What does Northern Ireland belong to: the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland? It is a question that has dominated Northern Ireland politics for a century. A war of independence, a civil war and a difficult peace process have never answered that question definitively. Brexit has caused that dormant discussion to be flared up in all fierce. Relative calm in the once violent province has given way to renewed tensions.
If it is up to Northern Ireland unionists who want to remain with the United Kingdom at all costs, the question had already been answered on 3 May 1921. Hundred years ago, the Irish island was split into a southern part, with a Catholic majority, and a northern part, where Protestants were the largest population group. Over the past hundred years, Protestants dominated Northern Ireland politics and economy until the Good Friday Accords of 1998 led to a shared power with Catholics.
For Catholic nationalists, Northern Ireland is still a crown colony under British rule. The war of independence which led to an independent (southern) Irish nation in 1921 has never been completed. In 1969 nationalist resistance was devastated in The Troubles, the bloody civil war in which the banned Irish Republican Army IRA engaged in armed struggle with the British forces and the Northern Irish police.
this point of view, the Good Friday Agreements of 1998 were an ingenious solution to a seemingly insolvable problem. According to the peace treaty, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, which reassured Protestant Unionists. At the same time, the watchtowers, barbed wire, military checkpoints and border controls disappeared. The hard border that ran right through the island became invisible. For the Catholic nationalists, who strive for a united Ireland, felt as if it had become one island in a boundless Europe.
Catholic nationalists commemorate their fallen combatants every year. Similarly, in Derry, where they have the motto: what is bad for the United Kingdom is good for the Irish people.
But even though peace has been signed, the real process of reconciliation between unionists and nationalists has never been well started. Northern Ireland politics has always remained a zero sum game. If the pro-Irish nationalists win, it is seen as a loss for the pro-British unionists and vice versa. Brexit has completely disrupted those fragile proportions.
Since Brexit it is clear that the nationalists feel the wind in their back. In the 2016 referendum, a large majority of Northern Ireland voted for permanent membership of the European Union. According to Sinn Féin, the largest pro-Irish party in Northern Ireland, the time has come for a referendum on Irish reunification. Northern Ireland will thus be able to rejoin the EU, as a majority of the population would like.
“ Brexit has changed the entire political landscape in Northern Ireland. This is a clear start for a popular consultation on reunification,” says Sinn Féin Party President Declan Kearney in an interview with Nieuwsuur.
This self-confidence among the pro-Irish nationalists is accompanied by growing unrest among pro-British unionists. All unionist parties were in favour of Brexit. They hoped to strengthen the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
But the strategy of the unionists was completely counterproductive. Despite promises from the Boris Johnson Government that there would be no trade restriction between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, London agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protocol prevents a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreements. Instead, the customs border has shifted to the Irish Sea. Since 1 January this has resulted in serious obstacles in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The unionists therefore feel betrayed by their own British government. They fear that the gap with Britain has only widened.
This growing turmoil led to an outburst of violence last month in unionist districts in several Northern Ireland cities. Northern Ireland had not experienced such violent acts in many years. It also cost the head of Northern Ireland Prime Minister Arlene Foster, who is the leader of the DUP, the main unionist party in Northern Ireland. After an insurrection of party colleagues, Foster decided to resign her position as party leader and Northern Ireland Prime Minister earlier this week.
Advancement of pro-British unionists
Unionist hardliners are now on the rise, like Jim Allisters Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Allister, who is a fierce opponentis of the Good Friday Accords, operated for years as a one-man party on the fringe of Northern Ireland politics, but he now seems to take advantage of the chaos at the DUP. Allister expresses like no other the growing discomfort of the Protestant Unionist community.
“ How do you get Irish reunification? The Northern Ireland Protocol is pushing for the full economic union of the entire Irish island while cutting its links with the British economy,” he warns. “With an economic union, you are only one step away from a political union. If we do not destroy the protocol, the protocol will destroy Northern Ireland.”
But how justified is his fear? Brexit has seriously started the debate on Irish reunification, but according to all the polls, there is still no majority in Northern Ireland supporting reunification. For the time being, the dream of a united Ireland remains out of the reach of the pro-Irish nationalists. For the time being, Brexit seems only to lead to more instability in Northern Ireland and old wounds that are opening up.