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Following Brexit, could Northern Ireland realistically join the Republic of Ireland in the near future?
Yes, if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland called a border poll and a majority in Northern Ireland voted to join the Republic of Ireland. A majority in the Republic of Ireland would also need to agree to the unification.
The costs of unification would be very high for the Republic of Ireland. There would probably be widespread civil unrest in loyalist areas such as East Belfast. Trouble would certainly occur in the run-up to the poll. Unionists would have to find something to salvage for a new political identity within a united Ireland. They would possibly be able to mobilise around Ulster-Scots identity or a certain brand of socially conservative politics. Dublin would be wise to offer significant concessions to the unionists, such as the opportunity to remain within the Commonwealth in some form and special allowances for unionists to enjoy equal access to governmental jobs either without Irish language skills or with a lower standard of Irish.
It is likely that a significant number of unionists would emigrate to Scotland, northern England and the Commonwealth nations, but the majority of them would simply ‘keep calm and carry on’ with the slightly pessimistic stoicism that they are known for. Several generations would experience feelings of betrayal towards Britain and disorientation within the Republic, a state which has developed a different culture and identity from Northern Ireland. Even northern nationalists would feel a sense of loss and possible nostalgia for the United Kingdom days and the distinctive Northern Irish feel which would slowly disappear. Northern Ireland is after all, a devolved and socially conservative part of the United Kingdom. While Northern Ireland’s legislative constraints in regard to abortion and gay marriage do make it a case apart from Great Britain, it is still part of the multi-cultural and pluralistic United Kingdom. Under a united Ireland, history would be painted in a very selective, nationalist light. It is likely that Sinn Fein would seek to portray the Provisional IRA’s modern campaign of terrorism, which was directed against thousands of innocent non-combatants, as a legitimate freedom struggle. For unionists, many of whom were personally affected by the killing of part-time security personnel (read: friends, fathers brothers, neighbours) during the Troubles, this would be very difficult to stomach.
I believe a border poll will take place within the next ten years and that a united Ireland will come about by democratic means within the next twenty-five to thirty years. However, this will have to be carefully managed step by step. Northern Ireland would need to remain distinctive as a semi-separate territory within the Republic of Ireland and could only be integrated very gradually. As a Northern Irish Protestant, I am aware that Northern Ireland as an entity has always been a territorial compromise arrangement with a limited shelf-life. I am proud to be a Protestant Ulsterman of English, Irish and Scottish stock. I do not speak Irish, but support the Ireland rugby team, enjoy Irish music and read Irish literature. I’m proud of the contribution of both Ulster Scots and Irish Catholic people in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I have a dry, sarcastic sense of wit. I’ve been to the Twelfth a few times and find it a bit over the top, but in principle I’ve no issue with it as long as people are sensitive to their Roman Catholic neighbours and anyone else who doesn’t enjoy it. I carry a British passport and would apply for an Irish one if the paperwork wasn’t so fiddly. I think Brexit is a big shambles and if Britain crashes out without a deal, I will use an Irish passport when travelling on the continent and identify with Ireland without any sense of unease. Brexit was not my doing. One of the few things that came out of thirty years of misery and chaos was the right to carry two passports, so I will bloody well do so.
There are lots of people in Northern Ireland like me. And a united Ireland will need to listen to us and take us seriously. We are not stupid. We have held Westminster over the barrel in the past and can do so again. We know exactly how Sinn Fein would like to rewrite history and we think they are deplorable and quite frankly a lost cause to civilised humanity. As for the SDLP and other nationalists who have rejected violence, we respect them and will agree to disagree. We are rugged, innovative, straight-speaking Irish people of British stock. We simply aren’t going away and neither Westminster nor Dublin can divest us of the current borders of our country, statelet, province or whatever you want to call it, without us putting up a memorable fight.