Kindly published with the permission of Kevin Meagher.
In writing this book, let me begin by explaining what it is not. It is not a history book. Clearly, when delving into the political affairs of Ireland, it is impossible for historical events not to play a significant part. Quite unavoidably, they soak onto every page, serving as context for the present. It is not my intention, however, to provide the reader with a comprehensive history either of Ireland or of the Troubles. Where I have employed historical facts I have done so to illuminate and set in context my specific argument about the inevitability of Irish reunification.
Neither have I embarked on a work of political science. Northern Ireland has a burgeoning and erudite community of academics who pore over every event and nuance there in impeccably recorded detail. My intention is not to look at Northern Ireland through a telescope but, rather, to take a step back and gaze at the panorama.
This book is intended to be an extended political argument. The aim is to raise questions that have remained unasked and unheard (and perhaps, even, unthought) in British politics for too long. I am trying to encourage a discussion about the most basic issues in relation to Northern Ireland. Why are we still there? Will we ever leave? What are the circumstances that could propel us to do so? And what arrangements would we put in place instead?
And when I use the royal ‘we’ I mean Britain, or, more precisely, the British political class. This is a book about British politics. I am trying to assess the issues involved in terms of what they mean for the British public and British public debate. This is something of a rarity. Northern Ireland seldom comes up. We are not much interested in what goes on there and don’t really think about the place – a somewhat anomalous situation given the governance of Ireland and latterly Northern Ireland is probably the longest-running fault line in British politics.
Indeed, the ‘Irish Question’ (or, more often, the Irish ‘problem’) has dogged British politics, in one form or another, since at least the time of the 1800 Act of Union and the abolition of the Irish Parliament (if not for centuries before that), as the British state struggled (and, more often than not, failed) to establish a popular mandate to govern the Irish. It is a question/problem that has rolled on into the modern age. During the last three decades of the twentieth century, it took the form of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ (an epic piece of understatement for what amounted to a major secessionist uprising that cost the lives of 3,600 people) and although the past twenty years have seen intensive efforts to secure a devolved local settlement via the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland remains moot.
How could it not? A canter through British–Irish relations over much of the last millennium tells a grisly tale of invasion, subjugation, ethnic cleansing, famine, disease, insurrection, counter-insurrection, retreats, partial victories and brooding stalemates. The province of Northern Ireland was created as a back-foot political compromise in order to split the difference between Republicans vying for national self-determination and Loyalists set on having their identity and local hegemony rewarded.
Yet, here we are, nine decades on, still in possession of the north-east corner of the island of Ireland – six counties of the historic province of Ulster – long past the point when there is any rational reason to remain. Rational, certainly, from the perspective of the people of Great Britain. We have paid a heavy price in both blood and treasure for the failures of successive governments to oversee the British state’s orderly retreat from its oldest colony, a faraway land of which we know and seemingly care little about.
Now, two decades’ worth of incremental political progress is creating space in which the long-term future of Northern Ireland can and should be openly discussed. Part of this involves rehabilitating the concept of Irish unity as the most logical end-point. This is not, per se, to echo Irish Republican arguments, merely to articulate the most obvious destination of the current direction of travel.
Physically, socially and politically remote from the rest of the UK and unviable as an economic entity in its own right, Northern Ireland’s endurance for nearly 100 years is merely testament to the indolence of a British political class that has been content to keep the place at arm’s length.
While the principle of consent – that there should be no change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of the majority who live there – was hard-wired into the Good Friday Agreement settlement in 1998, it also effectively placed Northern Ireland in an ante-chamber. If there is, eventually, a majority of people living there who consent to change its constitutional status, the British and Irish governments will facilitate that desire. Nowhere else is Britain so sanguine about sovereignty and it is impossible to imagine in this scenario that, a few ultras apart, the British political class would lift a finger to persuade Northern Ireland to stay in any future referendum campaign on its constitutional status.
Nevertheless, there is a responsibility to be honest about where things may end up. Although political developments in relation to Northern Ireland are usually glacial, the potential value from closer economic integration between the northern and southern parts of the island of Ireland means that the politics will have to catch up sooner rather than later. Equally, demographic and cultural changes in Northern Ireland mean traditionally Nationalist Catholics will probably outnumber traditionally Protestant Unionists within a decade at the most (while the spectre of ‘Catholic Ireland’ is hardly a potent bogeyman in a country that became the first in the world to legalise gay marriage in a referendum in May 2015). This is quite apart from broader issues that may force a reshaping of the United Kingdom from first principles – specifically, the impacts of Brexit, devolution to conurbations within England and the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence within the next decade. To put it bluntly, there may not be a United Kingdom for Unionists to be loyal to.
None of the arguments or analyses put forward is intended to disregard the moral and historical legitimacy of advocating the reunification of Ireland. This book is, though, advancing the proposition that history is propelled along by lots of small strokes of the oar. It is not by grand gestures or dramatic events that a united Ireland will come about, but by the kinds of piecemeal, utilitarian developments that I try to chronicle in subsequent pages.
The arguments I set out to propound in this book are, I think, timely given Northern Ireland is rarely written about or discussed from the British perspective. It is surely right that we ceased to be inhibited from debating what kind of relationship we want to see with our nearest neighbour and trading partner and openly explored the alternatives that best suit the British people, especially when taxpayers pick up a £9 billion annual bill for maintaining Northern Ireland and face lingering security risks associated with the current, faltering, status quo.
Clearly, at the moment, a majority of Northern Ireland’s inhabitants currently wish to remain part of Britain. They are entitled to that view: after all, they live there. But that percentage is shrinking and the days when Unionists could exert a veto on political developments they do not like are surely over. It is entirely legitimate for other voices and different perspectives to now come to the fore, articulating new visions for the future and new models of governing the island of Ireland. Respecting the consent principle is not and should not be a conversation-stopper.
Yet, for too long, British politics has observed a self-denying ordinance from openly discussing what future constitutional arrangements best suit the British people. The relief that the Troubles are over is palpable and there is little interest in doing or saying anything that disturbs this fragile settlement, hence the lack of honest discussion.
This book is a modest attempt to stimulate that debate. It will explore the historical context – how we have ended up where we are and why – before moving on to discuss how different Northern Ireland is to the rest of the UK; the role of economics in driving an all-Ireland dimension; the mood of the Irish Republic towards the question of unity; how the once-difficult relationship between Britain and Ireland has been transformed in recent years, providing a stable context for any change of sovereignty over the north; and offer an examination of the scenarios in which British political elites will be presented with a compelling case for Irish unity in the years to come, whether or not they choose to drive the agenda.