on suicide, we should not be quick to dance on its grave. The great recklessness of Brexit,  from an Irish point of view,  is that it forces people to think again about all of the big existential questions that have caused so much grief and that had been successfully suspended. Whatever one thinks about a united Ireland, it is simply too much too soon. The kind of unity Ireland needs is not about territory – it’s about people. The Irish constitution was amended 20 years ago to redefine the national aim as being “to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. We are not remotely there yet. We have a slow, delicate process of healing and reconciliation that Brexit tramples on with oafish disregard. We need time. And you don’t have to be a rabid nationalist to think the time to heal is the least Britain owes Ireland.