(*Spoiler: It is still inevitable)
An updated edition of my book, ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About’ is published today (25 January).
A second edition is an invitation for the author to wallow in self-congratulation, or to lament their folly. Like the curate’s egg, my arguments in the first edition, published back in 2016, were good, in parts.
A combination of changing demographics, recent election results, the potential for Scottish independence, the liberalisation of southern Ireland (socially and economically), and an all-pervasive British disinterest in Northern Ireland makes unification, well, inevitable.
Brexit, of course, is an accelerant poured over the dry tinder of these other underlying issues. In response to this combustible mix, Irish unity represents a realistic, practical, and evidence-based proposition; a workable and logical response to the times we are in.
Back in 2016, just after the Brexit result, it was hard to read just how important the UK’s decision to leave the European Union truly was. Now we have some idea. Slower growth, the loss of £600 million of EU finding each year, and a rumbling row about the Protocol that prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland, but results in a de facto ‘border in the Irish Sea.’ It has seen a massive drop in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but a corresponding increase in all-Ireland commerce.
Hardly surprising, then, that chatter about a border poll over the past five years has become incessant. Campaign groups. Blogs. Podcasts. Events. Conferences. The debate, so long a marginal concern among Republicans, has truly moved centre-stage.
A self-confident ‘civic Nationalist’ community leads the charge. People from business, academia, trade unions, charities, and the arts are holding the ring on the discussion. The subject is a constant source of speculation among columnists, writers, and broadcasters. (Since the publication of the first edition of this book, I must have conducted 200 or so interviews about the subject, mostly with British and international broadcasters).
As with the first edition, I am not setting out to provide the reader with a definitive history of Northern Ireland or the Troubles. Nor have I embarked on a work of political science. Northern Ireland has an erudite community of academics who pore over every event and nuance with diligence and expertise, with various sub-academic fields analysing the conflict.
No, my book is intended to be an extended political argument. The aim is to raise questions that remain unsaid and unheard (and even unthought) – especially in British politics – for too long. I am trying to encourage a discussion about the most elemental 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 ultimately a book about British politics. I am trying to assess the issues involved for what they mean for the British public and British public debate. Physically, socially, and politically remote from the rest of the UK, and unviable as an economic entity, Northern Ireland’s endurance for 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 where and whenever possible.
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 as a back-foot political compromise to split the difference between Republicans vying for national self-determination and Loyalists determined to have their identity and local hegemony rewarded.
Yet here we are, a century on, still in possession of the north-east corner of the island of Ireland – six counties of the historical province of Ulster – long past the point when there was any rational reason to remain. Rational, certainly, from the perspective of the British public.
We have paid a heavy price, in both blood and treasure, for the failures of successive governments to oversee an orderly retreat from our oldest colony, a faraway land of which we know and seemingly care little. Now, two decades’ worth of incremental political progress since the Good Friday Agreement is creating space where the long-term future of Northern Ireland can and should be openly discussed. We should seize the chance.
My book is a modest attempt to contribute to 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 future; the mood of the Irish Republic towards the question of unity; and explore 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.
Finally, it offers an examination of the scenarios that British political elites will be presented with in the years to come, whether – or not – they choose to drive the agenda.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About.’ An updated paperback version is published today.