Could the Brexit unite Ireland?

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said in a speech Monday that a border vote could be triggered if there is evidence that a majority of Northern Ireland's people wish to unite with the Republic of Ireland following the Brexit. 

Neil Hall/Reuters
Britain's new Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, leaves Number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain in July.

The decision to leave the European Union in the country’s June referendum has shaken to the core not just Britain, but its neighbor to the west.

Enda Kenny, Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, says that the Brexit could prompt Northern Ireland to move toward unity with the rest of Ireland.

In June’s Brexit referendum, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, with 62 percent of Scottish citizens and 56 percent of Northern Irish citizens voting to stay. Now, with so many Northern Irish citizens voting to stay within the EU, an institution that the United Kingdom has decided to leave, Mr. Kenny said in a speech MacGill Summer School in Co. Donegal Monday that the Brexit referendum could trigger another referendum in Northern Ireland to determine whether the six counties will remain in the United Kingdom or instead unite with the Republic of Ireland. 

“The Brexit vote moved the issue of Irish unity from off the stove to the back burner,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “it put the issue on the agenda.”

Following the more than two-year Irish War of Indepenence between the Irish Republican Army and the British state, Ireland was partitioned 1922 into Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State, which remained a dominion of Britain until ultimately becoming a fully independent republic in 1949. For decades, the Catholic nationalist minority and unionist Protestant majority in Northern Ireland were embroiled in violent conflict over the nature of the Northern Irish government.

Finally, in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement established principles of fairness in government, according to a New York Times op-ed by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, in an attempt to end the violence that had torn Northern Ireland apart for decades. Given that a substantial portion of North Ireland’s population wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and that a substantial portion of the population wished for a united Ireland, the agreement established the grounds under which Ireland could be united.

According to the Good Friday Agreements, Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom until it is clear that a majority of the people of both Northern Ireland and the modern Republic of Ireland wished for a united Ireland. Seventy-one percent of Northern Irish voters agreed to the Good Friday Agreements, alongside 94 percent of Republic of Ireland voters.

“If there is a clear evidence of a majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic,” said Mr. Kenny, “that should be catered for in the discussions.”

Kenny has received criticism for his remarks, with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician Ian Paisley saying that neither Northern Ireland nor the Republic of Ireland is likely to be interested in unity in the near future. Mr. Paisley also accused Kenny of using the prospect of unity with Northern Ireland as a political tool.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has also dismissed talk of a referendum. Although he himself was publicly in favor of remaining in the EU, Mr. Brokenshire told the BBC that citizens need to respect the Brexit referendum vote.

“The Brexit vote changes nothing materially,” said Bruce Newsome of University of California, Berkeley, in an email to the Monitor. “Britain and Eire already had agreements for a customs-free border, irrespective of their obligations to the EU; their security arrangements are also unaffected, are perhaps the closest amongst any two neighbors in Europe.”

Dr. Newsome also tells the Monitor that the Brexit vote changes nothing morally or intellectually between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – many of those who voted to remain in the Brexit referendum were Northern Irish Republicans, a group that has few representatives in the British Parliament.

According to Newsome, a unified Ireland would be “financially stronger by scale.” Were Northern Ireland to seek a referendum, and then unify, with the Republic of Ireland, revenue from Northern Ireland that currently goes to the United Kingdom would no longer flow out of the unified country.

At the same time, however, the British government currently spends a great deal in Northern Ireland, meaning, as Newsome told the Monitor, that “Eire would be accepting the same net outlays if it agreed to unify with Northern Ireland – a bit like West Germany's acceptance of the economic millstone that was East Germany in the 1990s.”

In all likelihood, then, a Northern Ireland referendum is unlikely, at least in the near future. But, as Dr. Haass told the Monitor, the Brexit has at least raised discussion around the idea.

What happens going forward, Haass says, depends on the terms of the agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union, as well as on what Scotland decides to do as a result of the vote.

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