The dust is settling slightly over the weekend, the relief on Friday sadly is once again turning into low level dread. The constructive ambiguity in the UK/EU agreement is wide open to interpretation. Some discussion of this is here on Richard Murphy’s TRUK blog. I’m not sure we are that much further forward but it seems that we can move on to look at the shape of future trade options which will probably a choice between a Norway deal (close alignment with the EU) and a Canada deal. Barnier thinks that the Canada deal is the only one that is possible.
There are assurances regarding Northern Ireland but are these simply weasel words on the UK’s part?
One option for Northern Ireland, which removes the border problem, is Unification. Certainly on the ground in Belfast in a fine article in Slugger O’Toole by Brendan Heading, How brexit is destroying NI’s centre ground – and could take the Union with it, things seem to be changing:
But the tenor of the present-day debate in general has led me, and I believe many people in the centre ground, to reach the point where we are struggling to find reasons to support maintaining the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Anecdotally, I’ve found many of my friends feel the same way. I can’t say how many of us there are, and I can’t claim to be representative. What I do know is that in my wider social circle people who would never have even considered discussing reunification are now giving serious thought to how it could be satisfactorily accomplished.
I believe, without some sort of reversal, and without some sort of change in attitude within the ranks of the DUP, that this Brexit process is going to create a new legion of non-nationalist supporters of Irish reunification who, within our lifetimes, will vote Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
Recent polls have shown a growing trend towards a UI majority and in a worst case scenario of a “Hard Brexit” the majority of NI people might vote for a United Ireland.
How have we gotten to this position?
1) Brexit, was the definite catalyst and the people of NI voted to stay in the EU most strongly around the border areas.
2) Changing demographics. There is a Catholic majority in all age groups under 46 and politically the Nationalists and Unionists are neck an neck. In the last assembly election Nationalists outnumbered Unionists (just) for the first time ever.
3) Northern Ireland is not doing well. At the time of independence in 1922 80% of all the industrial output in Ireland was in the three counties surrounding Belfast. Currently only around 10% of industrial output is in NI and that seems likely to decline further. The province is kept afloat by large injections of cash from the UK government of around 25% of its GDP and even then it is one of the poorest regions in the UK.
4) Economic changes in Ireland. The South has being doing very well and is now considerably richer than the North. The education system is better than the UK and the health system is improving, so much so that a recent study in the Lancet placed Ireland well above the UK in global rankings (IRL 13th and UK 30th in world rankings). Ireland is moving towards a NHS style system SlainteCare but with integrated Health and Social Services. The NHS sadly is chronically underfunded and seems to be in real difficulty.
5) Cultural changes in Ireland. The Taoiseach, gay, half Indian, running a country that became the first one to legalize gay marriage in a referendum. I can’t help thinking that to a small u (someone who is Unionist more out of habit than conviction) , gay or liberal protestant, being united with the South (where Unionist traditions, identity and culture were enshrined and safeguarded) would feel more of a home. The South has changed so much, that the same arguments that made sense 100 years ago, Home Rule Means Rome Rule, won’t make sense to quite a few moderate unionists, whether Catholic, Protestant or non aligned.
6) A gradual change in Protestant or Unionist attitudes. The unionists are not a monolith of non compromising fundamental protestants: flat earthers, creationists and climate change deniers more fit for a 17th century world. This is very unfair, and incorrect many younger Unionists are not characterized by the DUP.
Of course a Border poll has been vetoed by the DUP in the short term but the situation is very fluid. It is perfectly possible that NI wont even see its 100th birthday in 2022.