An Alternative Ulster: How Much Longer Will Northern Ireland Exist?

Brexit’s effects on Northern Ireland have shifted loyalties in the region. How much longer will Northern Ireland exist?

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Molly McLaughlin

After a predictably eventful centenary, not much news has come out of Northern Ireland. Minor disputes concerning the Northern Protocol have continued to occur on occasion, but no policy has been effected that would have any significant bearing on the future of Northern Ireland-E.U. relations. Ongoing Protocol talks between the U.K. and E.U. are expected to conclude by February, before campaigning begins for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in May. With the exception of a bus hijacking by an anti-Protocol group in November, this period of relative inactivity is perhaps a welcome change given the state of affairs at this time last year. What might come from the year following the centenary? 

2021 marked both one year of Brexit and 100 years since the partition of the island of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The ways in which this anniversary was commemorated were contentious– unionists seeing it as a celebration; nationalists seeing it as a solemn occasion, the culmination of a century of injustice for Catholics in the North. 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, in which British soldiers killed 14 unarmed Catholic protestors during a peaceful march for civil rights. 

This came to a head in October, when Irish President Michael D. Higgins declined an invitation by Queen Elizabeth to a service commemorating the Centenary. This action was strongly censured by unionist voices, but, as Derry Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) Member of Parliament (MP) Colum Eastwood noted, this kind of criticism “does not advance the cause of reconciliation, particularly when it comes from quarters that have downplayed and degraded the importance of all-island cooperation for two decades.” 

Sectarian tensions surrounding the centenary were only heightened by the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a longstanding Loyalist paramilitary organization, marched in displays of intimidation in Catholic neighborhoods, threw gas bombs, and hijacked and set aflame buses. One of the most disturbing aspects of these riots was the age range demonstrated in those arrested, with many being in their teens; the youngest only 11 years old. Protocol disputes have been long and ugly, particularly early last year, beginning with the harassment of port workers by Loyalists in Belfast and Larne. Loyalists have begun to reap what they have sown in their Exit vote, though their hatred is directed at the Northern Ireland Protocol rather than at the bigger picture — Brexit itself.

The N.I. Protocol was included in the Brexit deal to prevent the return of the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and consequently to avoid tearing open the fragile wound of the Troubles, which ended 24 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Following short-lived supply chain issues, members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—notably the only party in Northern Ireland that did not support the Agreement—have accused the N.I. Protocol of breaching the Agreement by complicating trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Since last year, the DUP talking point, therefore, has been the complete rejection of the Protocol in any form. Their solution to the Protocol’s alleged breach of the Good Friday Agreement is to nix either one or the other altogether, but to scrap the Protocol would mean scrapping the Agreement, and to scrap the Agreement would erase decades of hard-won peace in the area.

Clearly, the first year post-Brexit has been knotty, to say the least. Northern Ireland has been caught in the crossfire of the U.K.’s (unreciprocated) fight with the E.U., and there is no certain way to safety. Many of these problems can be resolved through Irish reunification, which would take one of Northern Ireland’s feet out of the U.K. and allow it to stand on two feet in a United Ireland. Per the Good Friday Agreement, the secretary of state of Northern Ireland is obliged to call for a referendum whenever “it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” The issue now is determining when that is. Recent polls have shown a majority of respondents in favor of a unity referendum in the next five years and a plurality who believe there will be a referendum in the next ten years.

Once there is a referendum, the Irish and Northern Irish governments must avoid making the same mistakes the U.K. made before and during the Brexit referendum in 2016. There must be a concerted effort to prevent misinformation from spreading, and there should be no set expectation of any one outcome. The Good Friday Agreement lays out the whole plan; if a referendum were so unlikely, it would never have been included in the first place.

Additionally, there must be better engagement toward the public in explaining the details and consequences of any and all outcomes. 13 million eligible voters did not vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum, many of whom felt uninformed and thus apathetic. This cannot happen in the event of an Irish unity referendum. Northern Ireland has experience with informing voters on important referenda — 71 percent of voters voted in favor of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum, with 81 percent voter turnout. Voters knew what they were voting for — booklets containing the full text of the agreement had been delivered to every household in Northern Ireland. This type of transparency is as crucial in the unity referendum of the future as it was in the peace process of 1998.⬩

1 comments on “An Alternative Ulster: How Much Longer Will Northern Ireland Exist?”

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