By Thomas Chambers
A historic mantra of Irish Republicans is that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. It is often associated with the rebellion known as the Easter Rising of 1916 as Irish rebels sought to establish their Independence whilst the British were dealing with the great European disaster of World War One. One hundred years on, it is once again British difficulties in Europe which have reignited the debate on the future of Ireland.
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union reinforced my belief that the best manner to serve the interests of the people in Northern Ireland is through reunification with Ireland. This was illustrated to a great extent by the referendum result. The majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the EU but their decision was undermined by voters in Surrey and Sunderland voting to leave. Essentially, English votes have decided the future of Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland are being dragged out of the European Union against their will.
This is set to reinvigorate the nationalist movement in NI, with parties from the North and the South bringing the ideal of a United Ireland back onto the political agenda. The scale of the challenge facing those seeking a United Ireland is vast. There is a large community which strongly defends its British identity and a nationalist community that is becoming increasingly difficult to mobilize. In traditional nationalist strongholds, there has been a rise of parties that are apolitical on the constitutional issue, such as the People Before Profit party. However, Brexit provides the platform to raise the arguments that a United Ireland may be the best arrangement to guarantee the people of the North have a future of peace, prosperity and progress. Leading parties in the Republic of Ireland such as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael now show a willingness to talk of unity, a discussion which had been absent for decades at the higher echelons of Irish political discourse. Slowly but surely, these parties are creating a political climate that shifts the discussion from the historical divisions of the past to the social and economic potential of the future.
One possible catalyst for reunification would be the potential economic benefits of a Celtic Tiger emerging from the fallout of Brexit. It is possible that in a scenario where the UK fails to gain access to the single market, the major banks seeking access to the EU and an English-speaking workforce will turn to Dublin. Dublin would benefit from the exodus of business from London and become a leading financial hub in Europe alongside Frankfurt and Paris. Dublin would be buoyed by inward investment and strengthened by the confidence of a nation ready to put forward a bold vision to unify the country and create an inclusive and prosperous European nation.
Furthermore, the economic benefits of Irish unity, predicted in The Modelling Irish Unification study, (conducted by Kurt Hübner, director of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia) would amount to €35.6 billion boost in the first eight years. In such a scenario, citizens of Northern Island could benefit from catch up growth.
In addition to the economic elements of this debate, the ability of political leaders to outline a future path and tap into public sentiment is also crucial. A successful push for Scottish independence, for instance, would demonstrate that it is possible to mobilize nationalist sentiment to leave the UK and could give Irish nationalist leaders a political playbook to ensure that they are best equipped to present their argument. The risk of custom checks arising along the border and the physical manifestation of partition may make it harder for nationalists to feel included in the Northern Irish state. This could enable the political parties to capitalise on renewed resentment at the current arrangements and capitalise on a generation who will be uneasy with the status quo. The combination of lucid political strategy and a growing support among nationalists will enable parties seeking a United Ireland to mobilize a strong political base, which in recent years has become apathetic and indifferent.
Finally, it is clear the hardest obstacle on the path to a United Ireland is most certainly identity. Union jacks fly from lampposts all over Northern Ireland and during marching season posters of nationalist opponents are sometimes burnt on bonfires and loyalties are often determined at birth. The challenge for parties in NI such as Sinn Fein and the SDLP is to integrate unionist culture within their envisaged plan for reunification and try to appeal to a broader base, garnering support from those not traditionally associated with the unionist effort. This is a gargantuan task and may be the stumbling block for many years to come. However, after the UK’s momentous decision to leave the EU, which would have been unthinkable a generation ago, the image of a unified Ireland is no longer so distant. In loyalist heartlands such as East Belfast there was a run on the post office for Irish passport forms. In communities where the tricolour flag is burned every July, post offices struggled to keep up with the demand of unionists seeking Irish citizenship in order to benefit from the privileges that come with holding an EU passport. These may be small steps, instigated by raw pragmatism, but perhaps they also mean that we are one step closer to realising the dream of Theobald Wolfe Tone, a founding father of the United Irishmen society of 1791, who stated that we must “substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter”.
Brexit provides Irish nationalists with the ingredients necessary to achieve national unity and economic growth, having created a disgruntled base and a shifting sense of identity. It is up to political leaders to make use of these elements in order to achieve the vision of Irish nationalists which has resonated through the centuries. This does not just entail uniting the island but also uniting the people and that is the only manner in which a United Ireland will be achieved. However, it is only now that this dream is within grasp of becoming a reality.