Those marking Northern Ireland’s centenary this summer may wonder how many birthdays it has left.
Driven by demographic changes and accelerated by Brexit, Irish unity is no longer reserved only for pious nationalists, but now recognized as a serious and pressing issue for the governments of Belfast, Dublin and London.
“We look at it in years, not decades,” said John O’Dowd, a politician with the Northern Irish Sinn Féin Assembly, who supports reunification.
“The demographic and political changes taking place in the north and on the island of Ireland will not wait for decades. There is a growing conversation and a growing wave of opinions around it.
Polls suggest that a growing number of people in Northern Ireland, which was established in May 1921 after the partition of Ireland, agree.
A recent survey found that a majority was in favor of holding a unity referendum in the next five years, with 47% currently in favor of staying in the UK and 42% supporting a united Ireland. Among those under 45, reunification led to 47 to 46 years.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has urged the governments in Dublin and London to seriously prepare for the possibility of Northern Ireland leaving the UK in the near future.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which concluded the unrest, a decades-long civil conflict that claimed the lives of thousands of people, says the UK government can call a vote if it feels it is. likely most will choose to leave the union and join a united Ireland.
“I think what the polls are showing is a change in enthusiasm for the idea of a united Ireland and a change in enthusiasm for a referendum,” said Brendan O’Leary, professor at the University. from Pennsylvania, author of several books on Northern Ireland.
“People believe in the aftermath of Brexit that the North’s contentment with the world after the Good Friday deal is no longer settled and that the UK itself is unstable.”
Northern Ireland Protocol
While most people in England and Wales voted to leave the European Union in the June 2016 referendum, 62% in Scotland and 56% in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the bloc.
No part of the UK has been so deeply affected by Brexit as Northern Ireland, whose open border with neighboring Republic of Ireland has proven to be the thorniest issue throughout trade talks on Brexit.
The ultimate compromise was the Northern Ireland Protocol, which in January introduced regulatory and customs controls on imports from the rest of the UK, keeping the North in the EU’s single market and border Irish free of barriers or checkpoints.
But the new customs arrangements have taken their toll on food and parcel deliveries; Supermarket shelves are sometimes empty and several major UK retailers have stopped shipments to Northern Ireland.
The protocol is a “complete disaster,” said Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken, who described the growing anger of his constituents, now burdened with red tape and unknown accusations.
Alongside the ruling Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the UUP has vigorously opposed the Protocol and the so-called “maritime border”, which it says unwittingly pushed northern trade unionists towards an economically unified island. , while offering a boon to the nationalist cause.
“There has always been a push from people who want to see the British identity on the island of Ireland removed. This is just the last aspect of it, ”said Aiken, who wants politicians to focus on Brexit and the effects of COVID-19, instead of a potentially divisive referendum.
“A lot of people saw Brexit as an opportunity to try harder to promote their UK tear-apart goals.”
Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has called for the protocol to be dropped or revised as the dispute between the EU and the UK continues to escalate.
Others went further, with several paramilitary groups announcing last week, via an open letter to the Prime Ministers of Ireland and the United Kingdom, that they were withdrawing from the Good Friday deal.
The Council of Loyalist Communities, which represents the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defense Force and the Red Hand Commandos, said the two governments “will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement” if the protocol is not amended to restore unhindered access to goods and services.
The group rejected any consideration of violence and the desire to avoid conflict is almost total, in nationalist and unionist communities.
But the shadow of unrest persists and inter-community relations remain strained in many areas.
The partition of Northern Ireland in 1921 gave the predominantly Unionist Protestant community a two-to-one majority over the Catholic community, which largely sympathized with the nationalist cause.
But demographics are constantly changing.
A census due in March is expected, for the first time, to return a small majority of those in Northern Ireland with Catholic heritage.
Younger voters are less likely to subscribe to the nationalist-unionist binary, placing more emphasis on EU membership, healthcare and social policies.
Sinn Féin, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group, has in recent years honed its social democratic credentials, riding a wave of anger over poor housing and healthcare to finish in second place in last year’s Irish elections. .
His unity speech highlights the benefits for the gloomy northern economy, promising more investment and employment opportunities to attract those outside the traditional nationalist fold.
The UUP and DUP have proven to be less adaptable in broadening their base, with the latter’s support for Brexit and the UK’s ruling Conservative Party now appearing to be a critical critical error.
The Alliance, a strongly pro-EU and union neutral centrist party, has succeeded in attracting many young Protestants and is currently only voting one point behind the DUP ahead of the elections to the Assembly of may.
According to O’Leary, these voters will likely play a central role in a referendum. The progress of Brexit and the Scottish independence movement will have a major influence on their thinking.
“The generations under 45… didn’t want to see Northern Ireland leave the EU and see the Republic as a very different place than it was [1950s nationalist prime minister] Eamon de Valera or his successors and predecessors, ”he told Al Jazeera.
However, Aiken, whose UUP preferred to remain in the EU, is convinced that British identity will eventually trump pro-European sentiment.
“If it’s a choice between the EU and the UK, I choose the UK every time,” he said. “And the majority of people in Northern Ireland will do the same.”
‘A new era’
The wording of the Good Friday deal leaves some ambiguity as to when the UK government should hold a referendum.
The constitutional unity of University College London suggests that a consistent majority in opinion polls, a nationalist majority in the assembly or an assembly vote in favor of a united Ireland could all take into account account. All stay in a few years.
For now, the new Shared Island Unit, an initiative of the Irish government, provides a platform for increased cooperation between Belfast and Dublin on cross-border issues, while civil nationalist groups like Ireland’s Future advocate for an inclusive dialogue between all parties.
O’Dowd of Sinn Féin thinks trade unionists may in fact find themselves with more influence in a united Ireland, which is no longer held back by the English nationalists who pulled them out of the EU.
“The thing to learn from the partition of Ireland about 100 years ago is that when you impose solutions on the minority and ignore that minority it causes problems,” O ‘said Dowd.
“So what we need to do is make sure that the minorities on the island have a place in shaping a new era.”