How Brexit revived the nationalist dream of a "united Ireland"

This week's abortion vote, and the rise of nationalist leader Mary Lou McDonald, show how fast Ireland is changing

Published May 27, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Mary Lou McDonald (Getty/Daniel Leal Olivas)
Mary Lou McDonald (Getty/Daniel Leal Olivas)

It would be a most historic irony if Brexit — the United Kingdom’s push for separation from the European Union — inadvertently led to the reunification of Ireland, separated by British-imposed partition almost 100 years ago.

But the current political climate has given Irish republicans a renewed sense of hope that their long-awaited dream could be somewhere on the horizon. For them, Brexit could be a blessing or a curse.

Brexit is a messy affair. London can’t simply cut and run, particularly when it comes to Northern Ireland. A clear majority in the British province in the northeastern quadrant of the island of Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Furthermore, thanks to a hard-fought peace process, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — once a heavily fortified focal point of violence during 30 years of sectarian conflict — has become completely invisible and irrelevant in daily life.

When Brexit becomes reality, with the Republic of Ireland remaining in the EU, that border once again becomes a problem. For months, London, Belfast and Dublin have argued over how to how avoid a return to border checkpoints or any kind of physical border infrastructure reminiscent of its violent past — while still allowing the the UK to exit the EU customs union, which allows for tariff-free trade between EU members. In this context, the messy prospect of a united Ireland has been the elephant in the room.

Poised to take advantage of this Brexit-induced mess is Sinn Féin, the political party once regarded as nothing more than the political wing of the IRA — the republican paramilitary group who for decades waged an armed campaign in the North against British rule.

If you had suggested 10 years ago that Sinn Féin (“Ourselves Alone,” in the Irish language) could become the second most popular political party in the Republic of Ireland by 2018 (depending on which polls you’re looking at), most people would have assumed you were drinking crazy juice.

But with the decay of conventional political parties -- less pronounced in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe, but still visible -- the left-wing Sinn Féin has been steadily rising. It had just one member of parliament in Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament) in 1997, but has 23 members in 2018. At the same time, Sinn Féin has grown to be the second largest party in the North — and is expected by some to be the biggest party there within a few years.

More remarkably, Sinn Féin has managed to achieve this success despite relentless attacks from Irish media, which seems to be almost unanimously aligned with establishment parties and determined to present Sinn Féin as illegitimate.

But Sinn Féin’s biggest hurdle has always been its own history. It has struggled to shake off associations between itself and the IRA’s armed campaign. For the 34 years that Gerry Adams led Sinn Féin, the question of his personal involvement with the IRA has plagued the party. For Sinn Féin to reach new heights, it was clear the party would need a fresh face and some kind of rebranding.

After years of harsh austerity measures imposed by coalition governments made up of the more traditionally popular parties, Sinn Féin has branded itself as the natural alternative, the party of the people — something which the now almost irrelevant Labour Party tried and failed miserably to become.

It is a rebranding that comes off as sincere. While there is a sense that many in the traditionally popular parties jumped on the bandwagon of social change — supporting marriage equality and abortion rights — because they knew which way the political winds were blowing, there is no question that modern Sinn Féin is deeply wedded to the ideals of social justice and equality.

That image has been compounded by the replacement of Adams with new party leader Mary Lou McDonald, a 49-year-old mother of two who grew up in a middle-class Dublin neighborhood, studied English literature at the most prestigious university in the country — and is no one’s idea of what a typical “Shinner” looks like.

That is part of McDonald’s appeal. She has never been personally associated with the IRA, or Northern Ireland's violent past, the way Adams was — and she is well-liked and well-respected across much of the political spectrum for her down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to politics. After only three months on the job, Mary Lou — known on a first-name basis — is the second most popular party leader in the country, according to recent polls. “I’m not a Shinner, but I love Mary Lou” is not an unusual thing to hear in discussions of Irish politics.

Until now, the prospect of a united Ireland seemed so unrealistic that it barely warranted discussion. But various factors — including Sinn Féin’s remarkable rise, north and south — have lined up to make the discussion inevitable. At the same time, across the water in London, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — a man who has long expressed sympathy with the Irish republican cause — could well become the UK's next prime minister.

In Northern Ireland, unionists -- meaning the largely Protestant majority who favor the province remaining part of the UK -- no longer have the numbers and strength they used to. The demographics and politics of Northern Ireland have changed dramatically. According to the 2011 census, children born since 2008 were recorded as 31 percent Protestant and 44 percent Catholic. Gone are the days when Protestant unionists ruled the roost and Catholic nationalists were completely locked out of decision-making — an injustice that ultimately led to the 1960s civil rights movement and the period of "Troubles" between 1968 and 1998.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has only marginally held its position as the North's largest party and its leader, Arlene Foster, saw her approval rating plummet to just 29 percent last year after various scandals, which ultimately led to the collapse of Northern Ireland's "devolved" or semi-autonomous government.

