Could Brexit Manage To Unite Ireland?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As Parliament confronts a critical series of Brexit votes, it’s clear that the need to maintain a “soft” border between the Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland is the central issue impeding British withdrawal from the European Union. The proposed “Backstop”, designed to provide time to resolve that problem, could trap Britain in the customs union until 2022.
That is unacceptable to a majority of Prime Minister Theresa May’s own Conservative Party. Yet the only long term solution to maintaining a soft border on the island of Ireland is instituting a “hard border,” in terms of trade and immigration, between Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain. No one wants to confront this inevitability.
All of which suggests a solution no statesman on either side of the Irish Sea has had the courage to champion: Could it be time, after two centuries of tortured history, to finally unify Ireland?
The government of William Pitt the Younger annexed the island in 1801. That was in the wake of a rebellion that threatened to ally the majority Catholic province with Napoleon’s France. For the next 120 years that annexation and its subsequent and turbulent unwinding bedeviled UK politics. Following a two-year war, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December, 1921 established an Irish Free State with Dominion status similar to Canada’s.
It’s important to remember that the treaty included in the Free State the six Protestant-majority counties that comprise Northern Ireland. Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, the British negotiators, were not committed to a permanent partition of the island. But they demanded a treaty proviso that the Northern Irish parliament vote to accept the authority of a Dublin government before it could be imposed.
Dominion status stuck in the craw of Irish Nationalists, and leaders like Eamon de Valera and John Costello spent the next thirty years looking to extricate the Free state from the Commonwealth; but the steps Dublin took did not bode well for reconciliation with the North. The Irish Constitution of 1937 endorsed “the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church” in the country. In the war against the Nazis, Ireland stood neutral, while Northern Ireland fought alongside Britain.
After the war, Dublin passed the Republic of Ireland Act that formally ended all Dominion ties. That same year, 1948, Ireland turned down an American overture to join NATO, spurning any club of which Britain was a member. Clement Atlee’s Labor government, which had severed Britain’s ties to newly partitioned India and Palestine, turned around and enacted the 1949 Ireland Act.
That was the first legislation expressly to state that Northern Ireland could be joined with the Republic only by vote of its provincial Parliament. Yet for 20 years London and Dublin talked past each other over partition. “If a successful solution to the Partition problem is to be found,” one British diplomat wrote in 1955, “it is up to them (the Dublin government) to consider what they can offer to induce Northern Ireland to throw in their lot with the South.”
The Troubles — twenty years of sectarian violence — erupted in the North in 1969. Some 2% of the population was killed or injured. London imposed direct rule and established martial law in the six counties. Peace came with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which devolved power to a joint unionist-nationalist assembly, stipulating partition could only end with the consent of the North via referendum.
Then, a remarkable thing happened. While Northern Ireland burned, Ireland put through in the 1980s a series of supply-side tax reforms. That made the country an attractive base for multinational companies. As reported by the Belfast Times, Ireland’s output is today almost 45% higher than in the North. Average salaries are 30% higher. The North is plagued by weak underlying productivity.
Northern Ireland’s unionist-nationalist power sharing arrangement has failed to produce a functioning government. British taxpayers subsidize Northern Ireland with aid totalling 12 billion euros a year. That is nearly 50% more than the 8.6 billion annual bill for membership in the European Union. The British long to shed both these millstones. So why not give Northern Irish citizenry a push toward union with the South.
Which brings me back to Brexit. Some 56% of Northern voters joined only Scotland and Greater London among UK regions voting to remain in the EU. Recent polls suggest support for “Remain” in the province now exceeds 60%. Like the Irish Republic, the North sees its future as part of Europe. Full integration with the South would only grow the economy faster.
The way things are going in the Irish Republic, where the Irish government has gone so far as to proposed that Catholic hospitals be required to remove crucifixes from wards where non-Catholics are treated, it’s at least possible to imagine the North shedding some of its fear of Catholic domination.
Unification would not be easy. Westminster would need to give Belfast a push. Yet Dublin can no longer default to the Brits to broker a solution. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a gay man of Indian heritage, would also have to step up and “induce Northern Ireland to throw in their lot with the South,” as that frustrated Englishman suggested 60 years ago. A united Ireland, functioning as an enthusiastic EU member, out from under Britain’s shadow, is the ultimate answer to the “Irish Question,” and to the Brexit crisis to boot.
Mr. Atkinson, who covers 20th Century history, is a contributing editor of the Sun. Image: Elliott Banfield.