Irish Unity Within Touching Distance

In the Joint Declaration on Peace issued on 15 December 1993 the UK government stated that it had no ‘selfish strategic or economic’ interest in Northern Ireland. 

Westminster certainly isn’t getting the kind of economic or strategic benefits from Northern Ireland that it gets from Scotland but it’s not certain that they are ready to give up the territory quite yet. 

When the DUP finally got round to accepting the results of the last Northern Ireland Assembly elections in February, the British press was full of articles assuring its readers that a united Ireland was never going to happen.  Contrary to its usual complete disinterest, the mainstream media had Northern Ireland in its sights. Numerous commentators sought to challenge Sinn Fein’s claim that a united Ireland was within touching distance. They cited polls which showed majority backing for staying in the UK. A poll for the Irish Times from December 2023 showing only 30% support for unity in the North was treated as definitive proof that SF’s claims didn’t stand up to scrutiny. 

From the tone of the articles it suddenly looked like the UK was reassessing its previous claim about strategic and selfish interests. The fact is that a state which is as defined by such a grandiose sense of its own importance as the UK is never going to give up territory without that raising important questions about its self image and identity.   Why would citizens of this global player and major economy want to join an insignificant unimportant neighbour? Maybe the UK isn’t quite the untarnished world leader that British nationalists want to believe. 

In reality nothing has changed. The Westminster attitude to Northern Ireland is that it’s a costly irrelevance inhabited mostly by social and ethnic inferiors. But willingly reducing the size of your territory is something no state does. It demonstrates weakness and decline. And these are the two characteristics which terrify English nationalism more than anything else. Hence the slew of self comforting stories in the Telegraph and Times telling readers it’s never going to happen. The people of the north of Ireland still recognise the superiority of London rule. 

The inconvenient fact is that you can’t base your predictions on one poll. In January a poll for Lucid Talk showed a 39% / 49% split on unity in the North. That’s 44% to 56% excluding don’t knows. And it gets worse, recent polling suggests that supporters of the middle ground Alliance Party have shifted dramatically towards support for unity. The largely middle class Protestant-heritage Alliance voters can’t stand Brexit and many now see a more attractive future for themselves in a progressive, wealthy, small state in the EU. 

The other element of the process which British nationalists failed to take into account is the impact of any campaign. We know in Scotland how important that is. From 2011 to 2014 support for Scottish independence rose dramatically. There’s no reason – in much more favourable circumstances – why that shouldn’t happen in Northern Ireland. The UK is in a state of severe decline. It has isolated itself from the rest of the continent in an act of nationalist self destructiveness and it’s difficult to see what any campaign to retain the North might look like. 

Unionists have already lost Belfast to demographic change. They’ve lost the Assembly to demographic change and sooner or later they’re going to lost the whole territory. The only people to blame for that will be the British government.