One of the catalysts was the DUP’s refusal to support Sinn Féin’s Irish Language Act, which would give the Irish language official status in the North and provide for Irish language place names on road signs. Foster ironically complained that such status for the Irish language would mean “cultural supremacy” for nationalists over unionists.

Today, many in the North look across the border to the Republic of Ireland (once perceived as culturally backward) as a more forward-looking, progressive society. That image has been bolstered by recent votes to legalize both gay marriage and abortion — both of which are rights that citizens of Northern Ireland still don’t have (and which the DUP does not support). Many in the North are fed up living in what they regard as a beggar state, feeling like second-class citizens. They are technically UK citizens, but are not afforded the same rights as those on the British mainland, and technically “Irish,” but without the same rights as those south of the border.

As one analyst put it, Brexit may simply be the “accelerant poured over the dry tinder of electoral, demographic, economic and constitutional changes that will deliver a united Ireland whether or not Britain self-ejects from the European Union.”

Last year, an Oireachtas (Irish legislature) report for the first time ever outlined what a peaceful reunification might look like. The Good Friday Agreement, signed 20 years ago, which ushered in a new era of peace in Northern Ireland, provides for future self-determination by the people north and south. If a vote for a united Ireland passed, the process of reunification could begin.

But this is Northern Ireland we’re talking about. It’s never going to be simple. It may seem that the political stars are aligning for a united Ireland, but there are huge hurdles to jump before it could ever become a reality.

The most obvious problem is the potential economic impact. Northern Ireland receives about €6 billion in funding annually from London. If reunification happens, that money will have to come from somewhere else — and Dublin doesn’t exactly have billions burning a hole in its pocket. It’s unrealistic to think that London is going to bankroll the North out of pure generosity until a united Ireland can get back on its feet — although the Oireachtas report suggests exactly that; that London should pay for the North for 30 years after a vote for reunification — something that would undoubtedly be a tough sell to the British public.

Some of the money required to support a united Ireland could feasibly come from the EU, but Brussels isn’t going to pay the whole tab, either. That leaves higher taxes, which isn’t a prospect anyone would be too happy about. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Some experts have predicted that Ireland would ultimately be economically better off as a united republic, to the tune of €36.5 billion over the first eight years. Sinn Féin, unsurprisingly, has argued that a united Ireland would not be as expensive and economically disastrous as some other estimates have predicted.

But the biggest difficulties to overcome may not be economic. The Oireachtas report on reunification recommended the setting up of a task force to counter any potential breakout of violence or terrorism during or following reunification. Deep cultural divisions and psychological fault lines still run through Northern Ireland, where every year, unionists still march the streets in a show of allegiance to the Queen and their British identity and remain terrified by the prospect of ending up in a united Ireland with a large Catholic majority.

These divisions were evident when Sinn Féin’s McDonald, on a recent trip to the Northern Ireland city known as Derry to republicans and Londonderry to unionists, referred to it by both names in an effort to reach across the political and sectarian divide. Staunch republicans were dismayed at what sounded to them like a betrayal, while unionists were less than convinced by her attempt at bridge building. Likewise, unionists (and some in the Republic who want to keep the past in the past) were not happy when McDonald ended her first speech as Sinn Féin president in February with a cry of “Up the republic! Up the rebels! Agus tiocfaidh ár lá!” — the old IRA slogan which means “Our day will come.”

A united Ireland is by no means a foregone conclusion, but if you were looking for a set of political circumstances to make it suddenly seem far more plausible, you couldn’t do much better than Sinn Féin on the rise with a vibrant new female leader, the prospect of a Corbyn premiership in London, a possible second Scottish vote on independence from Westminster, and the winds of social and political change in Northern Ireland blowing in the right direction at exactly the right time.

There are many who will argue that a united Ireland remains utterly impossible at any point in the foreseeable future; there are too many political and economic barriers to jump, that it’s a silly thought entertained only by dreamers. But after legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion in two landslide victories for progress, Ireland is in a dreaming kind of mood.

When and if that day ever comes, all major parties south of the border will be scrambling to take credit — but true credit will be owed to those who never swayed and weren’t afraid to dream.

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By Danielle Ryan

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance journalist, writing mostly on geopolitics and media. She is based in Budapest, but has also lived in the U.S., Germany and Russia. Follow her on Twitter.

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