It is a bittersweet irony that the border in Ireland, which was completely ignored throughout the Brexit campaign in Britain, has become the single biggest and seemingly intractable issue in British politics. Grave concerns about the threat of Brexit to jobs, the economy and our peace process were repeatedly voiced by activists in Ireland yet these cries fell on deaf ears across the Irish Sea. To many of us, this is unsurprising. Britain has never paid much heed to Ireland.
Despite this, Brexit has forced a reluctant British political establishment to at least acknowledge Ireland’s precarious position. Various ideas have been offered to solve the issue of the border, from remaining in the single market and customs union to the much-discussed backstop to other all-island proposals. Each of these ideas has its own merits as well as its detractions. One particular solution, enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement, has been noticeably missing from much of the debate: a united Ireland. What better solution to the border problem than to get rid of the border altogether?
The mechanisms for achieving the reunification of Ireland already exist. To trigger this process, a border poll in the North and a concurrent referendum in the South must both return majorities in favour of a united Ireland. While the outcome of such a large-scale democratic exercise cannot be known until it is tested, polling suggests strong and growing support for Irish unity across the island. In an exit poll conducted by RTÉ/TG4 during elections in the South earlier this year, 65% of voters indicated that they support a united Ireland. On the other side of the border, a recent poll published by Lord Ashcroft reported that 51% of respondents in the North would vote for a united Ireland if a border poll was held tomorrow. In light of this, it is worth discussing Irish unity in the context of Brexit.
First and foremost, it would reflect and respect the democratic decision of people in the north of Ireland to remain within the EU. To recap, 56% of voters in the North rejected Brexit in 2016 yet the British government is attempting to drag us out of the EU against our will. Crucially, the European Council has already confirmed that the North will automatically re-enter the EU without needing to apply in the event of a united Ireland, thanks in no small part of the work of Sinn Féin MEPs.
Irish unity would also remove the unconscionable threat of customs checks and physical infrastructure in Ireland, otherwise known as a hard border. After all, without a border, there would be no need for checks whatsoever. The gravity of this matter cannot be overstated. A no-deal Brexit threatens 40,000 jobs in the North and a further 50,000 in the South, with severe disruption to the free movement of goods and services across the border upon which our businesses depend for survival. A united Ireland will both protect and enhance the all-island economy to the benefit of everyone who lives here.
Even more pressing is the threat that Brexit poses to the ongoing peace process that has been so carefully fostered over the last twenty-five years. A hard border would be a flagrant violation of the Good Friday Agreement, which forms the bedrock of peace on our island. The memory of militarised watch towers is still fresh in the minds of those of us who grew up under their shadow. No matter what happens, there can be no return to the dark days of the past.
Irish unity is a win-win-win for Ireland, Britain and the EU. In addition to solving the aforementioned issues, it removes a huge hurdle to the Brexit negotiations. Upon meeting the newly appointed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron raised a few eyebrows when he publicly stated that Irish reunification “would solve all the problems” pertaining to the current impasse. I suspect that this view is shared widely across Europe, including Britain, even if it is not always spoken.
One of the EU’s top priorities is the protection of their single market. Without a doubt, uniting Ireland as a single economic, political and constitutional entity would significantly mitigate disruption to the single market from Brexit. Not only would a united Ireland unstick the Brexit negotiations and protect the single market, it would also enable British and European politics to finally move beyond the all-consuming soap opera that has plagued Britain’s protracted departure from the EU. While perfectly understandable given the importance of the matter, Brexit has been flogged to the point it would make a dead horse count itself lucky.
It is evident that Irish unity solves many if not most of the challenges that Brexit poses to Ireland. As a result, it has now firmly entered the mainstream of public discourse. This is a welcome development. It is imperative that people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to discuss what a united Ireland means for them, whether it’s to express their hopes or voice their concerns. It is equally imperative that we listen to each other with patience and respect. The process of reunification will require input and co-operation from every community that calls this island home.
Unfortunately, this issue has received comparatively less attention from the Irish and British governments but that may soon change. Over three years after the referendum, Brexit is coming down to the wire and a withdrawal agreement remains elusive. It used to be said that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. It now appears that Ireland’s freedom is England’s salvation, albeit to a crisis of their own creation.
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member and activist.