Brexit was supposed to be simple. All Britain had to do was tell the European Union they were leaving, sign a few forms and be done. It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks. Then Britain would be able to celebrate it new freedom and prosperity now that the shackles of foreign oppression have been removed. Of course, we all know that it hasn’t worked out like that. Three years after the vote and Britain is still in the EU but facing down unprecedented political instability and what economists warn could be an economic disaster. Negotiations proved to be far more complicated than anyone on the Leave side had imagined and the situation is bogged down in endless talks.
Many Irish people are delighted over the situation, seeing this as a modern example of the old nationalist slogan “Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Many hope the political instability and economic uncertainty will finally push Northern Ireland out of the UK and into the Republic. The prospect of a united Ireland is no longer being treated as a utopian dream but instead as a realistic possibility.
However, I fear a united Ireland would end up repeating the mistakes of Brexit and similarly end up as a disorganised mess. There has been no planning for a united Ireland and no one, not even Sinn Féin, knows what it would look like. There is an assumption that we will just tell the Brits to leave and then sit back and enjoy our new freedom and prosperity now that the shackles of foreign oppression have been removed. It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks, right?
We Irish people shake our heads at the blind fanaticism of the Brexiteers who ignored all the warnings from experts about the negative economic impact in their devotion to the cause. Yet the same people ignore or dismiss the warnings from experts who all agree that unification would be a massive economic burden, the only question is how negative the impact will be. There has only be a single study that promises a positive outcome, from an obscure organisation linked to Sinn Féin and whose report is riddled with holes. Studies by economists without a political bias have found unification could cause GDP to drop by 15%, in other words about as devastating as the 2008 financial crisis.
Ideally, there would be a “soft unification” where Northern Irish society would change as little as possible. Stormont would maintain its powers, the PSNI would still operate, the education and health system would stay the same and change would only gradually happen slowly over many years. However, just as Brexit ideologues are pushing for a hard-line, some Republican ideologues would certainly push for a “hard unification” where separate Northern Irish institutions would be quickly abolished and replaced with the institutions of the 26 counties. Brexit shows how quickly the spirit of compromise and moderation can disappear and be replaced with blind devotion regardless of the cost. So far, no one has given any firm information on how hard or soft the unification process would be, yet this would be of vital importance. Expect to hear enormous debate over whether a united Ireland would be a centralised or federal state, as Brexit shows how previously obscure technical issues can become mainstream debate topics.
During the Brexit debate, Northern Ireland was hardly mentioned and the border with the Republic was barely considered. Yet this has become one of the most difficult issues in negotiating the withdrawal, much to the surprise of many Brexiteers. I fear there could be hundreds of potential stumbling blocks in a unification, issues that few even consider, yet could blow up to be of major significance. Many Brexiteers are still stumped as to why the backstop is such an issue and it’s likely Republicans will be stumped over issues they have yet to consider.
The reason the border and backstop have been so difficult is Unionists are deeply opposed to anything that implies Northern Ireland is not the same as the rest of the UK. Yet in the event of unification, many Republicans would be deeply opposed to any implication that the 6 counties are in any way different from the 26 counties. In fact, I know people who refuse to even acknowledge the name “Northern Ireland”, saying no such place exists, there is only the “North of Ireland”. So, while there may be many promises made to Unionists and protections offered, these will be strongly opposed by others, who feel Donegal and Derry are equally Irish, therefore they should be treated the exact same.
For example, it would make sense to keep Stormont functioning post-unification, but this would mean treating the 6 counties as a special zone separate from the rest of the country. Some propose the whole country could switch to a federal system where each province had its own regional parliament in order to keep a uniform political system across the country. However, since independence Ireland has been a heavily centralised state with all political power residing in the Dáil while local government has little power. Changing the entire political system would be an extraordinarily difficult and complicated process and it is unlikely politicians in the Dáil would willingly give up power.
But a province-based system would have a second major flaw because if Stormont became an Ulster parliament, the three overwhelmingly Catholic counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan (where Sinn Féin has very strong support), would join and drown out the Protestants. Stormont would go from roughly evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants to permanent Catholic domination. An Ulster parliament would not be acceptable to Unionists because they know well, they would be in a minority. So, we would have to decide to protect Unionists voice but at the cost of maintaining the Six Counties as a separate entity.
