BELFAST — Among the many ironies of Brexit, this one must rank among the highest. Ultra-British nationalists in Northern Ireland look increasingly likely to deliver what 30 years of violence could not: A vote on the reunification of Ireland.
For nearly a year, negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union have stalled on the issue of Ireland. Brussels and Dublin want a “backstop” that would protect the integrity of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland and prevent the rise of a hard a border between the north and the rest of the island.
The British position is more complicated. Prime Minister Theresa May has said she would reject any agreement that would erect divisions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. — but speculation has mounted that she will nonetheless accept some sort of regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
This, however, would be anathema to the Democratic Unionist Party, the hardcore British nationalists from Northern Ireland that May relies upon to shore up her parliamentary majority. The partys leader, Arlene Foster, has said that any deal that differentiates Northern Ireland from Britain is a “blood-red” line for the DUP.
The partys tactic has been to threaten the Conservatives with withdrawing its support, triggering a Tory backlash thats been swift and cutting.
The people of Ireland, north and south, voted for the Good Friday Agreement in order to bring a political settlement after 30 years of violence.
Add this all up, and its getting hard to avoid the conclusion that Brexit would be a lot easier for the British if Northern Ireland were to vote to break away from the U.K. and rejoin the rest of the island — an eventuality made possible by the Good Friday Agreement, which allows for a so-called border poll, “if at any time it appears likely” that a majority of Northern Ireland would support reunification.
That eventuality is getting more likely with every passing day. While some have suggested that Irish Republicans are using Brexit to campaign for a united Ireland, the simple truth is that they dont have to. Fosters DUP and Mays Conservatives are doing that just fine on their own.
The people of Ireland, north and south, voted for the Good Friday Agreement in order to bring a political settlement after 30 years of violence. The agreement is vital to protecting citizens rights and identities. Foster, whose party opposed the agreement, is telling us its not sacrosanct. That makes people jumpy.
The DUPs fundamentalist Christian viewpoint also doesnt sit well with many in the north of Ireland who look to the south and see a modern, pluralist, inclusive society that has passed referendums on marriage equality and reproductive rights; rights opposed by the DUP.
Road markings turning from yellow to white to signal the border crossing between Ireland and northern Ireland | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
With the influence of the Catholic Church now practically nonexistent in Irish society, the old fear factor of “Home Rule is Rome Rule” is gone.
That doesnt even take into consideration higher economic activity rates, better wages and an industrial output in the Republic that is 10 times that of Northern Ireland. A united Ireland in which the average annual wage is €45,000 rather than €30,000 isnt looking too shabby to many unionists.
Its almost like the British government has given up on the north.
For decades, the Conservative and Unionist Party has done nothing to solve Northern Irelands problems. Neglect and lack of infrastructure investment have left the north of Ireland with barely any railways and two motorways that end in the middle of nowhere. Its not exactly the sort of transport infrastructure thats going to attract foreign direct investment to resuscitate a terminally ill industrial sector.
The norths two power stations were allowed to deteriorate to the point of impending obsolescence. We now have a single electricity market on the island of Ireland that a no-deal Brexit would put at risk, fuelling fears of blackouts across the north. The last Conservative prime minster to leave the north could literally be turning off the lights.
For the first time in 21 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there is neither an Assembly sitting in Stormont, nor are there any talks or political initiatives being pushed by Secretary of State Karen Bradley in order to get the institutions up and running again.
“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power” — Edward Carson
Despite all her recent talk about Northern Ireland being an integral part of the U.K., it is evident that Theresa Mays only “selfish strategic or economic interest” is for the duration of this government.
Indeed, given the current mood over Brexit, its hard to argue that many rank-and-file Tory MPs wouldnt quietly support the holding of a border poll — if only to stop talking about “Brexit backstops.”
The DUPs handling of Brexit brings to mind the words of Edward Carson, the former unionist leader who famously said during a 1921 Westminster debate: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”
That might be fine for the DUP. But the rest of Northern Ireland is likely to feel quite differently.
Patricia Mac Bride is a lawyer and political commentator. She tweets at @IRLPatricia