With Boris Johnson laser-focused on delivering a crash-out, no-deal Brexit in October, Ireland needs to stop the foot-dragging and wishful thinking and begin preparing for a border poll and potential reunification.
This week, a report by a major UK business group called for the UK, Irish and EU leaders to hold emergency talks in Belfast in the event of a no-deal Brexit — but Dublin needs to be doing more than talking about temporary solutions and short-term contingency plans.
After two years of non-stop Brexit chaos, we all know how embarking on major constitutional change without adequate planning and preparation ends up…and it’s not pretty. Whether it happens sooner or later, there will be a border poll on the question of reunification — and we will fail to prepare for that day at our peril.
In the absence of the “backstop” (part of the Brexit deal which Johnson rejects) to maintain “regulatory alignment” between north and south post-Brexit, the PM and his unionist pals in Belfast have repeatedly promised that a mysterious technological solution exists to ensure an open, frictionless border is maintained in Ireland — and yet, they have failed to produce any viable plan of action.
It is typically referred to as the “Irish border” problem, but this is really a “British border” in Ireland, existing only because of Britain’s colonial partitioning of the island. Anyway, following a no-deal Brexit, some kind of border checks will be necessary along that unnatural dividing line.
Hence, the calls for a “border poll” — a provision of the Good Friday Agreement, which would see a referendum on Irish unity take place on both sides of the border.
Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party most ardently pushing for reunification, has already called for a unity vote to follow a no-deal scenario. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said this week such a situation would represent a “dramatic change of circumstances” for Ireland, north and south, and it must be given the “opportunity to decide” on its future together.
She is right, but Johnson and the Tories naturally have no interest in entertaining any talk of Irish unity, despite the fact that the GFA calls for London to exercise its power in Northern Ireland with “rigorous impartiality” in acknowledgement that changes in its constitutional status can be made only by the people of Ireland.
Despite Johnson’s laughable claim this week that he is committed to this principle of neutrality, McDonald isn’t convinced: “We’ve told him that nobody believes that. Nobody believes that because there are no grounds to believe that there is any kind of impartiality, much less strict impartiality.”
Under the GFA, a vote should be held “if it any time it appears likely” to the Secretary of State for NI “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.”
It will be the job of Irish nationalists to convince the secretary, who answers to the PM in London, that the conditions are right for a vote. Currently, that person is Julian Smith, who arrived on the scene after his wildly incompetent predecessor got the sack last week — and so far, he doesn’t seem to be much better. He has already irked many, having tweeted out a photograph of the British monarch perched on the mantlepiece in his office.
Polls in the south have shown a clear majority in favor of reunification. In the north, the situation is obviously less clear and results tend to vary — but some surveys have shown increased support for unity in a no-deal scenario (like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit).
Slowly but surely, even some more moderate members of the unionist community in the north have begun to see unity with Dublin as a better option than sticking with London, where decisions about their future are made with reckless abandon.
More than two years ago, Fianna Fáil, the party propping up Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael government, promised that it was working on a white paper which would detail its 12-point plan for a united Ireland. We have not heard tell of it since — and here we are, two months away from a potential crash-out Brexit.
It’s not going to happen the morning after October 31st, but there will come a day when London simply can’t ignore the calls for a border poll any longer — and Smith or his replacement will be forced to concede the time is right.
Whether that happens one year or five years from now, Dublin needs to get real and get the ball rolling. Preparing for a united Ireland will be a long, arduous and highly sensitive process, fraught with division and even the risk of a return to violence.
There are too many contentious issues to deal with to continue putting this on the backburner. It won’t just be a matter of figuring out the economic costs and benefits, or dealing with the nightmarish logistics of joining two completely different regulatory frameworks into a new, functioning state.
It will involve renewed and gargantuan efforts at trust-building between the two communities in the north and indeed between those communities and the Dublin government. Both sides will need to grapple with broader philosophical questions, too; there has been reluctant talk about the possibility of a new flag and national anthem, for example.
There have also been calls for the beginning of an all-island forum on the issue of re-unification and they should be heeded. This is not something we can wander into blind.
Without proper preparation, trying to negotiate a new united Ireland in the event of a successful vote for re-unification could end up making Brexit negotiations look like a piece of cake.
By Danielle Ryan