In the vast expanse of global politics, certain subjects often dwell on the periphery, rarely uttered in serious tones but occasionally implied. Among these, the notion of Irish reunification stands prominent—an idea that often feels unspeakable and consequently remains rarely discussed. However, the century-long history concerning Northern Ireland’s place between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom has recently encountered a significant turning point with the advent of Brexit. This juncture marks the potential beginning of a new historic trajectory—one that could reshape the island’s future and open the door to the possibility of Irish reunification.

Stitching Peace: Good Friday’s Triumphs and the Echoes of Violence

Echoes of history often resound in unexpected ways, and the situation in Northern Ireland is no exception. The remarkable strides achieved by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 testify to the deeply ingrained animosities that once shattered the region. Born from the tumultuous Troubles era, this agreement introduced mechanisms for power-sharing and cooperation among diverse communities.

It stood as a turning point in healing the wounds of a divided island, officially ending the Troubles—a period marked by intense conflict. Yet, beneath the apparent calm, sporadic violence still casts a shadow. The emergence of the New IRA, responsible for recent violent attacks, serves as a stark reminder that, despite advances, the spectre of discord persists.

Navigating New Realities: Brexit’s Ripple Effect

Enter Brexit—a disruption of significant magnitude. The delicate threads woven through years of reconciliation face an unforeseen test. The potential return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—a symbol of division—loomed ominously. Amid this uncertainty, an ironic opportunity emerged: The Northern Ireland Protocol—which was expanded upon earlier this year with the Windsor Framework — the result of extensive negotiations involving the European Union, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, came into existence. While its intent was to prevent a hard border, its long-term impact on reconciliation remains uncertain. Will it serve as a bridge to sustain peace and unity, or might it reshape the landscape in unforeseen ways?

Pursuing Unity Amid Shifting Currents

Brexit’s aftermath has revitalized discussions about Irish reunification. Both the current Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, as well as the prospective Taoiseach, Mary Lou McDonald, have voiced their expectation that Irish unity will happen eventually. Economic disparities between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, coupled with a renewed desire to remain in the European Union, have reignited hopes for unity.

Despite its goal of enhancing the UK’s sovereignty, Brexit could inadvertently expedite the Union’s dissolution. Scotland’s vocal movement for independence, with the prospect of EU accession, underscores the intricate web of (unintended) consequences. Similar dynamics could unfold in Northern Ireland, where questions of identity and alignment with the Republic of Ireland take on new significance within shifting political landscapes.

The Evolution of Sinn Féin: From Past to Present

The current political landscape adds another layer to the evolving narrative. Recent elections in Northern Ireland handed Sinn Féin historic victories, with polls strongly indicating the prospect of Sinn Féin leading the Republic of Ireland’s government, and Mary Lou McDonald is poised to become the new Taoiseach.

Amid these political shifts, it is crucial to acknowledge that the public’s sentiment carries substantial weight. Despite increasing discussion in the public forum, polls show a minority on both sides of the border currently favour reunification or a referendum. Achieving unity requires a seismic shift in societal attitudes, transcending politics alone.

The Border Poll: Paving the Way for the Future

Amid these shifting dynamics, the mechanism of a Border Poll presents another challenge to those that seek unification. This constitutional mechanism, rooted in the Good Friday Agreement and outlined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, stipulates that a vote on Irish reunification must be called if it appears likely to the Secretary of State that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.

However, the Good Friday Agreement does not specify what exactly constitutes a wish for reunification, nor does it specify a parallel mechanism for triggering a border poll in the Republic of Ireland. The path to reunification is further complicated by the fact that once negotiations for a united Ireland are concluded, implementing the outcome would require a constitutional amendment in the Republic of Ireland, necessitating another referendum. This raises questions about whether two referendums should also be held in Northern Ireland.

Envisioning Tomorrow: The Potential of a United Ireland

Amidst the complexities and uncertainties of the reunification process, envisioning a united Ireland offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future. A united Ireland could mean a harmonized island where physical and psychological borders give way to shared aspirations. However, efforts to push a border poll could also potentially escalate lingering tensions and reignite deeply internalized animosities. The preservation of Northern Ireland’s unique identity while embracing its place within a united Ireland, therefore, presents an intricate and dangerous balancing act.

Questions about governance, economy, and identity must find nuanced answers. The potential lies not only in political union but also in the collective realization of common goals—of fostering a society where division yields to unity, where the lessons of history guide the pursuit of lasting peace. However, as long as no majorities emerge, on either side of the border, unification remains only a theoretical option, both for legalistic and political reasons.

About the author:

Kalum Rock is an intern at the Sovereign Europe program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Berlin.

Further Reading:

After the Windsor Framework: The UK’s Search for a Domestic Economic Model and a National Security Strategy Continues

EU-UK relations are low on Rishi Sunak‘s pre-budget agenda – though change would benefit both sides

Get out to get on? Levelling Up the UK after three decades of EU cohesion policy