The Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK unless the majority of people in the North vote to form a united Ireland, giving the secretary of state the power to call a referendum “anytime it appears likely to him 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”.
Before the Brexit referendum in 2016, it had always appeared unlikely that unionists would consider a united Ireland. However, with the North voting to remain in the EU by 56% despite the leading unionist party the DUP campaigning for Brexit, the atmosphere in the North appears to have changed. The 56% remain vote shows unionists went against their ‘leadership’ and voted to remain in the EU. Furthermore, in the Westminster election in 2019 which essentially became a Brexit type vote where people largely voted on the basis of whether a candidate was pro-remain or pro-leave, leading DUP and pro-Brexit politicians lost seats to pro-remain candidates. In one historic case, veteran DUP politician Nigel Dodds lost his seat to Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane. Emma Little Pengelly also lost her seat to the SDLP’s Claire Hanna. Before the Brexit referendum, the notion of nionist people voting for a nationalist or republican candidate, especially a Sinn Fein candidate, was totally unimaginable. But Brexit has changed everything, and has seemingly put the united Ireland train at full speed. What once may have seemed to be a far off dream only republicans held, is now a practical solution that many people are considering.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, which puts the Irish border in the Irish sea instead of between the North and South was viewed as a total betrayal to unionists, treating Ireland as one island and making the argument for Irish unity that much more logical. A survey stating Conservative members would sacrifice Northern Ireland’s position in the Union to ‘get Brexit done’ further damaged Unionists sense of identity in the Union, with another YouGov poll stating “Mainland Britons are more likely than not to say there should be a border poll in Northern Ireland” and that “Mainland Britons increasingly don’t care if Northern Ireland remains in the Union”. This is a body blow to unionism, to see clearly that the ‘mainland’ don’t particularly care about them.
In direct comparison to the polls taken by mainland Britons, another poll showed an overwhelming 73.1% of people in the Republic of Ireland would vote for a united Ireland (with only 46.8% of Northern Ireland residents stating they would vote to remain in the UK). For many unionists however, just because they want to remain in the EU does not mean they are comfortable with the prospect of a united Ireland. They feel there is no space for them in a united Ireland, that they would not be welcomed and that they would lose their identity. This does not have to be the case. Speaking on the topic of a united Ireland, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said “This will be a collaborative and collective process. We won’t write the blueprint for a new united Ireland. Unionism needs to be accommodated and welcomed and become a very energetic and energising voice, and perhaps a challenging voice, in the debate around Irish unity and in the debate around the securing a referendum on that matter.” She also went on to say that there would still be Orange Order marches in a united Ireland.
The EU has also provided clarification that in the event of a united Ireland, the whole island would be a member of the EU. This promise could attract or even convince unionists to vote for a united Ireland, as EU membership has huge benefits for citizens for the North (receiving £1,200 million from the EU Regional Policy Fund from 2014-2020). For example -Northern Irish farmers, who are now losing CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), the financial support mechanism which makes up an estimated 60% of the majority of NI farmers incomes, would benefit from a united Ireland as they would get CAP back by re-joining the EU, whilst remaining in the UK leaves the replacement of CAP unsure, with no guarantee of the same amount of money being offered. There is no promise that the UK are willing or even capable of replacing such funding. Leading economist David McWilliams has stated “The North has everything to gain from a united island economy, and almost zero to lose”.
It seems that the Irish nationalist community, the Irish government and the EU are making more effort to include unionism in their plans for the future than the English government or their people are. While the polls show the English seem indifferent to unionists' identity or their place in the future of the UK, even the most republican supporters of a united Ireland are expressing their desire to include unionists. Unionists' future in a welcoming united Ireland (and the EU) now seem much more prosperous both financially and culturally than a future in the UK.
Erín Toland is an incoming Peace and Conflict Studies masters student with the Ulster University. She is 21 and a member of Ógra Shinn Féin.