On June 23rd, 2016, the citizens of the UK voted to leave the European Union. This began an unprecedented process of dissociation, commonly known as Brexit. Among the many challenges that Brexit poses is how to handle the border between Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
In the recent past, the “soft” border between the two nations has allowed for the free flow of people and goods. However, if Brexit negotiations fail, a “hard” border will replace the currently soft border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. This presents a problem because under present conditions the border allows for mutually beneficial economic and social exchange, as well as having been instrumental in guaranteeing the Northern Irish peace process.
This border question has troubled Brexit negotiators but in the long term the question has important implications for another political uncertainty that has plagued the region: Irish reunification. The controversy over the Irish-Northern Irish border has brought the reunification issue to the fore among the population of the North.
How Brexit makes Irish Unification more likely
Because of the conditions Brexit has created, British Ulster will eventually sue for reunification over the possibility of a disastrously bifurcated island. The beginnings of reunification were sown long ago in the Good Friday Agreement, but its growth has been accelerated by Brexit.
The 1998, Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has been largely responsible for ending the Troubles, creating conditions for economic growth, and, most importantly for our purposes, allows for a reunification referendum in Northern Ireland. At the time of its passage, this clause of the GFA was inconsequential as a vast majority of Northern Irish citizens would have voted against reunification. But as the years pass, it has increasingly become more likely that reunification through referendum will occur.
Although this issue is immensely complicated, there are three discernible reasons that warrant believing that reunification is rising in popularity among Northern Irish citizens in the wake of Brexit: (1) demographic changes, (2) the influence of Europe, and (3) a likely economic shock.
Even before Brexit, the demographic changes in Northern Ireland have weakened the recalcitrant Unioninst position. Since the GFA passed, more and more British Ulstermen see a reunification referendum as a possibility. But with Brexit looming large most Northern Irish citizens would opt for joining the Republic, if given the choice between a hard Brexit border and reunification. Both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland support a solution that excludes additional obstacles to cross border exchange. However, the most significant demographic shift that will tip the scales is age. Northern Ireland’s youth supports reunification by healthy margins as Brexit and the hard border it could bring threatens the prosperous economic and social conditions they were raised in.
Northern Ireland also has a strong connection to the rest of Europe that would make separation more difficult and painful. As European integration accelerated in the 1990s, many political leaders in both Dublin and Belfast saw an opportunity in deepening economic and social ties with Europe through a common continental identity. This contrasted starkly to internal Irish relations wherein relationships between the Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland were cool at best, colder still between the Northern Irish and their nationalist counterparts in the Republic. Reciprocal investments by the EU and in the success of the European project have helped foster the relationships that relieved tensions across the island. This is not a connection so easily undone and will encourage many in the six counties to reconsider their position on reunification.
But by far the most immediate of the Brexit induced factors making reunification more likely is the economy. One of London’s goals for Brexit is that Britain leave the Customs Union. However, this would lay waste to the Northern Irish economy which sells half of its exports to the Republic as facilitated by the soft border. Northern Ireland also relies directly on the European Union economically. For instance, subsidies pour in everyday to support the region’s struggling agricultural sector. Referendum voters in Northern Ireland were more than aware of these realities on election day, contributing to their decision to vote to remain.
Critics of this argument point out that hard borders between EU and non-EU states exist without the predicted problems of long queues and economic burdens. Yet, in practical terms, the Irish border holds comparatively many more border crossings and is of more serious economic consequence than those examples cited by critics. And, in normative terms, the nature of the Irish border is of far more importance and carries more symbolic value to those who live in its shadow. As the tensions have wound down, internal processes have led to a unified island increasingly becoming a greater possibility. The external shock of Brexit has accelerated these trends and made reunification near inevitable.