In a previous article for Challenges NI (Why I'm a Republican), I outlined what I considered to be the economic case for a united Ireland. I also stated that there are “many more, and arguably better, reasons why the North should leave the Union and unite with the rest of the Ireland to create a new, agreed Republic”. In this article I would like to expand upon those reasons. Since I have already put forward the economic case, I will focus on the political and social cases for Irish unity. Each of these three cases - economic, political, and social - are inextricably interlinked but, for the sake of convenience (and to avoid repeating myself), I will try to focus on the latter two in isolation.
The political case exists at two levels, local and national. The North is politically dysfunctional at a local level, exemplified by the ongoing lack of an Executive. The threat of direct rule looms. This isn’t an isolated event; our political institutions are prone to collapse. We endured five years of direct rule between 2002 and 2007. Since 1973, the North has been subject to direct rule for 32 years in total. This is not a sign of a healthy democracy and things aren’t much better at the national level. The North is entitled to 18 - soon to be 17 - MPs in Parliament. Even if Sinn Féin abandoned their popular abstentionist policy, our MPs would still account for fewer than 3% of the total number of seats in the House of Commons. Democracy can only thrive where there is effective representation however what we have is little more than tokenism. At present, laws are legislated in London and imposed in the North by ministers who are not elected by (and are therefore unaccountable to) people in the north of Ireland.
The DUP’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the governing Conservative Party only exemplifies this point further. Despite being in their most powerful possible position in Westminster (and fundamentally undermining the Good Friday Agreement in the process), the best that the DUP could get was a £1bn bung that was likely to be spent in the North anyway. In return, the DUP are required to vote with the Conservative government on confidence motions and, crucially, the Budget. This means that the DUP will support the continuation of austerity in the North, something they’ve previously claimed to oppose. Let’s not forget the DUP’s 2010 election campaign billboard: “I want an MP who answers to us - not the Tories. I’m voting DUP.” The irony is palpable.
How would a united Ireland be different? First and foremost, it would necessitate the eventual dissolution, and possible replacement, of our dysfunctional institutions. Instead of trying to reform manifestly unreformable institutions that collapse under the slightest
pressure, we would have entirely new institutions, either in Dublin or devolved to the province. More importantly, we would have significantly greater, meaningful representation in Dáil Éireann. The North, with its population of 1.88m people, would be entitled to approximately 63-68 TDs in the Dáil. This is considerably more than the paltry 17 seats in the House of Commons that we will soon have.
Even more to the point, we would be entitled to a larger number of seats in a proportionately smaller parliament with a total of 226 seats (currently 158); from having fewer than 3% of seats in Westminster to potentially having more than 30% of seats in Leinster House. This is important. With a much greater say at a national level, our representatives would have a substantial influence over the laws that affect us and the distribution of resources across the island. This is related to the economic case for a united Ireland which I addressed in my previous article. Irish unity will breathe life into our democracy which has been suffocated by British rule since partition.
To avoid labouring the point, I will now discuss the social case for a united Ireland. It is no secret that the North lags far behind Britain and the rest of Ireland on social issues. No other issue exemplifies this fact like marriage equality. Every part of the UK, bar the North, lifted the ban on same-sex marriage in 2014. The Republic of Ireland followed suit one year later in 2015, becoming the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. However the process of introducing marriage equality in the North has been much more arduous. The Assembly has voted on marriage equality five times since 2012. In 2015, on the fifth and most recent vote, the motion passed by a slim majority, however the DUP subsequently vetoed the motion using the controversial Petition of Concern. The lack of progress on social issues is not limited to marriage equality however. The North lags behind on issues of poverty, gender recognition, and abortion access, to name a few.
Unification with the Republic will bring us up to speed with their legislation. If and when the Eighth Amendment is repealed from the Constitution of Ireland, people in the Republic will be able to access abortion services upon request up to twelve weeks from conception, and under certain medical circumstances subsequent to that. This legislation falls short of international standards but it is significantly better than abortion provision in any part of Ireland at present, including the North, and would be a big step forward for reproductive rights. However, like marriage equality, people in the North will not benefit from this legislation while we remain partitioned from the rest of Ireland. A united Ireland would enhance social progress in the North and free us from the reactionary forces that thrive under British rule.
I also believe that unification will benefit the process of reconciliation in the North. The border is a constant reminder that we live in a divided society. This is reflected in our political institutions which require parties to designate as Unionist, Nationalist or ‘Other’. This would no longer be necessary in a united Ireland. Partition is a wound that will continue to hurt until it is healed. While many people in the North are opposed to Irish unity, with understanding, empathy, and proper planning, the old divisions of the past will gradually melt away as the social structures of partition are removed. This cannot happen while partition remains in place and impacts our daily lives.
Brexit threatens to exacerbate this problem further with a potential hardening of the border. This will not only harm the North economically, but socially and politically as well, potentially undoing years of progress. The polarised and acrimonious debate over Brexit in the North is just one example and the UK hasn’t even left the EU yet. Great strides have been made over the past couple of decades to reconcile our differences and build trust however this has happened despite British rule, not because of it. The onus is upon us to protect and promote this progress.
At the risk of repeating myself, the political and social cases for a united Ireland go far beyond anything that I can discuss in a single article. It will hopefully have become clear that these cases, in addition to the economic case, are closely bound up with one another. Together I believe that they provide a strong, coherent, rational thesis for Irish unity. I invite people of differing views to engage in the debate and put forward their arguments. As of yet I haven’t heard any seriously convincing reasons to remain within the Union or delay unification with the Republic. Until then, I will continue to discuss, debate, and campaign for a united Ireland. I fully believe that Irish unity will improve the lives of everyone on this island regardless of their religious, national, or political affiliation. That is why I am a republican.
Cormac Begley is the Administrative Officer for Sinn Féin Ireland and a final year student in Trinity College Dublin.