Yes. But it’s complicated. The people of the island can vote themselves into a single jurisdiction, creating a thirty-two-county sovereign Irish nation. And they may well do so in the next decade or so.
Ireland’s Future and other nationalists say that they want unity by agreement, but a day may come when they can achieve it by demographic advantage, regardless of what Northern Protestants want.
And if unification does happen, there is the chance it might not be a happy marriage. Some experience suggests it will work out okay. A Protestant minority found peace and stability in time within an uncongenial Irish Catholic state. And since that state is no longer Catholic, assimilation should surely be easier for the Protestants of the northeast. But there is another geographic consideration which is not obvious from the air but can be understood at ground level: that these communities in the North identify with territory and govern it at local government level. Disaffected Protestants, absorbed grudgingly into a united Ireland have the potential to be a truculent enclave in a way that the Protestants of the South did not.
We can be too blithe about how the people who would vote against unity might reconcile themselves to it. Kevin Meagher, for instance, says it’s regrettable that Protestants don’t recognise the Irish flag as including them and symbolising peace between orange and green. But that’s like saying the Irish-identifying Catholics of the North should recognise that the Union Jack incorporates the cross of St Patrick. The reality is that both communities have seen the flag of the other used at street level as a marker of territory in which they are not welcome.
For all that southern Protestants felt alienated by the revolution and lost many of their big houses, the main upsurge of violence against them was brief and may not have left the legacy of trauma and grief that three decades of Northern Irish violence did. That simmering hurt will resist assimilation.
And how well would Protestant unionist culture fit in anyway? At its most vocal and trenchant it comes across as conservative, chauvinistic and religious. It strikes many modern commentators and observers as simply eccentric. They see this ethnic group as one to be won over, brought into the modern world, talked sense to. I prefer to start by acknowledging the fact of their existence and the need to seek accommodation with them, understanding that if they are dismissed as foolish and irrelevant then, inevitably, they will object to that and become more difficult to deal with.
Still, they surely understand that they do not have the influence they had in the past, that their population is in decline, in real terms and in proportion to the rest of the population. And we have seen that they are diverse within themselves, so that a truly ardent core that would resent all around them might be much smaller than the supposed ‘million Protestants’ of ready cliché.
One day the British government, through the Northern Ireland secretary of state, will be obliged under the Good Friday Agreement to call a referendum on Irish unity when the prospect is judged to exist that it would be carried. Since the Irish government cannot risk being taken by surprise, it must logically prepare for this. It will have to seek negotiation with the British on the terms of the deal if it is not to be lumbered with the North without knowing, for instance, who is to pay for pensions and at what rate. Without prior negotiation it may find itself having to conduct its own referendum, at a date chosen by the British. This is a vulnerability it perhaps should not have conceded in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, but it is too late now to get the rule changed.
The Agreement says that in Northern Ireland the vote delivers a mandate for Irish unity if 50 per cent plus one of votes cast are for it. That is a clause the parties might have agonised over a little longer if they had already had the experience of the Brexit referendum and the disruption created by a radical change being delivered by a slim majority.
On the other hand, to say that a greater than 50 per cent plus one vote would be needed to affect change would be to place a higher value on a unionist vote than a nationalist one, and the obvious injustice of that would hardly have been tolerated, least of all by those who were accustomed to expressing their umbrage by bombing London skyscrapers or shooting at the police.
While a requirement on the secretary of state to call a referendum when there is a prospect of success may read like a great opportunity for those who want unification, it might actually push it further back than they would like. It effectively means a referendum can be refused until the British government is confident that most voters in the North want a united Ireland. There is no prescribed yardstick for that judgement, only the common-sense likelihood that the minister making the call will play it safe. No secretary of state will want to risk being proven wrong by calling a vote too early.
It is also possible that a British government could call a referendum outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement at a time of its choosing, as Prime Minister Edward Heath did in 1972. Then Heath’s point was to demonstrate that there was no possible majority for unification and to remove the demand for a united Ireland as a plausible solution to the violence. But when one is called under the Good Friday Agreement, on the judgment of a British secretary of state that a majority is now ready for a united Ireland, the secretary of state’s credibility will be on the line. Is it really conceivable that, having made such a hugely disruptive political decision, the secretary of state would ardently campaign for a result that suggested the call had been the wrong one?
I think at that point the British government would want to have negotiated a package with the Irish government, which the two governments would jointly commend to the electorates of both jurisdictions. The alternative might be a no-deal unification with protocols having to be worked out afterwards. The memory of how badly Brexit was managed is bound to alert them to what could go wrong. The question is whether they could avert such a calamitous repetition of past mistakes.
Theoretically the British would be obliged by the principles of the Agreement to be neutral, to stand over their claim that they had ‘no selfish or strategic interest’ in Northern Ireland. In reality they would have moved closer to meeting a key peace process demand of Sinn Féin, which they had till then denied: that they be persuaders for Irish unity.
The simple incentive to keep this tidy and get it done in one vote would be that they might condemn themselves to going through the whole thing again every seven years until unity was either achieved or comprehensively wiped off the table. The only obvious way that could happen would be through a No vote in the South.
Negotiations with the Irish government would have to start before the moment at which Britain would be obliged to call a referendum, yet entering into these preliminary negotiations with the Irish, short of an inevitable majority in the North for unity, would be hugely destabilising. Unionists would realise that they were about to be dumped and there has always been a section of unionism which has threatened war when insecure.