Another complicated issue is healthcare. Health is already a complex political and administrative issue as any familiar with the HSE will tell you. Imagine now adding the complexity of a completely new healthcare system into the mix. Would they be kept separate or merged? Most Irish people would prefer the better-quality NHS system of the North, but it would be an enormous challenge to raise the HSE to that standard. Reforming the health system across the 26 counties would be a challenge by itself, now imagine in a scenario with a dozen other equally difficult challenges and drastically reduced resources to deal with them. Yet the alternative would be even worse as all Northerners, Catholic and Protestant, would be opposed to downgrading the NHS to the lower quality HSE.
Or take education, another complicated system and I say few Southerners know how it functions in the North. Again, would the system of grammar schools and eleven pluses would be maintained in parallel or merged? How would the thorny issue of religious schools be based? As in the Republic, almost all schools in Northern Ireland are run by religious orders, Catholic or Protestant. In the long run, mixed schools are probably the best way to break barriers between the two communities and would be beneficial to the long-term stability of the North. But in the short run, this would escalate tensions, lead to protests and possibly fights among students (teenagers are not known for their restraint and tolerance of difference). Considering the situation would already be enflamed and probably violent, some might feel the time would not be right for intermixing. If Northern schools were to become religious mixed, this would require the same for Southern schools. While I would certainly welcome this, the failed attempts of Ruairi Quinn show this is not as easy as it seems. Either way, this is an issue too important to be left to be decided at the time, it will require major long-term planning.
What would be the role of language in this state? To Nationalists, the Irish language is a core part of our identity and would fiercely resist any attempt to down play it. Yet Unionists have no such connection and view it as a foreign language. They are not going to be comfortable using or even being exposed to it and will certainly protest making it mandatory in school. Whatever government presiding over unification would be caught between a rock and a hard place, between Unionists demanding their identity be respected and not have a foreign language imposed on them and between Nationalists who demand their identity be respected and not have their native language undermined. Each side will be loudly arguing the other side is being extreme and unreasonable, and forcing themselves upon the other. It will take great skill and understanding to navigate such tricky issues and as Brexit shows, the quality of politicians to delicately manage such complex topics leaves a lot to be desired.
Part of the problem is that we don’t really have a similar example to use as a guide. The reunification of East and West Germany is not quite comparable as there was no ethnic divide between them, the division was imposed by the Soviet Union. Yet even there, many East Germans today feel left behind and ignored by West Germans, while many Westerns feel frustrated at having to pay for the burden of the East. A better example would be the Baltic states, which during their period as part of the Soviet Union saw large immigration of Russians. After independence, many left, but many remained often in unclear legal position. Many feel isolated and unwanted in their new state and a sizeable number aren’t even citizens of the new states. Yet the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians believe that they have been the victims of colonisation for centuries and don’t feel too sympathetic to the Russians.
In most, if not all countries with a significant ethnic minority, there is a tension between the majority and the minority. The minority almost always feels ignored and excluded, unable to take full pride in their identity and worried that what they have could be easily taken away. The majority feels burdened and threatened, unable to take full pride in their identity and worried that what they have will be taken away. The minority is afraid of racism and the majority is afraid of being accused of racism. This is not to say that two ethnic groups cannot live together, or multiculturalism is impossible, but merely that it will bring new challenges that some might not be expecting.
All of this is without mentioning the risk of violence, which would certainly increase. If removing the flags from Belfast City Hall could spark riots, imagine what changing the flag of the country itself would do. Some see violence as unlikely in these modern times but remember that in the 1960s Northern Ireland seemed to be a modern prosperous society, progressing beyond the old sectarian divides. The IRA was barely active and it seemed to have little appeal to a new generation. Yet in a short period this drastically changed. Protests lead to clashes, clashes became riots, riots provoked shootings, shootings turned into gun battles and the gun battles became a war.
Yet there are two major differences between the Troubles and a hypothetical united Ireland, one the Irish army is a small fraction of the size of the British army and the Irish state has far less resources to respond to violence. Secondly, Northern Catholics had lived under British rule for hundreds of years, they have never experienced an Irish state. This isn’t the case for Protestants, for them Britain is more real than Ireland, so returning to British rule would not be a wild dream, but a very real option. The IRA never realistically threatened to overpower the British army, but Loyalist paramilitaries could potentially do this to the Irish Defence Forces.
While it is easy to laugh at the awful mess Britain has got itself into over Brexit, if we are not careful, we could also fall into an even bigger mess. The simple sounding solution of unification could turn into a legal quagmire with years of negotiating and political squabbles causing deep political division. There would probably be a sizeable minority that does not accept the result and campaigns to overturn it, possibly through a second referendum or worse through more violent means. While Brexit could cause severe economic damage to the North, a united Ireland would be even worse, as they would lose access to British markets and the Irish state does not have the resources to subsidise them as much as Britain currently does.