This year marks Northern Ireland’s centenary. But, given the effects of Brexit, few are betting on there being a 125th birthday. While post-Brexit talk of UK disintegration focuses on the more immediate risk of Scottish independence, the narrative rarely excludes the province.
And with good reason. The Brexit terms keep Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union and single market for goods, weakening its legal and commercial ties to the UK. The first weeks of Brexit have amplified this. British retailers halted some supplies while they grappled with the new trade rules. Customs checks stymied hauliers with multiple loads, and there are fears over the looming expiry of a grace period on health certification for food products.
While ruling out an early push for reunification, the Irish Republic is playing a long game. The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, has created a Shared Island initiative, with €500m for cross-border projects. Dublin also took on the cost of keeping Northern Irish students in the EU’s Erasmus university exchange scheme, another tie to the youth of the North. The strategy is plain: polls show higher support for unification among younger voters. Meanwhile, gentrification is loosening the unionists’ grip on old strongholds. One observer highlights the coffee shops springing up in the now-marginal seat of east Belfast.
And yet, there are reasons to resist this easy narrative and unionist fatalism. The arc of history may bend towards reunification but it can be very long. Polling does not suggest a majority in the province for a united Ireland. It also shows deeper ties, such as attachment to the UK’s NHS.
But nationalism has a secret weapon: the Democratic Unionist party. The strategic judgments of the province’s largest party have been among the most consistently witless in recent politics. One Tory MP fumes: “The DUP have done more damage to the Union than the IRA, Sinn Féin and all the nationalist forces combined.”
Consider its record. The DUP backed Brexit but opposed every manifestation of it. There was no deal (including no-deal) that it would support. It shot down Theresa May’s withdrawal plan, which maintained the integrity of the union, allying with Boris Johnson — only to see him sign up to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. In recent days, it has bellowed betrayal over the new customs burdens, demanding the suspension of the protocol governing these arrangements.
There are real concerns. But those closely involved are exasperated at hyperbolic talk of food shortages (as opposed to loss of certain products). They prefer to speak of problems being ironed out thanks to the hard work of business groups and goodwill between the UK and the EU.
Some friction will remain and will have an impact. While major retailers will largely adapt, smaller suppliers may conclude it is no longer worth the hassle to serve Northern Ireland. Some product lines may disappear and businesses may start to look to the EU for suppliers. As EU regulations on goods evolve, Brussels — and Dublin — will exert a greater pull.
But against that are the commercial advantages of being in both the UK and EU single markets — something that a more thoughtful leadership could sell as a benefit of the Union.
This, however, is not the DUP path. With its vote share down 5 per cent at the last election and younger voters going to the nonsectarian Alliance party, the DUP is focused on squeezing the vote of the smaller Ulster Unionist party and stopping nationalist Sinn Féin from emerging as the largest party in the 2022 Stormont elections.
Pragmatism is prevented by power struggles that see DUP leader Arlene Foster battling hardliners, some of whom see leverage in making the renewal of Northern Ireland’s special status an issue in those elections. The idea is to maximise the vote through polarisation: magnifying every conflict to portray the DUP as Union’s true defenders. It may work next year but it is desperately short-termist.
There is a better way: making the “best of both worlds” argument for the Union, which the province’s hybrid state allows.
Staving off reunification means not forcing a choice. It means easing tensions, not provoking them. It lies in retaining younger moderate Protestants and peeling the nonaligned from the nationalist cause. It means winning back people in those east Belfast coffee shops, who look at Britain and Ireland and see modern liberal economies and are repelled by the sectarianism and conservatism of older unionists.
Although the long term drift is towards reunification, a hybrid state could last longer than many imagine. But this demands a shrewd unionist leadership. On current showing, then, perhaps the fatalism is justified.