The Irish would need those negotiations too, because they would be in no position to make demands of Britain after the issue was decided. So we are likely to see energetic political activism around the demand for a united Ireland colouring all political debate in both parts of Ireland, and a high degree of anticipation or apprehension, for years before the vote is actually held.
There will likely have to be at least three years of negotiation between Britain and Ireland before the border poll is called. Then the question put to the voters will not be a simple yes/no to unity. It will be a vote on the terms for unity as laid out in a British-–Irish agreement or protocol. But protocols get challenged and some who want a united Ireland might vote against that agreement and campaign on for a unity on different terms. With Brexit, agreement was signed at the last moment, and moral pressure and the imminent risk of no deal obliged doubters to vote for it. One can easily imagine intense negotiations up to a deadline and a shaky compromise being sold as an historic breakthrough.
Another possibility is that Britain and Ireland would not reach agreement, but Britain would have to call a referendum anyway, as mandated by the Good Friday Agreement. That creates the nightmare of the Republic acquiring responsibility for six orphan counties without any alimony mandated from the previous guardian.
Even if the vote passed on both sides of the border, there would be a further complication. There would then have to be an all-Ireland referendum on changes to the constitution. Already, some diplomats are wondering how to cope if the border poll referendum passed but the constitutional changes were rejected.
None of this was thought out during the negotiations to the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement clearly presumes that a majority of people in the Republic already want unity, so doesn’t accommodate the prospect that they might not, or that they might have conditions in mind which Britain might reject. Some have argued that a referendum in the South would not even be needed. Barra McGrory, a Queen’s Counsel and former Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, was quoted in a BBC report in October 2021 saying, ‘There’s no constitutional requirement south of the border, nor is it in the Good Friday Agreement. I’m always surprised by some of the articles I read in the media that there have to be referendums north and south on Irish unity.’
However, the constitution of the Irish Republic, Bunreacht na hÉireann, says it is the ‘firm will of the Irish Nation’ to unite all the peoples ‘with the consent of the majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island’. So there will have to be some determination of the will of the people in the South, though perhaps this could be done by a vote in the Oireachtas.
Even a narrow rejection of unity by the North would lead to instability. We would be facing into a further seven years of debate and contention, for the Agreement allows for the vote to be held again and again at seven-year intervals. We might suppose too lightly that those seven years would allow for a further demographic tilt towards nationalism, simply deferring the inevitable. Unionists, fearing the same might leave, or they might rally for more ardent campaigning. Who knows what exasperation with that might lead to or what calculations loyalist paramilitaries might make? Would attacking the South make voters think again about taking responsibility for a troubled region or might it make them think that uniting the country was all the more urgent to prevent war?
Neale Richmond foresees that a narrow or negative vote in the South, combined with a narrow vote against unity in the North, would disillusion the floating voters in Northern Ireland. They might conclude that they had committed their energies to a cause that had failed and might urge that, rather than enter a seven-year cycle of referenda, they would prefer to leave partition in place. Then, when called to vote again after seven years, they would seek to finally kill off the idea of a united Ireland for the sake of removing the question of unity from the centre of all political activity.
But what if, at the first vote, a majority in the Republic rejected unity but the North voted for it? This would be traumatic for the nationalist community. Having voted for a united Ireland they would have no case to make for successive seven-year votes in the North. They could plead with the South to vote again, of course, or they could challenge the legitimacy of the southern vote, or they could finally reconcile themselves to making their future with their neighbours in Northern Ireland. Many people in Northern Ireland have already done that, as polls attest.
It would be a problem for the Union too, for it would be confronted with clear evidence that one member wanted out but had nowhere to go, like a spouse having sued for divorce but unable to leave the house, the new lover who promised so much having suddenly lost interest.
Doug Beattie made a claim in our interview for the April Fortnight, that the ascent of Sinn Féin in the South actually threatens the prospects of a united Ireland, as it will scare off northern middle-grounders who might otherwise be persuadable. The problem for Sinn Féin, and the DUP too, is that neither can deliver a majority for the outcome it wants in a border poll. Each has to campaign for the referendum in a way that contradicts how it campaigns in elections. Sinn Féin commits to preserving the legacy of the Provisional IRA. Having led the Provos away from violence and into politics, it cannot now disown them entirely, even to gain political advantage. That sets a limit to its support.
Similarly, the DUP, even in amicable combination with other unionist parties, cannot deliver a majority against Irish unity exclusively from their own electoral base. The pro-Union cause would need more votes than all the unionist parties together can command in elections. Usually about 60 per cent of the electorate votes in an Assembly or Westminster election in the North. The referendum on the Good Friday Agreement had a turnout of 81 per cent. So, about a quarter of those who voted for the Good Friday Agreement were people who didn’t vote for any political party. Their motivation was presumably peace and stability. The turnout in the Republic was only 56 per cent, suggesting a lack of passion for the same issue.
In the North the question of unity will be decided in the most trying of times by those who have least passion for it. They will vote pragmatically so they will need to know that the country will be stable after the vote. They will understand that sectarianism will not end with the unification of Ireland. In the new Ireland there will still be Orange parades in the North, outrageous bonfires and occasional riots. The difference will be that it will be the job of the Irish government to police them. When they realise how hard it will be to reach a stable agreement they may think it isn’t worth the trouble.
Note: Since publication, Brendan O’Leary has expressed the view in his book, Making Sense of a United Ireland, that it would be for the Irish government alone to devise a package to be voted on and Oran Doyle, in a review of this book in The Irish Times, has claimed I am incorrect in suggesting that a further referendum on the constitution of a united Ireland would be required. Time will tell, or maybe it won’t.