Written by: Benjamin Mueller
Gary Donnelly, a city councilor in Londonderry, has fought for years to end British rule in Northern Ireland. After the 1998 peace agreement many of his allies put aside the struggle to expel the British and reunify with the Irish Republic, but not Donnelly.
Now, in the unremitting gloom that has been Northern Ireland’s lot in recent years, he has sighted a beacon of hope in Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit. As the possibility grows of Britain’s crashing out with no deal, so, too, does the likelihood of the reimposition of a hard border with the Irish Republic that many people see as a dire threat to peace and stability.
But Donnelly has a different take. While he shares a sense of alarm about a hard border, he also thinks talk of its return has brought much-needed clarity to the Irish question.
“Brexit has highlighted the absurdity of partition,” Donnelly said. “Others had always been brushing it under the carpet.”
Donnelly’s views may be more extreme than most, and the chances of a referendum on reunification remain distant, for now. But the increasing possibility that Britain will leave the European Union on March 29 without an agreement has rallied both moderates and extremists in the united-Ireland camp behind renewed talk of a single Irish state.
“The sense of a slow momentum toward Irish reunification has become a fast momentum now,” said Paul Gosling, a Londonderry-based English economist who recently published a book outlining a 10-year plan to reunify Ireland.
And lurking in the background of the debate is the possibility that the imposition of a hard border between north and south, with physical checkpoints, could reignite the violence that largely ended in 1998 — fears that were underscored by a recent car bombing in Londonderry and several hoaxes.
Given the choice between that and reunification, people across the island of Ireland have shown a preference for unity, though neither government has expressed the same enthusiasm.
Not helping matters, the regional assembly for Northern Ireland, based in Stormont, has been suspended for two years because of political feuds and scandals. And Northern Ireland’s fragile balance of power between Irish nationalists and pro-United Kingdom unionists has been upset, if not altogether destroyed, by the agreement of the conservative Democratic Unionist Party to prop up Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government in London.
That has turned the Democratic Unionists into Northern Ireland’s dominant force in Westminster, despite the party’s bucking most residents’ wishes by championing Brexit. (The pro-Irish unity party, Sinn Fein, refuses to send elected leaders to Parliament at all.)
The combination of a hard border and political deadlock could weaken the peace agreement and possibly lead to a renewal of the violence that took more than 3,500 lives during the Troubles, analysts say. That, in turn, might heighten pressures for reunification.
Deirdre Heenan, a professor of social policy at Ulster University in Londonderry, said the effect of a suspended regional assembly and out-of-touch leadership was a “political vacuum” in Northern Ireland. “And history will tell you that political vacuums give rise to extreme voices,” she said.
The dangers were on display in January, when a car bomb exploded in front of a courthouse in Londonderry. Police suspected a splinter group called the New Irish Republican Army. No one was injured, but dozens of people were forced out of their homes after the explosion and a series of car hijackings that followed.
Such paramilitary-style attacks, commonplace during the Troubles but rare since 1998, have struck occasionally in recent years, and the threat of Brexit makes them all the more menacing.
Liz McGrory, 69, who was forced out of her home for 10 hours last month after a car was hijacked and abandoned nearby, said, “That’s the first time I’ve experienced anything since the Troubles were over.”
She added, “The last so many years, we were able to come and go as we wanted. Now, you have this dread on you.”
Londonderry, the site of bitter fighting between warring paramilitary groups and British soldiers during the Troubles, has become relatively harmonious since 1998. Protestants and Catholics mix as neighbors and, occasionally, spouses. The city’s name, once emblematic of the strife, no longer provokes angry reactions. (Protestants preferred Londonderry, the official name, and Catholics favored Derry, as it is more widely known.)
But the idea of Northern Ireland breaking from the United Kingdom in order to stay in the European Union is spurring fresh debates across the city. Taxi drivers joke that they will soon be taking payments in euros. Pro-Irish unity campaigners are discussing how to convince opponents of the virtues of an all-island Irish state.
Opponents of reunification once saw the Irish Republic’s struggling economy and conservative social values as reasons to stay in the United Kingdom. But the republic has since legalized same-sex marriage and abortion, bringing its laws closer to the views of most people in the north, even if both remain outlawed there. While both are economically vulnerable to Brexit, the republic has grown strongly in recent years while the North has faltered.
A significant demographic shift also looms. Protestants held a narrow edge on Catholics in population when the last census was taken, in 2011. But Protestants dominate among the oldest age group, while younger people are more likely to be Catholic, heralding what experts say will soon be a Catholic majority.
Still, the path to reunification is not at all clear. For that to happen, a majority of voters in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would need to back reunification in a public referendum called a border poll — and the British government has discretion over when to call a vote. Many pro-United Kingdom loyalists remain vehemently opposed to Irish unity, and even some pro-Irish unity moderates are not ready to give up the benefits of being in Britain.
The most optimistic Republicans see a border poll happening within a decade. Yet, this week, Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the main republican party, Sinn Fein, said that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, “there will be an absolute imperative, a democratic imperative, to put the issue of Irish unity to the people by way of a referendum.”
Nonetheless, some analysts have started reckoning with the constitutional dilemmas posed by a united Ireland. Of those, none is more important than how to protect the rights of what would be a minority of pro-United Kingdom loyalists who see themselves as British, not Irish, said Mary Murphy, who studies Northern Ireland politics at University College Cork.
Colin Harvey, a law professor at Queen’s University Belfast who is drafting a paper about the legal questions around reunification, said the issue had “gone from the margins to the mainstream very, very rapidly as a result of Brexit.”
“Planning and preparation should start now, in some sense so as not to replicate the Brexit mess,” he added, referring to the false promises and voter confusion surrounding Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.
But pro-British unionists have dug in. Despite the Democratic Unionist Party’s campaigning for Brexit, many other unionists are trying to save their place in the United Kingdom by making their movement more inclusive.
They are rejecting party orthodoxy by defending gay and abortion rights. And they are pitching nationalists on the pragmatic case for staying in the United Kingdom: Keep your British benefits and free health care, and leave talk of reunification for another day.
“Is unionism under more threat? Yeah, it certainly is, and Brexit has created that increased threat,” said Brian Dougherty, a unionist community worker involved with the Londonderry Bands Forum, a group that lobbies on behalf of the local bands that are an integral part of Protestant culture.
But, he said, “Talk of a border poll has moved beyond what’s right for the country to being very opportunistic.”
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